Friday, March 02, 2007

The Dark Side of Knowledge Democratization

When I was working on my undergrad concentration in applied psychology, I heard lots of people say, "A little psychology is a dangerous thing." Such proclamations were usually accompanied by a brief widening of the eyes, as though conveying dangerous knowledge (possibly usable by John Wayne to defeat the Nazis).

In my naivete, I thought they were telling me that it was dangerous to acquire a bit of psychology knowledge, because it might lead to self-diagnosis, and a tendency to see everything in terms of a disorder. The "dangerous" part is the belief that things are some sort of syndrome each and every time something happens. I'm pleased to say that I don't react that way to the evens of my life. With the addition of a few years of thought, I'm not too sure that's what the danger really is.

In my opinion, the danger is knowing a bit of knowledge, then trying to teach beyond your means. Having it effect your own life is one thing, but if you pass on corrupted or misleading information, that's a bigger problem. Due in part to our educational system, we're programed to accept knowledge that comes from sources we respect. Our high school science classes tell us about the scientific method, and how experimental process can create lasting and repeatable results, leading to scientific solutions to issues. In effect, this allows scientists and other "important" people to talk about issues with a certain weight given to their words.

One of the greatest innovations of the internet is the accessibilty to publish information. Because it is relatively simple for anyone to have a blog or other personal "fountain" of knowledge, information flows much more readily than at any other point in our history.

There are positive aspects to this. My cousin is currently living abroad in Switzerland while doing some nature of legal study. Ordinarily, that's all I'd know about it: she's over there, having fun, working, and happy. That's the reduced version of what my cousin would tell her mother, who would tell it to her sister (mom) and pass it down to me. This time, she's set up a blog, where she writes updates about the sessions of the World Trade Organization meetings she attends, intersperced with photos from her hiking and skiing trips. It's probably the most I've actually "seen" her in years.

There are neutral aspects to the ease of publishing information. China, which has long been in the business of controlling what information passes through its borders and is consumed by its citizens, is in the middle of a colossal struggle over the internet. The state censor institution monitors all internet traffic, making sure that "forbidden" content (as defined by the state) is not accessed. Some of it is politically dissident ideas (Tibetian independence, Falun Gong, etc.), others are scam websites and pronography.

You may have heard about the situation when GOOGLE tried to expand into China. The Chinese government would not let the company enter unless it agreed to apply and enforce the Chinese censoring program. GOOGLE initially refused, repsonding that censorship was contrary not only to their ethics, but in some ways to their business model! After all, what good is a search engine if it can't find anything?

Eventually, GOOGLE indicated it would abide by the Chinese restrictions. Coming from a company whose motto is "Do no Evil", I leave it to you to ponder whether it is more evil to censor out sites on Taiwanese independence, or leave Google unable to expand into the Chinese market, losing out on a large untapped market. The discussion is almost irrelevant, as there are many ways for citizens inside China to access the un-censored version of the internet, GOOGLE included. Not legally, of course, but people will do just about anything to be able to access ESPN.com during the Superbowl.

There are also negative aspects. The example I wish to focus on is Wikipedia. I love Wikipedia. I use it almost daily, whenever I run across a concept I don't know anything about. It's helpful for finding information on "geocentrism", "YEC movement", and "Abraham Lincoln Birthday". I use it like an encyclopedia. But I don't trust it.

I don't trust it, because it can be edited by anyone. Much of the information is good, but it can be altered. The famous journalist John Seigenthaler found himself under suspicion of assassinating President Kennedy, just from looking at his biography. News to him! He wrote an editorial in USA TODAY about the experience. People aren't neccessarily responsible (or even scrupulous) about what information they add or subtract from Wikipedia.

My history professors have needed to issue blanket statements that Wikipedia cannot be used as a source in any paper, because students began to use it. I understand that; it's easy to access, and can allow research from my couch at home! But it's not scholarly. It carries very little authority. I can long on right now and change Beethoven's birthplace to Boston, and his occupation to right-fielder. Granted, this information will be corrected soon (I would hope), because of the self-righting capacity of the Wiki. But what if I do something more subtle? What if I change the date of composition of Beethoven's fourth symphony? What if I change him from being "accomplished on the violin" to being "accomplished on the viol d'gambois"? How long would that take to correct? What if I introduce an idea that "scholars theorize his left ear experienced more profound deafness due to an early childhood incident involving an influenza epidemic at the time"?

The end result of this academic discussion on the validity of information is the Conservapedia. It looks a lot like Wikipedia in how the site is organized: someone who walked behind me while I was writing this entry mistook one for the other. The main difference is that the Conservapedia was created to counteract the "liberal bias" found on Wikipedia. Compare the entries on Sir Isaac Newton on both Wikipedia and Conservapedia. I could write an entry comparing these two, but the Conservapedia entry has an amusing line regarding Newton's belief in a single God (no triune God) and his belief that Jesus was divine but not eternal. Quoth Conservapedia:

"Both are commonly regarded by conservative Christians as the foulest of
heresies, and Newton's adoption of them illustrates the folly of adopting
personal religious beliefs rather than submitting to lawful authority."
I appreciate the attempt to purge liberal bias, but I think they may have missed the middle ground.

My point in bringing this up is a cautionary tale. The internet offers lots of information, and it's easy to add to that data stream. But not everything is policed and verified with as much vigor as must be done in order to prove anything. A friend has on his web page the quote (which I am paraphrasing from memory), "Saying 'For Example' is not proof." We seem to be heading to a society where anyone who makes the motions for "looking like a scholar" is afforded similar credibility as someone who actively tests and examines knowledge. Just be wary of your sources.

P.S. If you find Conservapedia as amusing as I do, please enjoy the entry on dinosaurs. It is quite tasty. Plus, it inspired someone to create this parody image. I have tentatively captioned it "Suffer the little Velociraptors to come unto me."


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