Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Information Age... or is it?

In the information age, everyone’s an expert.

He’s watched every season of Deadliest Catch to date, so he’s an expert on weather systems in Alaskan waters. She read an in-depth article about Lindsay Lohan on TMZ.com, so she can tell you the ins and outs of the drug rehab process.

It is the age of the Internet, after all. Information that, just 15 years ago, would have taken hours of combing through dusty volumes in the library can be found with a 0.14826-second search on Google.

With all this information at our fingertips - quite literally - shouldn’t we all be experts?

More information is available to my 9-year-old nephew in an afternoon of casual browsing than was available to Pythagorus and Socrates throughout their entire lives. Seriously. Stop and think about that for a moment.

And yet, in an age where we have such easy access to so much information, we are more gullible than ever before.

Somehow, in today’s world, Yahoo Answers is a go-to source. Wikipedia is as venerable as Brittanica. And Twitter is as reliable a place to learn the facts about news events as the L A Times.

We have become a society where a few tidbits of information, confidently conveyed, make you an expert. It doesn’t matter that your information is from a dubious source at best or completely made up at worst. If you sound like you know what you’re talking about (particularly if you are confirming a person’s preconceived bias), you must be an expert.

I cannot fathom why someone would ask about the contents of Arizona’s AB1070 on Yahoo Answers, when the entire text of the bill is easily available on any number of readily accessible web sites. “Is Zac Efron hot?” Now that’s a question that the Yahoo Answers’ brain trust can handle. But I don’t think that I’d ask about the legal nuances of a summary process action on the same site where one of the more common questions is “Are psychics 100% accurate?” And yet people do!

In an era when fact-checking is so stupidly simple, no one does it. But why?

Perhaps it is the school systems. Are we so focused on math proficiency and standardized testing that it comes at the expense of teaching research and critical thinking skills? Or maybe it’s the mountains of homework that are assigned starting in kindergarten. Are parents so overwhelmed with all the homework that they succumb to shortcuts and don’t take the time to ensure their kids are using sound research skills?

Maybe it is the very availability of all this information. Are we so overwhelmed with the vast breadth of information available that we fail to look at any of these subjects in depth?

Or is it our demand for immediate access to information? Don’t get me started on newspapers and how they have precipitated their own decline, but traditional media are faced with competition from web sites that believe in posting first, verifying later. The L A Times was roundly criticized because TMZ.com scooped it (by all of 30 minutes) in announcing the death of Michael Jackson. While the L A Times staff was double-checking and verifying its information so as not to post something so inflammatory without being damned sure that it was accurate, TMZ got a tipoff and had posted the news for the world to see within a few minutes.

In the end, it’s up to those of us who are in the business of convincing people of something (sales, public relations, politics, issue advocacy...), along with those who are in the business of sharing information (educators, journalists...) to determine whether we continue down this road or not.

Too often the conversation goes like this:
Sure I understand why the issue of toenail fungus research is important, but the general public isn’t interested in the details and won’t understand the complexities, so just give them a pithy soundbite and push the emotions.

I can understand the reasoning behind this position. After all, my job isn’t to educate the world, it’s to bring in funding for toenail fungus research. But remember that the opposition can play that game just as well as we can, if not better. In a battle of pithy soundbites and emotional appeals, the guy with the fewest scruples usually wins out in the long run. And if you haven’t built up credibility and a basic level of knowledge in your audience, then when the other guy starts using misleading emotional appeals and out-of-context soundbites, you have no way of countering his attack.

It may take more effort and time, but we must return to the appeal of facts and information. That people don’t understand the ins and outs of toenail fungus (or whatever your raison d’être) isn’t reason to gloss over the information. It’s all the more reason to explain the facts, clearly, accurately and succinctly.

Sure, emotional appeals are important, as are pithy soundbites, but they have to be backed up by real, factual information that is presented in a way that your audience can understand it, and your opposition cannot find fault with it. It may not be easy to take a complex issue and explain it in a way that makes sense to the average citizen. Factual but clear explanations take time, research, and a lot of rewrites. But in the long run, we have to get back to explaining the facts if we want to turn the Information Age into the Informed Age.