Internet Search vs. the Truth

Not everything is rosy with unfettered and unfiltered access to information for everyone.

In today’s day and age, any information, is just a Google search away; and while it is empowering-no doubt; it is also a debilitating burden for researchers and educators. Little knowledge is dangerous. It is like handing a monkey a scalpel, and ask him to supervise (or influence) a neurosurgery. An internet search does not, and can not judge your capacity to digest information of a certain level. See my past article on “Knowledge vs. Information“. While information may be available, it does not translate into knowledge without a framework. And, all this assumes that the information is correct! Most people are poor judges of that. At least, in pre internet days, books underwent “some” editorial scrutiny. Not anyone with a Modem and a computer is an author, or a scientist, or a researcher.

As a hypothetical example (hypothetical because the real ones will rub some people the wrong way), let me concoct a cock and bull story, and blog about it somewhere, and post it to as many social networks as I can. This is the possible scenario that will unfold. Someone will stumble upon it on, say, Twitter and Google it. He will find my bog post, and –being untrained in the arcane art of scientific enquiry, verification of sources and corroborative evidence examination—take it as a proof of correctness and spread it. Lather, rinse and repeat! Before you know it, this fact is plastered over the internet.

As they say, an untruth, repeated again and again amounts to a truth. There’s an XKCD for that (there’s an XKCD for everything!!)

Title text: I just read a pop-science book by a respected author. One chapter, and much of the thesis, was based around wildly inaccurate data which traced back to… Wikipedia. To encourage people to be on their toes, I’m not going to say what book or author.

On the flip side, a skeptic, when faced with a truth that does not jive well with the known and accepted facts, will find it extremely difficult to get at the truth The truth will be , for want of a better word, unsexy, and hence not popular, and buried in the search results.

The key takeaway from this diatribe is

  1. Google search is not an authenticity check.
  2. Facts that are too fascinating to be true are often “not true”.
  3. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, –cures for leukaemia, UFO sightings, 9-11 conspiracy, fake moon landings, on and on.
  4. Be a skeptic.

A Skeptic subscribes to a number of tenets:

  • Respect for the evidence. The application of reason to evidence is the best method we have to obtain reliable knowledge.
  • Respect for methods, conclusions and the consensus of science. Science is a particular way of obtaining information that is designed to reduce the chances of coming to an incorrect conclusion.
  • Preference for natural, not supernatural, explanation. Natural laws give us rational boundaries in our quest to determine explanations. Miracles are an example of using a supernatural agent (a god, saint or angel who operates outside of natural laws) as part of the explanation. A Skeptic will look for a natural explanation that does not call for a supernatural, unproven (and possibly unprovable) entity to be included.
  • Promotion of reason and critical thinking. Many Skeptics are good at identifying mistakes in arguments and reasoning.
  • Awareness of how we are fooled. People routinely fool themselves and are fooled by others.
  • Skeptics are wary of eyewitness testimony because observation is fallible and memory is malleable. Stories of events, even from trustworthy people, make for very poor evidence on their own. Even collectively, anecdotes don’t tell us much about the validity of the claim. Skeptics also understand that people tend to look for, remember and favour the evidence that supports their preferred conclusion.
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One Response to Internet Search vs. the Truth

  1. Vaibhav Garg says:

    Written in response to the endlessly forwarded Internet Memes.

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