Information Please

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The Public Domain, via Wikipedia

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 reviews I gather he does a credible job of it, so I am pondering whether to download it to my kindle.


Image by Oberazzi via Flickr

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.


Image via Wikipedia

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, 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

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Image via Wikipedia

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.

en:Image:RANDI.jpg (Original text : James Randi)

The Great (James) Randi, via Wikipedia

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.


About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Science / Engineering, Sociology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Information Please

  1. ansonburlingame says:


    The “intersection” (I love that word and long before you came to these pages wrote a blog about how Einstein used it) of writing and information. Actually, I will broaden that intersection and call it one of politics/science and information.

    At a now “flick of a button” or a few keystrokes on a computer anyone can find just about anything to support their preconceived OPINION. We see it all the time just in these local blog pages. I call it “cherrypicking”. If I want to “prove” that raising taxes reduces government revenues I can find somewhere a “treatise” that will support that conclusion.

    On the other hand my opponents, politically, come up with reams of “links” to show how much revenue was lost over time as a result of tax cuts. Sound familiar?

    See my latest post on radiation “danger” in Japan. Someone with a different “opinion” can link me to death “proving” me wrong.

    So what is “truth” in politics, taxes, radiation, global warming, and the list goes on forever.

    Is it not possible that “truth” is now even harder to find that before the internet?

    Before the internet Duane and I would in all liklihood have never met each other and for sure never engaged in an almost three year running debate on just about everything. And neither of us has “moved” very far from our original positions. And you have not “changed” that much either as you try to find common ground between the two of us.

    So has this avalanch of information improved our political climate or even our scientific one as well? Politically our “climate” is worse than I have ever seen in my lifetime. Normal people, citizens without an axe to grind are literally bombarded with “spin”, one-side links from both sides, etc. Does that make our collective society better, worse or no change than say before the printing press to really “go back”?

    I see a really “dangerous” element in the spread of information in our nuclear power (not weapons) issue. No doubt that the vast majority of American citizens are now “scared” about nuclear power after the latest round of bombardment of information, incorrect, “spun” disinformation, you name it. In taking such a position we could well be forfiting a “vital” path forward to supply energy to vast numbers of people on earth. Again, read my just posted blog to show the “counter argument” to all the crap read in the newspapers and seen on TV over the last two weeks about the Japanes nuclear problems.

    I wonder how the country might have NOT united after Pearl Harbor in 1941 to fight WWII if the internet was in full swing at that time. It certainly did NOT UNITE for long after 9/11, an attack worse than Pearl Harbor by any comparison in terms of numbers and “types” (almost ALL civilians) of the dead. Yet within a year we were once again at each others throats over the “war on terror” and that debate still rages today and 10 years of warfare.

    Now don’t get me wrong. I love freedom, of speech, of access to information, to just about anything short of anarchy. But it takes a mature society to exercise such freedom responsibly. And by responsibly, I mean doing the next “right thing” for that society or the world at large as well.

    More freedom to gain information MUST be accompanied by increased maturity of the people gaining the information. And in America today I see DECREASING maturity of that sort eptomized by our decline in public education to develop discriminating minds.

    I wonder how our Founders would address these points, questions or observations. To be blunt, I suspect that they may well say only letting “men of property govern” as they initially chose would be the correct path forward (or now backward).

    NO, I don’t promote that idea. But when the “gap” between discriminating maturity (maybe there is a better phrase) and the “rabble” that only react without thinking becomes so large, what does that say about the future of democracy.

    Watch what happens next in say Egypt or even the entire Muslim world for perhaps an indicator of the point that I am trying to make herein.



  2. ansonburlingame says:

    One more point,

    Go to the comments page on just about any Globe op-ed or editorial and see the comments made. Then compare them to the comments USUALLY made in these blogs.

    Do you see a difference and if, yes, what does that say about our democracy today with all the information flowing around.

    Again, I do NOT call for limiting information or the “quality” of people that vote or govern. But your blog does point out a dilemma that deserves discussion.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I agree, Anson. If the written comments we see in the paper reflect the thinking of voters educated enough and thoughtful enough to take that kind of trouble, what must be the condition of those who are less so? It certainly makes me appreciate the thinking of the founders in limiting voting to men of material substance. That said, there is probably no “fair” way, as you note, to restrict access to the voting booth, but it does raise the issue of literacy in my mind. Given the current poor state of education, should illiterate people be qualified to vote? Hmm. I can see how that could be abused and turned into the same kind of barrier as a poll tax. Hmm again. I wonder how many people with dementia vote?

      I look forward to discussing this aspect with you, but I will say this now: I believe that voting should be a matter of individual initiative and should require some effort to effect. In my opinion, and I’m sure Duane will disagree, many get-out-the-vote campaigns subvert the political process by inducing the less-thoughtful to cast ballots. I believe this to be consistent with my opinion relative to the Citizens United decision, that money should not trump individual decision-making at the polls.



  3. Duane Graham says:


    The story you told about your classmate is dismaying. I have folks in my own family who believe the craziest things sometimes and fail to critically examine some of the stuff they forward on to me. They mostly don’t do that anymore, after constant scoldings, but some do get through.

    I am still something of a skeptic of Wikipedia because I have seen political information missing now and then from less than well-known politicians, much of it, of course, unfavorable. By and large, though, I find it a great place to start research, if not a place to start and stop. I find it is best for quickly jolting my recollection of historical events, the particulars always there waiting to freshen up the memory banks. I wish it had been around when I was a kid, as I might have become smart by now.

    And just so you know, James Randi is one of my favorite folks.

    Finally, you are right that I disagree with you on get-out-the-vote campaigns, but I agree with you that people should get out and vote on their own initiative. Odd, no? But the truth is that there are a lot of reasons why folks aren’t registered to vote, some legitimate and some not so much. And canvassing neighborhoods to remind folks to register or to assist them is part of the political process every bit as much as standing on a soapbox and telling people what you think. It’s just a matter of going out and telling people what you think they should do about voting, that’s all.

    It would be nice if everyone were up to date on what’s going on, but that aint happening. I heard today that 60% of the folks out there—and that’s more than your average slacker, Jim—think the TARP money was all spent and is gone, or something like that. The point is that many people have an opinion about the “bailout,” but know little of the facts of the bailout. I’m afraid that’s the way it is these days about a lot of things.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Right, Duane,

      I sent him a Snopes correction, got an apology from him, and then got another smear. What are ya gonna do?

      And, you’re right about the get-out-the-vote campaigns of course. You have the soapbox equivalent in mind while I was more along the lines of offering a bottle of Ripple while on the ride to the polls.

      I downloaded “The Information” to my kindle today and am looking forward to the read.



      • Duane Graham says:


        Not to be picky, but your Ripple reference is a little tendentious, don’t you think? That 70s wine had, shall we say, a down-scale reputation. So, I mean, Republicans get out the vote, too, don’t they? What do they offer their potential voters, Cabernet Sauvignon?



  4. ansonburlingame says:

    To both,

    Information MUST flow freely in a free society. I think we all agree on that point. But, HOW LONG MUST IT FLOW might be a question at least in terms of campaigns.

    The Brits limit campaigns to 60 days. On Nov 3, 2010 the “campaign” for the Presidency starter for the 2012 election. Now how about some “reins” on that process.

    Maybe NO ONE should be able to put ANY MONEY into “campaign coffers” for a defined period of time. No politicial advertising until….. before an election? I know I am just tinkering around the edges of the problem of money and politics, which most of us would like to solve.

    But I wonder if there is some ground for agreement between the three of us how to go about doing it?



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Interesting idea, Anson. I for one would like to so experiment, but it feels like a First Amendment issue – along the same lines of reasoning as my unfavorite court decision, Citizens United.

      Our elections have always been rough and tumble, but in the digital age where attention spans are the size of a tweet, money changes the game. This is precisely the way Aldous Huxley saw the world evolving in “Brave New World”, a highly technical society carefully managed by a small intellectual elite. The masses were kept safe and constantly amused by superficial glitter. Smart guy, old Aldous. He’d likely be amazed at how close he was to predicting the future. Reality TV anyone?



    • Duane Graham says:


      How about this: A candidate can spend money on a campaign anytime, but the candidate has to raise it, say, $10 at a time. No big donations. Your base of financial support has to be quite wide in that case and it is unlikely you would start spending the money long before the actual election and you might think twice before spending it on some of the bullshit ads that we often see.

      There. Problem solved. Everybody potentially has the same voice in a campaign and our politicians would be free to suck-up to the average voter rather than to the average millionaire. In this scenario, I could match your Snob Hill donors dollar for dollar I think, at least in the races that matter to me.



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