Sep
21
2015

I May Not be an Expert, but I Have the Internet!

The Internet has done more to accelerate commerce and discourse than any other invention since the printing press. We’ve become a connected world. Every day, I carry a device in my pocket that can access the sum of human knowledge, contact friends from around the world, and allow me to do business anywhere. However, as amazing and powerful as the Internet is, its strengths also feed its weaknesses.

Due to the sheer volume of knowledge stored within the annals of the Internet, you can learn about any topic you care to imagine. After all, my recent search history includes the classification system for main sequence stars, the current and proposed technologies for radiation shielding, and where I can find pizza closest to my house. However, it is precisely because of this freedom and breadth of information that the Internet poses three major hazards for researchers.

The first challenge any researcher faces is actually finding relevant data. The Internet is a digital universe, a space that is growing so rapidly that it baffles any attempts to quantify. Luckily, there are search engines such as Web of Science and Google that attempt to sort and index the mass of bytes. However, the success of those engines is based off what you feed the search function. So, when I’m looking for information, I try to rephrase my query in as many different ways as I can think of in order to cast the widest possible net.

Once you find pages that relate to your interest, you can expect to be able to believe them at face value, right? Well… no. We have created a culture of armchair experts. People spend an afternoon or a weekend reading about a topic and suddenly believe that they know everything there is to know. More unfortunate, they are able to convince others that they are experts and further spread misinformation. Do I think that these individuals are being malicious? Of course not, but I am also happy with the increasing insistence on crosschecking facts and credentials.

However, not every piece of misinformation was created on accident. Plenty of sources are aiming to influence their audience’s thoughts and behaviors to further some political, social, or commercial goal. Others spread propaganda to satisfy a feeling of superiority or sadism. The Internet is a quasi-anonymous space where accountability for one’s words is neither immediate, nor guaranteed. However, it is often possible to read past and between the pixels to figure out the motivation of the author. Only then can you judge the value of their perspective.

Despite these hazards, the Internet is a blessing for writers. Yes, we need to avoid the armchair experts and those with agendas, but there are also real experts out there who are more than happy to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. I may not be an expert in space ship design, but I know where to find one. It’s all a matter of having the right conversation.

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