Alexander Pope said it: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Albert Einstein modified the statement, saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Could it be that these learned and knowledgeable men foresaw the coming of the Internet?
That there is enormous value in the free flow of information across the length and breadth of the World Wide Web is unquestionable. But, that much of the information so freely disseminated is absolute garbage perpetrated upon an unsuspecting public by well-intended but hopelessly unqualified individuals possessed of the aforementioned “little learning” is equally irrefutable.
Caveat lector. Let the reader beware.
Before the dawning of the information age and its principal electronic agent, the Internet, there were numerous bad, or, at least, unqualified teachers. You might have had one. I did. I once attended a few years of elementary school in a microscopic town in southern Indiana. There I was taught the English language by a man who could barely speak it. His unfortunate countrified accent was so thick that he could not even properly pronounce the name of the state in which he lived, enunciating “Indiana” as “Inny-anny.” And, merciful heavens, what he did to the pantheon of gods and goddesses while attempting to teach a unit on mythology! History and world geography were a blast, too. Fortunately, previous and subsequent exposure to good education, coupled with my own native intelligence, ameliorated the effects of his tutelage.
Nonetheless, there is a whole generation of “Inny-anny-ans” out there right now who actually believe that the Greek goddess of war, wisdom, and the arts was “A-thee-nee-uh,” and that “Lewis” XVI occupied the palace at “Ver-sales.”
Fortuitously, the damage caused by this “teacher” is limited to the several hundreds of students to whom he was directly exposed over the course of his career. It is hoped that any residual damage to subsequent generations of Hoosiers has been counteracted by more competent instructors.
But what about the untold millions exposed to bad information on the Internet?
Most of my writing focuses on the food and entertainment industries with a smattering of travel thrown in for good measure. I also dabble in genealogy. I do a lot of my research on the Internet. But I have the advantage of having a good, solid knowledge base, supported by years of education and experience, upon which to draw when conducting my research. In other words, I can spot cazzeggiare fairly quickly. And, unless I have empirical knowledge of the subject, I never take information gleaned from the Internet at face value. I always compare several sources before committing anything to writing.
The number of “information” sites on the Web is legion. While the majority of these sites are legitimate outlets of various levels of academia, there are many, many, many of them that solicit “contributions” from common, everyday people like you and me. And that’s fine. There are a lot of extremely knowledgeable people out there, not directly connected with mainstream academic sources, who have a lot of valuable information to share. But there are an equal number of unadulterated dolts passing along pure dreck out of either unmitigated ignorance, blissful stupidity, or an overwhelming desire to see their name in print.
Case in point: while researching recipes for a Thanksgiving dinner a couple of years ago, I stumbled upon one of those “post what you know” sites related to cooking. I was absolutely appalled to find some idiot dispensing advice about thawing a frozen turkey by immersing it in hot water! This is simply monstrous! Following such instruction kills people, or sickens them, at the very least. And yet, there it is for some young novice cook who entered “how to thaw a turkey” into a search engine. Yes, there were dozens of other sites that popped up providing the correct procedure, but you and I both know that somebody followed the moron’s advice because it seemed to be the easiest method.
There was a great deal of discussion the other day among members of a culinary forum to which I subscribe regarding one of those “how to” articles that purported to instruct people on “How to Cook a Great Tasting Steak.” The information provided was simply deplorable. It wasn’t just a matter of subjective taste. The methods this “contributor” suggested were wrong on so many levels as to boggle the minds of the professional cooks and chefs participating in the forum discussion. It was more of a recipe for beef-flavored shoe leather. And yet, there it was, ready for some young novice cook to copy down and foist upon an unsuspecting family.
My homepage is set to display a little box with news headlines, current events, sports, entertainment – it’s a very common feature. Every so often, something will come up regarding why we do things the way we do them, how common things came into being, word origins, etc. I usually click on these things. Sometimes they lead to scholarly articles or well-researched journalistic pieces. And sometimes they are crap. Opinions voted upon by other readers of the site. For instance, “Why Did Men Start Wearing Wigs?” Did I get the answer from a respected historian, or an anthropologist, sociologist, or even an expert in the fashion industry? No. Some contributor to the site wrote a three sentence opinion that other members voted as the best answer to the question! But, you know, somebody read that little piece one morning and proceeded to spend the rest of the day telling everybody he came in contact with that he knew the reason why men started wearing wigs.
I wrote an article not long ago taking Ancestry.com to task for their advertising campaign that states, in effect, that you don’t have to know anything about genealogy if you use their site. It’s all there for you. Just plunder around and see what you can find. Ridiculous! With forty years of genealogical research experience behind me, I can unequivocally state that there are family tree climbers out there who don’t give a fig about accuracy or reliability as long as they can produce a pedigree chart to hang on the wall. I call it “make it fit” genealogy or “close enough” research. And just because a “member” at Ancestry.com posted a full-blown pedigree tracing your family back to Noah doesn’t mean that whatever underlying research there might have been is accurate. Granted, it’s not going to kill anybody like the bad food advice might. But are you sure you’re really related to the Queen of England?
Some information sites based on contributor submissions – like the one you’re reading now – do have teams of editors and fact checkers to parse the content of submitted material before they publish it. It’s called “responsibility” and “journalistic integrity.” One such site with which I am familiar is populated by some of the most atrocious writers on the planet, but at least their facts – regardless of how poorly they are presented – are generally accurate. But be vewy, vewy, afwaid of sites that encourage Bubba from Buford to publish his theories on thermonuclear dynamics as unexpurgated fact.
Some of these sites are frightening. Whatever baseless drivel inhabits a person’s brain is allowed to spill out to the entire world at the click of a mouse. “My name is Bob. I’m a meatcutter at Kroger, but I always wanted to be a doctor. I used to watch ‘Marcus Welby’ and ‘Dr. Kildare’ a lot, so let me tell you how to save some money by taking out your own appendix at home.” Run away!
When gleaning information from the Internet, bear in mind if something smells fishy, it probably is. If something looks wrong, it probably is. If something doesn’t ring true, it’s probably not. Use common sense, native intellect, empirical knowledge, and above all, good researching technique when dealing with ‘Net-based information. Don’t accept opinion as fact and don’t accept fact as fact if it is unsupported or unprovable by other means – which, by the way, makes it opinion.
Consider your sources. Sites maintained by universities, libraries, trade associations and the like are going to be pretty safe. Sites relying on information provided by Sally in Seattle are not. Stubborn cuss that I am, I even cross and counter-check the reliable sources. Gordon Ramsay has a total of twelve Michelin stars. Makes him a pretty reliable culinary source, right? Yeah, but that didn’t stop me from cross-referencing one of his recipes with three other sources before I included it in something I’m preparing for publication.
As a source of information, the Internet is a place both wondrous and terrifying. You can soar to the heights of wisdom or you can plunge to the depths of ignorance with a single click. Or perhaps a double-click. And just in case you overlooked my most salient point back in the third paragraph, I’ll repeat it here as a means of summation: caveat lector.