Posts Tagged ‘Information Reliability’

Has the Internet Really Made the Assessment of the Reliability of Information More Difficult?

June 24, 2012

This is a common complaint. Its justification seems simple enough. Anyone can place anything on the web. Prior to the web, some sort of vetting was involved before something went into print. The following is a quote from Ernest Hemingway cited in 1965: “Every man should have a built-in crap detector operating inside him.” Now this statement was made before the internet and Ernest Hemingway never experienced the internet. Unreliable or blatantly wrong information is nothing new. We’ve always had it with us. Perhaps one of the good effects of the internet is that it has sensitized us to be wary of the accuracy or reliability of information. Although it is true that the internet allows the communication of bad information to spread much faster, we also have more tools at our disposal to check the accuracy of information. For outright hoaxes there is www.hoax.com.

Rumors can usually be quickly checked out at www.snopes.com. The people sponsoring or running a website can usually be found by going to http://www.ip-address.org/tracer/ip-whois.php.

Usually the first step in looking for information about a topic is to go to www.wikipedia.org.

As this is a wiki, users can change information that they think is wrong. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that is vetted by its users. Moreover, it provides references to other sources, so people can bootstrap themselves regarding any topic. One should become aware of controversies and differing points of view. One source leads to another source and additional searches. The problem is that there is a cost in terms of time and attentional resources. How much time and attention one spends on a topic is a matter of individual choice. There is always more than can be learned and more that can be understood. Indeed, one can be easily exhausted just keeping up with new information.

One needs to estimate how well different topics are understood. One can be expert in very few, but have a glancing familiarity with many. This self-assessment can be difficult. My personal experience is that the longer I have lived, and hopefully learned, the more I am aware of my own ignorance. I felt much smarter when I graduated from high school than after I earned my Ph.D. Now after several more decades of learning and experience I am painfully aware of how little I knew when I first earned my Ph.D. compared to how much I know now. Yet, now I am even more painfully aware of how much I still don’t know. One of my favorite lines is from the play Da by Hugh Leonard. In a conversation between two academics, the elder responds to the statement by the younger that he is certain about his statement by saying something along the lines of, “after all my years of study and learning the only thing of which I am certain is that the incoming traffic in a public rest room always has the right of way.” So I am certain of nothing and try to weight my confidence in what I know in terms of my subjective probability of it being accurate. My personal interests and my assessment of the importance of the topic bear on how much more attention I will devote to the topic. Even if information is, as best as can be ascertained, correct at the moment, it could always change.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.