2011-03-14

Choosing ignorance over information: the data are out there

Just now I realized the second major problem that arose as a a consequence of the Information Revolution, as it has been called by some, including me. The first problem is, of course, that there is so much information available freely on the Internet and other computer resources, that in many cases it is hard to determine what and which sources are reliable. I won't go as far to say that there is proportionally more unreliable information published today than 50 years ago---though this might be true---but there is certainly more published unreliable information, in absolute terms. If for no other reason, there is immensely more total information available, and in addition to that, the percentage of amateur (i.e. unpaid, untrained, unaccountable to a public organization) publishers whose work is widely available has increased dramatically. Thus, the problem of distinguishing the experts from the ignorant and from the snake oil salesmen requires some effort, but can usually be done.

The second problem, which is potentially much more dangerous, is that the sheer breadth of information sources a person has available gives the impression of being well informed, even if the vast majority of these sources are never consulted. One can often find and cite, say, ten sources that seem to confirm a statement, even if that statement is patently false. For example, many otherwise reputable-seeming people promoted the idea that Barack Obama is not legally an American citizen. A list of some of them can be found on this Wikipedia page. As a consequence, 51% of Republican primary voters believe Obama was born outside of the U.S.A. [article and link to poll]. Of course, the claim is false, as can be substantiated elsewhere on that same Wikipedia page.

Decades ago, citing ten such sources would have carried more weight, particularly if the sources had been published in a [semi-]permanent form such as a newspaper, magazine, or book. Today, Internet articles are permanent to the same extent as newspapers, and possibly even more so, and are much more ubiquitous. Instead of a few major newspapers per city, there are hundreds of web sites, all acting as journalistically honest as they can in order to convince their [prospective] readers. Surely it is easy to find ten of them that agree on promoting some falsehood, knowingly or not, whereas consulting ten newspapers in the 1950s would have almost without fail yielded at least two opposing arguments on a given controversial topic.

Furthermore, considering the way that publications with similar views and agendas promote and cite each other, web publishing enables and possibly even encourages readers never to leave their metaphorical street corner, though a large and diverse metropolis can be found only a few blocks away in any direction. Some people choose to stay and to learn new information from sources who only confirm what's already been said, what a person already believes to be true.

It's been obvious to me for a long time that people do not like to be wrong. They often prefer to perpetuate false beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence against it. They even attempt to convince others that they are right, as if two people with no evidence can somehow provide a better argument than one. Unfortunately, the Internet enables this. People get easily stuck in their nook or cranny of misinformation and find it hard to escape, even if they realize they should escape.

Don't get me wrong; the Internet and its accessories are great, but they give us a feeling of security in our opinions if our niche agrees with us. We have to venture off of the street corner and often directly into the hands of the opposition. It's only face-to-face that we can distinguish valid arguments from baseless propagandist horn-blowing. Remember, too, that others who refuse to leave their corners often know nothing except their own block.

2 comments:

Ben said...

What about yellow journalism in the late 19th century? for much of american history there were multiple newspapers in each city - and most newspapers had a strong bias that would even make Roger Ailes blush. we will never get rid of factually incorrect media because people who want their opinions validated will pay enough that somebody will eventually oblige them.

I'm not so concerned about all the bad news outlets out there - because there still are enough relatively unbiased news organizations that those of who want more objective news know where to find it.

fbg said...

Yes, of course you're right about media always being biased, but my point was that never before could you find so many sources that agreed on the same wrong point. I think (though I could be wrong) that in the 19th century, ten major newspapers in one city would have been a lot, and they almost certainly didn't all agree with each other.

I absolutely agree with you about being [easily] able to find unbiased---relatively speaking---media out there, but what does scare me is the lack of people willing to look for it. Until recently, I had no idea how many people were content to wear blinders and yet speak strongly about things outside of their vision. That's scary.