Looking up information has never been simpler – so why is it so difficult?

Pat Chapman-Pincher posted this on

great library

For the first time since the Great Library at Alexandria burnt down, all human knowledge is now available in one place, thanks to the internet which gives us endless content, smart search engines and the ability to create queries in the form of questions.  Unlike the great library it is available to anyone with a cheap device and an internet connection.  The democratisation of knowledge is one of the great success stories of our time.  Or is it?  And if, like all great steps forward, it comes at a price, then what can you do to make sure that you are getting the best value from that knowledge?

There is good academic evidence that doctors and other professionals regularly use internet searches to keep up to date with the latest information.  Daniel M. Russell, writing in the AI Journal (Winter 2015) asks the question “what does it mean to know something in the age of the search engine”, highlighting the fact that the availability of content now means that we have to distinguish between “accurate, credible, true information and misinformation or disinformation”.

In the past there were approved editors, publishers, librarians, academics and subject matter specialists who could guide our searches.  Now we have to do that for ourselves.  The evidence is that we don’t do it very well.  We now need expertise in understanding what the information that we are looking at actually means, where it comes from and how it was created.

Yet, unlike the old fashioned librarian we are not trained in those skills and it seems that schools and universities are not teaching them either.  As search engines become ever more sophisticated how do we know what the criteria are for giving or withholding information?  Opinions are divided as to whether they are making us smarter or more dumb.

So when you look at information what are the things that you should be looking for and who can you trust?  The reliable source of information, the encyclopaedia that sat on the shelf at home or in the library has been replaced by Wikipedia.

But the problem with Wikipedia is that, unlike the old fashioned encyclopaedia it is the work of its authors without any editing.  So how much of Wikipedia can you trust?  What bias will there be in the answers that you get to your question?

The reality is that with today’s knowledge engines you have to be your own editor and researcher.

There are two things that you need to do when you start looking for information.

question mark

1.    Think hard about the question you are asking.  Do you want a generalised (how far is it from Edinburgh to London?) answer, or a specific (how far is it from a Holyrood palace to Buckingham Palace)?  Are you looking for a fact or an opinion?

2.    Look at the results that you see and think which answers come from trustworthy sources.  Are they from authorities you recognise – governments, professional bodies for example.

3.    Are the responses from organisations that might have their own agenda – pharmaceutical companies are an example when you are looking up medical data.

4.    I learned an interesting lesson when my husband had a major, but rare, operation.  The moment the diagnosis was made I started to research the operation.  The results were not encouraging, the survivors (who were very vocal) seemed to have bad side effects and an impaired quality of life.

What I learned in the next few months as he made a full recovery was that the information was very selective.  Doctors of course are required to tell you everything that might go wrong and those who had no side effects were too busy getting on with their lives to bother with complaining about them on line.  Happy people don’t post.

5.    Are several of the answers saying the same thing and are they from trustworthy sources?

The internet is a wonderful source of information but like all sources of information we need to use it with care and intelligence.

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