We live in a fine time, if you ask me.
Anybody, anywhere can find out things. All the information in the world can be brought to your personal computer or smart phone. In an instant.
We have the internet.
You don’t have to go to the library, the library comes to you.
You don’t have to rely on outdated, musty volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica, you can check out Wikipedia, (proceeding with caution granted, but proceed!)
No matter who you are, what you already know or don’t, if you are connected you can find out whatever you might be wanting to know.
Like what the sequence of the gene that might predispose you to alcoholism or the one for breast cancer.
Or whether the bump on your hand is a tumor or a wart.
You can find out how to make a bomb or outfit your home with upcycled furnishings while perusing a video of Miley Cyrus twerking. You might decide some of your time is better spent locating 200 recipes on how to make chili, some with step by step instructions or maybe you’d rather know how to repair your leaky toilet or translate a webpage from Russian into Spanish.
The downside of all this availability is that you have to exercise something called discernment to answer any at least some of those questions above.
You should’ve always been doing that, from the moment you read a newspaper or a magazine.
“You can’t believe everything you read” isn’t just a bunch of words strung together, they are a working philosophy that addresses the written, published world.
Because anyone, even me, can post anything on the internet and once I or anyone does that (even so in more traditional printed media)… well, it’s out there, for everyone to read and consider or believe, for better or worse.
That and the age we live in puts you, the reader, in a powerful position, one of the most powerful you will likely ever be in.
You are at a turning point in civilization, for Heaven’s sake.
You have the chance to judge, to decide whether what you read is good or bad or right or wrong.
You can even decide that you can’t decide, for even in that their is power and knowledge. It has the potential to alter incorrect assumptions and expose prejudices that guide your thinking.
Like I said, powerful.
Some things are written for fun and some things are not.
As a scientist, anything I publish must be accurate, publicly available for verification, and if I reference anyone’s work (remember when you learned to create footnotes?) I have to give enough information that anyone can look up those references to ensure that I stated that work accurately. Science is built on this, literally. Not only do I have to be very accurate when I write, but I can’t get anything published until a jury of my peers, usually anonymously, judge my work and pronounce a verdict. It is incumbent on me to address their concerns or omissions. Only then is it published.
Fiction doesn’t have these constraints. That’s why its called fiction. Opinion articles and blogs don’t either, they are just that, opinions… and blogs. Wikipedia is something in between.
But there’s a problem. Certainly the very careful way that science is published has never been applied to news or print, video, or the internet. In the past, newsrooms and journalists reputations were based upon their truthfulness in reporting and the public that consumed these articles certainly trusted that they were being told the truth with as much accuracy as possible.
The internet is a completely different way of exchanging information.
And believe me, it’s changed things.
…they can’t put anything on the internet that isn’t true.
It’s deceptively, surprisingly easy to tell yourself that an article that you’ve read, especially one that verifies what you already suspect, and rings true in words that appear to be solid, could not be written with such confidence if it wasn’t true.
It’s even changed the way traditional news is reported.
We might have the ability to gain enormous amounts of information but the lines for knowing what is true are now very, very blurry. The amount of information poses yet another hurdle. If one is to get the whole picture one must ferret all the facts out and weigh them, not just the ones that bolster your viewpoint. Or the ones mentioned in an article.
The key is that we must be careful and diligent.
Next week, we will take a controversy, a really interesting one, and see what conclusions can, should, or shouldn’t be drawn.
Here’s a hint: