The world is awash in information. It is nothing less than astonishing, when you think about it, that the written word has come so far from the invention of the printing press around 1440 to the internet in present times. A book review on the subject caught my eye the other day. James Glick recently published, “The Information”, in an attempt to cover the whole subject. From the Amazon.com reviews I gather he does a credible job of it, so I am pondering whether to download it to my kindle.
With respect to current events it may be that we have too much information to filter. What is U.S. strategy in the Libyan affair and is there a hidden agenda? Why did the CIA fail the subject of WMD’s before the Iraq War? Just how dangerous is the radiation at Japan’s Fukishima nuclear facility? Should I go buy thyroid medication because of radiation fears? Was massive spending (the stimulus) overdone last year? The internet has lots of answers to these and other questions of course, but the problem is how to sort truth from spam.
Over the past few months I have received some pieces of spam several times. One that seems to be common portrays a sleek, modern “correctional facility”, complete with workout rooms, comfortable cells, and a modern cafeteria, all said to be in Illinois and to have been promoted by then-senator Barack H. Obama. But a quick visit to Snopes.com, one of my favorite sites, shows the e-mail to be a hoax. The facility is real, but is somewhere in Eastern Europe and has nothing to do with Obama. One of the people who sent me this spam was a college classmate of mine, one of the academically brightest in our company. Clearly, intelligence is no barrier to confirmation bias.
Wrong information can become a social meme with a life of its own on the internet. One of the most notable examples of this was the publishing by an English doctor, Andrew Wakefield, of “an elaborate fraud” linking autism to vaccines. The damage was extensive and is ongoing despite the study having been thoroughly discredited. A USA Today report stated,
Vaccination rates in England plummeted after Wakefield’s news conference to promote his study. Measles outbreaks in the United Kingdom and Ireland hospitalized hundreds of people and killed four children, says Paul Offit, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Nearly 40% of American parents also have declined or delayed a vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many parents now have a vague distrust of vaccines — with little to no memory of diseases that terrified their grandparents . . .”
On pondering the problem of vetting information I conclude that it has to
depend on source reputation and on one’s own knowledge, part experience and part validation through other sources previously found to be reliable. Wikipedia is one source which, had it been described to me before I used it, I would have discounted as too subject to bias. Yet I have found it to be generally outstanding. There are enough people of intellect and knowledge on each subject, it appears, to keep the many sites both accurate and current.
One might well ask whether Wikipedia and other online sources are valid replacements for writing. Previously one relied on the integrity of a publisher to vet material and to be motivated by the need to protect her reputation. Of course the offset is that written material was by definition out of date as soon as it went to press. Not a problem for an algebra textbook, but a treatise on current events is of course a different matter.
I like the internet, I like blogging, and I don’t feel threatened by the ebb and flow of information. It is remarkable how one can sense whether a correspondent is intellectually engaged or simply wants to vent or promote his own opinions. When there is real communication I feel a sense of progress and also social completion.
So, what is the bottom line? Barring some worldwide loss of power, not impossible of course, I submit that the internet is here to stay and that the search for truth and knowledge must reside where it has always resided, in rational skepticism.