January 2008

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I read it on the internet, it must be true

Posted by Yannis Lionis on 16 Jan 2008 | Tagged as: Internet

I was reading an article on The Times on Monday about University professors being worried that today’s young students arriving at University are lacking the deductive reasoning to distinguish between genuine, verifiable and trustworthy as opposed to random imaginary bits of information. The article associates this with the internet and websites like Google and Wikipedia. It argues that today’s young minds, being used to have all the information they could possibly want at the click of a button, and all their questions answered instantly, are lacking the curiosity and reasoning ability to question the information and distinguish between truth and nonsense.

I don’t have enough contact with the generation in question to have an opinion on the truth of these claims, but I can certainly see the danger at hand. The previous generation went through (or arguably is still in) the phase of the TV gullibility: If it’s on TV it must be true. It’s definitely a possibility that young people who grow up using the internet and learn to trust sites like Wikipedia de facto, don’t learn to be suspicious of random websites and take what they read as the undeniable truth.

On one hand, people’s gullibility regarding the internet is obvious in the amount of internet scams victims (a colleague informed me the other day that 3% of spam email actually get a reply – staggering!). On the other hand, everyone trusts well-known websites to be accurate. I had a disagreement a few months ago which was eventually settled by looking up the “truth” on Wikipedia.

This is of course in no way the fault of websites like Google and Wikipedia. Google strives to give you the websites that are more relevant to your query. It’s up to you to decide if you can trust them or not. But it’s dangerous to assume that the first result in your Google search must be a very popular website and therefore creditworthy. Wikipedia is an online encyclopaedia, maintained by it’s users, which is great. It’s still up to the individual to decide if it’s the right source of information. If I want to find out information on a popular TV show, I’m happy to trust what Wikipedia says about it, and if I’m looking up what the definition of a livelock is, that will be a good place to start too. But if I’m trusting Wikipedia to give me the accurate and up-to-date information on what the procedure is to get an immigrant Visa to a country, then I’m looking in the wrong place for reliable information, and that’s my own fault.

At the end of the day it all comes down to people’s judgement of what’s genuine and what isn’t. But it’s very important, especially in our age of information overload, not to simply absorb any piece of information that comes our way without thinking about it. Being on the internet (or the TV for that matter) doesn’t mean it’s true.