Monday, March 8, 2010

Don't Believe It If It's on the Internet!

Recently I mentioned to a friend that I had taught my 10-year-old daughter how to look things up on Wikipedia when she wanted to find out more about a subject and had exhausted our home library. He commented that I should have directed her toward a 'more reliable source' and that Wikipedia was known for its inaccuracy because it 'isn't written by experts or published for real.' By a more reliable source he meant something like the Encyclopedia Britannica, that half-ton, multi-volume bastion of elementary school research reports.

That conversation got me thinking about the accuracy and reliability of any source we use for research (online or offline), especially given some things I've read in the EB over the years that are patently inaccurate but that the publishers of that esteemed work wanted people to believe. For my pagan friends, look up Wicca in any but the most recent edition and you'll see what I mean. Even the most recent edition says Wicca's followers 'see it as a religion' (I know, I know) but at least they put it in the religion section of the EB and don't call it a cult any more. And of course we have all the authoritative published sources, from encyclopedias to textbooks to medical journals, that have told us for years that women are weaker, less intelligent and less competent than men. But I digress...

Some people have a notable bias against anything posted online unless it's by one of the old, established in-print names (Britannica, Webster's and so on) since it is assumed that Joe and Jane Public don't know what they're talking about. After all, they usually don't have advanced degrees. They're not professionals in the subject. They don't work for a big corporation that can afford to print warehouses full of books, advertise them all over the place and store them until they get around to selling them. Therefore, the usual logic goes, they must be wrong. There are two hidden, implied 'truths' in this argument and I don't agree with either one of them.

First, there's the assumption that anyone who isn't an expert (that is, a professional) can't possibly have accurate knowledge about a subject. Second, there's the assumption that anyone who is an expert, a professional, an authority figure, must necessarily be right. Do you agree with these two assumptions? I'm betting you don't. So why do we continue to apply them to the information that is disseminated in our society, regardless of its form or source, but especially online?

OK, before you burst a blood vessel, let me assure you that I don't assume everything posted online or printed between two covers is correct. But neither do I automatically assume it's wrong. Do you believe everything in corporate statements, newspapers or government press releases? Me, either. Then again, I don't discount it all out of hand. These bits of information are generated by people and people aren't perfect. They have agendas, conscious and unconscious biases, spoken and unspoken goals and desires that influence what they say and how they say it. This is true of all of us, you and me included.

We've all heard the research about how two different people witnessing the same event will have different 'takes' on it simply because they're two different people. They have different backgrounds, life experiences, attitudes. I run into this frequently when I'm researching a book. My first two books were non-fiction, one centered around earth-based spirituality and one around holistic health. You can bet I found plenty of conflicting information - in print, online and in person - when I was doing that research. Every single person I talked to, every single author I read, was certain they were right. I began to wonder if there is such a thing as an uncontested fact that no one will argue with. I've come to believe there isn't.

I'm working on fiction right now and I'm running into the same issues. Since I'm setting my stories in the real world (not fantasy or sci-fi) I have to do some research about locales, professions, spiritual traditions, even the psychological makeup of my characters. I have a little more latitude in this regard since I can simply choose whichever set of information works best for my story, but still, I have to sift through all the different sources and opinions, and you can bet someone's going to criticize my choices somewhere down the road.

For a while I felt really overwhelmed by all the conflicting information, annoyed at the self-proclaimed authorities and a bit depressed that there didn't seem to be any single source of accurate data. But lately I've come to see this issue as a reflection of the wonderful variety within humanity, the incredible ability of the human mind to form a unique worldview based on experience.

Maybe it's not such a bad thing that there's no single authority to turn to, since I'm not sure we could trust one single source, either online or on paper - or even in person. The myriad of conflicting sources (just google global warming  or women's rights and you'll see what I mean) requires that we use our inborn intelligence to critically examine whatever is put before us and make up our own minds. The fact that someone can write a blog, publish a book or buy TV advertising doesn't make them right, but it doesn't automatically make them wrong, either.

So what have I taught my daughter along with the skills for looking up information on Wikipedia or anywhere else, for that matter? I've taught her about critical thinking, about examining the source bias and the intent of the writing or advertisement. Yes, folks, kids can understand these concepts, and I expect she'll look on the world with a critical eye, not to find what's wrong with it, but to find what's right. Most important, she'll learn to gather information and make up her own mind rather than automatically bowing to any authority, no matter how many volumes they have in print.