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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Truth and The Internet: critical thinking vs editing

In the old days it was easy to find the truth. Truth was taught in every religious institution. Typically one was sent there as a child and one learned the truth. Over time, truth was to be found in school, later in books, still later on television, and today, truth is to be found on the internet.

Of course there is a problem with this conception of truth. Religions tend to get people when they are young and instill in them truth they may never question. Schools do the same. The truths given out by schools aren’t typically very harmful. Memorizing the quadratic formula doesn’t actually harm anyone. Believing Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president in U.S. History, doesn’t do much harm either.

When I was on the Board of Editors of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, I learned that that board  “knew the truth.” They worked hard to ensure that their volume of books held the truth, which I think it probably did more or less. They also wanted to have just the right amount of truth. For example, they had no interest in say, doubling the size of information contained within the set of books. You might have thought this was an economic issue, but it really wasn’t. The editors had a sense that literature say, was more important than say computer science, and space was allotted accordingly.

What I learned from being on that board was that the board members performed a real service: vetting out a great deal of unimportant (in their minds) stuff also made sure what was in those volumes was correct (at least as far as they could tell.)

I told the Britannica people that they would be gone soon enough, and of course they now are. What I envisioned in their place has never happened however. I would like to see a board of editors for the internet.

Now I know this is a heresy of some sort. The freedom to say whatever you want on the internet is sacrosanct. No one is crying out to stop people from posting misinformation.

But, and this is an important but, as long as the schools don’t change, the internet may have to. As long as we teach young people to memorize and pass multiple choice tests, and fail to teach them how to know if what they are being told is true, then we will have trouble. 

One of two things has to happen. Either people need to be taught to reason critically, to ask hard questions, to be able to discern if what they have just heard on TV or read on the internet is true, or we had better fix the internet.

How to fix it, is, of course, the question.

1 comment:

Jay said...

Kind of an odd paradox. You first assume that people wholeheartedly accept 'truths' given from faith and learning environments. Yet, you question the ability for people to think, reason and problem solve. The underlying issue is the design of learning environments and what students are expected to do. In the past, 'drill and kill' was the method used to teach. Unfortunately, those who learned this way are now those who are teaching and designing learning. The pendulum will change slowly over time.