Thursday, March 28, 2013

Series of bubbles

“Although I can’t authenticate the above, I can believe it.”
--From a letter to the editor submitted to, but not published by, the Post Register
This is the best articulation I have seen on the way many Americans consume information. The specific topic to which the letter writer was referring is irrelevant. It’s the attitude, the approach to gathering information, that matters.

In fact, the information to which the writer referred was found to be blatantly inaccurate. It took about five minutes to uncover this. The writer essentially implies that he suspects the information to be inaccurate, but since it fits neatly within his world view, he is not going to look any farther.

This is called confirmation bias, and it’s not new. The Internet, however, has made it simpler to perform. The Internet isn’t a series of tubes, as someone once awkwardly described it. It’s a series of information bubbles.

If you want to confirm your belief that eating duck breast is bad for you, you’ll find it on the Internet. If, on the other hand, you want to confirm your belief that eating duck breast is good for you, you’ll find that, too.

What you’ll also find, if you’re willing to really look, is information that carefully considers the nutritional value of duck breast, since the Internet also contains the best of scientific research. But you have to sift through a lot of garbage to find the good stuff.

It’s not particularly difficult to sift the nonsense from the valid data, but it’s impossible if your goal is to confirm beliefs you already hold instead of conducting a legitimate search for accurate, fully vetted and contextual information.

As I’ve written before, former Post Register Managing Editor Dean Miller is now running the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University in New York. He teaches his students a three-step process for finding reliable information on the Internet:

First, does the web site have a process for verifying its information before it publishes it? (Or, as most web sites, does it simply pass along information that confirms that particular web site’s institutional bias?)

Second, does the web site hold its reporters and other information sources to strict standards of independence?

Third, is the web site accountable for its work? Does it correct inaccuracies when they occur? Does it list who is behind the web site, where its funding comes from, what its purpose is, and how it goes about deciding what to post?

The truth is that nearly all web sites out there today fail one or more of these tests. Such web sites should be ignored as reliable sources of information, period.

But, that wouldn’t be any fun, would it?

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