UNSKEPTICAL

Posted in Rants on November 21st, 2013 by Ed

Recently I saw this on Facebox:

morons

The comment reminds me an awful lot of one of the most common problems I encounter while teaching. You see, this person has done her research. Unfortunately research is not helpful if everything you read is bullshit. That's the beating heart of the anti-vaccination movement, for example: a person can do endless research on the subject online and find numerous sources of antivax information. I mean, none of it is accurate, but it's certainly plentiful.

About once per semester, depending on what I'm teaching, I will encounter this with a student. He will write a paper and cite numerous sources throughout as students are taught to do in a research paper. But the sources will be, for lack of a better term, bullshit. Tumblrs. Blogs. Conspiracy theory websites. Essentially, a bunch of garbage that falls into the category of Unreliable.

Now I have to do a mini-lecture on Good Sources vs. Bad Sources. The problem is that younger people who have grown up with the internet perceive The Internet, or perhaps Google, as a source. If one views Google as a single source, than any link found on Google is as good as any other. I try to explain that reliable sources of information for academic purposes are things like major media outlets, peer-reviewed journals, government records, and so on. Certainly all of those can and do provide inaccurate information at times. But if we're playing the percentages, your odds are a lot better with the Bureau of Labor Statistics or Science than with the Vaccine Facts tumblr or the Strip Mall Holistic Healing Wellness Center's website.

What I do not understand about this is that Americans of all ages express a tremendous amount of skepticism toward the media, the government, corporations, interest groups, and anything else considered Official. Yet when reading some anonymous mommyblogger's tale of how she cured her son's autism with quinoa cookies, an appreciable percentage of the public is willing to internalize this information completely unskeptically. The librul media and the government and "scientists" are lying to us wholesale, but this random asshole on a message board speaks the unvarnished truth. Even the fact that such dubious sources of information often have a clear ideological or financial motive – they reveal the rapacious greed of Big Pharma and then immediately try to sell you some unregulated Homeobullshit product – it's not enough to tip some of us off that it might be a scam.

I understand, but I don't understand. The skepticism of our scientific, media, and political institutions makes perfect sense. That none of that skepticism extends to random, qualification-free people talking out of their asses on the internet does not make sense. Perhaps this is an area where the rottenness of cable TV news and the decline of print media are causing serious problems. Perhaps Fox News and the like look so utterly ridiculous and amateurish that people raised on a diet of that product honestly can't tell what distinguishes it from some half-decent looking Tumblrs. Maybe one news website looks as good as any other, whereas if one sees a physical copy of the New York Post next to the New York Times the differences between the two are much clearer. I don't suppose I will discover the cause by ruminating on these questions, but I do know that an uncomfortably large number of people claiming to have "done their research" have done something that makes them feel like they are well informed when they have actually filled their heads with nonsense.