Monday, April 9, 2012

Caveat lector

I can’t prove it, but my working hypothesis is that the more information we have access to, the higher the likelihood that information is incomplete, skewed or downright false.

In an attempt to test my hypothesis, I tried a simple experiment. I typed “alternative energy” in the Google search bar and examined what appeared on my first page. I ignored the “sponsored ads” on the right side, sticking to the left column.

Here’s what appears, in order:

At the top is a web site for British Petroleum, which highlights BP’s involvement in various alternative energy projects.

Next comes the Wikipedia entry for alternative energy.

The next three are the web sites alternativeenergy.org, alternative-energy-news.info, and alternativeernergy.com. All of these clearly advocate for alternative energy.

Finally, we get an article from Business Week headlined, “Alternate-Energy Group to Avoid Clean, Green in Campaigns.” It’s a good story, but with a narrow focus.

The next link is a utah.edu site clearly advocating for alternative energy.

At long last, eighth on the list is alternativeengery.procon.org. I spent some time on this site, and it appears to be a sincere and thorough attempt to provide information on all sides of alternative energy. It simply asks a question, then provides the best pro and con responses it can find. I highly recommend it.

At No. 9 we find alternative-energy-geek.com, which focuses more on the science than the policy issues of alternative energy. No. 10 is alt-e.blogspot.com, which starts with this statement: “We need a massive increase in electricity generated from alternative energy.” Where do you suppose this author stands?
          
No. 11 is a video presentation by National Geographic which, again, focuses on the science instead of policy questions, but it seems to tilt in favor of developing alternative energy.
           
The last link on the first page is topix.com/energy/alt-energy, which is simply an aggregation of the latest mentions of alternative energy from throughout the web, or, as the web developers explain: “News on Alternative Energy continually updated from thousands of sources around the net.”
           
So, of the first 12 links found by Google in a search for “alternative energy,” seven clearly exist to promote alternative energy, an eighth leans in that direction, another is a single, narrowly focused story. The Wikipedia entry is the only source that attempts a comprehensive explanation of the history, challenges and public policy issues surrounding the topic. The 12th site is a simply aggregator of sites from the Web.
           
That’s a lot of information from one Google search. Unfortunately, most of it is designed to lead you to a particular conclusion instead of simply informing you. My bet is the same could be found with nearly any other search.
          
One is tempted to issue a simple warning to any seeker of good information: “caveat lector” – let the reader beware.
          
 So, you ask, how is one to sift the good stuff from all the nonsense? Some rules of thumb:
1.     If something comes to you as a forwarded email, hit “delete.” 
2.     Read the “about” section of every web site. If there is no “about” section or its equivalent, ignore the site. If there is, interpret the description very carefully. 
3.     Look for an information provider’s statement of values or ethics. Here’s one I’m particularly fond of.   
4.     Learn to routinely use multiple information sources, selected for their history of good journalism. Never assume that a single source gets it right every time.

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