I’ve been thinking about the so-called the “democratization of information” or “right to information” or just the plain old adage that we went to the moon with less technology than what sits in my pocket and catches emails for me; if I want to know the answer to something then Google is there for me (or Duck Duck Go — browse privately, friends).
This is the same world where we see quips like “Please do not confuse your Google Search with my medical/law/etc. degree.” The same world where one has to look for and describe what “peer reviewed research” means. The same world where “alternative facts” and “fake news” are lobbied in counterpoint.
We have an information pricing problem.
In a conversation with a colleague we were discussing school adventures — ours — and up came terms like “microfiche” and “card catalogue”. Back in my day (with overtones here of “get off my lawn you kids”) if one wanted information one had to go to the library to get it — you went armed with your topic (say, Earthquakes) and went to the card catalogue and first searched by subject and then narrowed it down to one or more books/items that had information about that subject. Each item was printed on a card, with the name of the item and the author(s) and publishing information (in fact, cribbing from that card is what typically got you your bibliography). You then followed the Dewey code for that item and went looking in the stacks to get the item in question, and then you had to actually read the whole item even if you were for example going to cherry pick things to meet your needs. (Card catalogues have been around as “the way to find things in the library” for over 100 years, so what was true for me was true for my parents and theirs and theirs and so forth).
Microfiche was even more involved — if your item was microfiche then you had to take it to the librarian or look through the drawers for it, put it into a special machine, and scroll through it until you found the article or print you were looking for. Microfiche has not been around as long as the card catalogue, but it’s coming up on it’s 85th birthday in libraries. Microfiche (and film) is still in use, but it wasn’t as snazzy as this when we had to use it. It looked like this. Somehow everything in the 70’s was beige.
This was “pull method” of information – you made the investment and went to the library and invested your nontrivial amount of time to go and get the information and glean it for whatever purpose.
“Push method” — ingestion of information in a someone-else-does-the-bulk-of-the-work-way — was mostly TV (nightly news, from 6:30-7:30) and radio (mostly public or talk radio). This was before blogs and user-based journalism which have largely changed the landscape of the form and presentation of journalism (far less stuffy but far more opinionated). Journalism has a code of ethics that most journalists follow, rando persons on the internet (such as myself, hi/hello) are not bound by those ethics. (I mean, I try, but I’m not formally trained and this is not a professional blog, this is just where I spit things out that are in my brain). It’s important to note however that the “push method” of nightly news and radio, along with relative lack of choice (when I grew up there were at first 3, and then 9, channels) meant that the news you were getting in your home was the same news that everyone else got. The same leading stories, the same local color, the same news from Washington and the world. The accessibility of the news, even with the “scheduling war for news” we saw with the Gulf War, was still relatively uniform.
Which is all a very long way to say that, for the previous 100-odd years, the foundation for information was roughly uniform and the amount of investment one had to do to get it, past that initial uniform bit we got with Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather (or before them, the nightly newspaper), was relatively involved.
My offspring recently graduated high school and he has never known a world where information wasn’t searchable locally at home: every “paper” (for most of them never made it to paper) was researched via internet.1 Everyone I know has a mobile phone that has internet search functionality on it and can quite literally “look up” the answer to any question at any time for any purpose. The *investment* to procure information is drastically lower, information is now astonishingly cheap – and I do mean cheap.
Quick digression – I’m a fan of good diction, this comes from how I operate in the world (very explicitly). If one has a reputation for being specific and direct, one has to choose one’s words carefully because the amount of thought that goes into receiving them is ostensibly higher. When I say “cheap”, I do not mean “inexpensive”. There are a variety of definitions for “cheap” and the fact that “inexpensive” routes to “cheap” according to Merriam Webster is a tragedy. I think someone cut a corner there. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary gets closer to the nuance I’m looking for. “Cheap” comes with an inference of low quality as to the reason for something’s low price, whereas “inexpensive” (for me) does not.
Here we return to “Do Not Confuse Your Google Search with my XYZ Degree”: The seventeen seconds you spent online “researching” your symptoms do not equate to the years of study (and practice) a good MD has (always get a second opinion, though). How many times have we heard the joke that one goes to google with one’s symptoms and they’re either dehydrated or dying? The issue at hand is while the access to the information has been greatly simplified, the investment required to get to it has also been removed: the knowledge isn’t earned and the context is absent.
I can go watch endless YouTube videos about solving household plumbing problems (e.g., how to clean out your P-trap, remove drain flies, even replace a toilet). This does not make me a plumber. If I elect to attempt any of these things on my property it’s my problem but I sure as heck should not be advising you on yours (nor should you take my advice there except as maybe a prompt to go talk to someone who actually has been trained in this). I do a lot of home cooking and watch a lot of food recipes, this does not make me a professional chef. I read up a lot about the things I contend with (thyroid, cardiological, etc.) but I do so in preparation for an intelligent conversation with my MD’s about it and not *instead of* those conversations, and absolutely not to “guide” others. (Or to suggest to them that “doing their own research” will arrive at the same conclusions.)
The cheapening of information combined with an elevation of User Generated Content to Journalism (a loosening, in my opinion, of how journalism operates — a lot more opinions and editorials) and the breadth of information and information targeting (my “news fix” may not be the same as my neighbors) has led to extreme polarization and, worse, a willful ignorance to information that may not align with our inclinations. (This exists, incidentally, in scientific exploration which is why peer review is so important and why you should always get a second opinion). This polarization is not only political, it extends to our societal behaviors when it comes to medicine (e.g., vaccines in general — not just for COVID) and how we view things like Climate Change (regardless of political affiliation, or perhaps exacerbated by it).
I am not suggesting we somehow lock down information (I mean, that would create a scarcity which in turn would increase the price as supply goes down and demand ostensibly goes up, but that’s a little more 1984 than I think anyone wants). I *am* suggesting, as with any (relatively) newfound2 privilege or boon, we do our homework. Specifically, we elevate the role and investment of critical thinking (in our schooling and as a foundation of education), The information tsunami (and its accompanying hurdles) will not go away and so, much as we should be teaching financial literacy and scientific literacy in schools, we should be teaching critical thinking skills. In a world where information is cheap and easy, the filtration and identification of information of actual value is not.3
The “good” news (?) is that educational standards are set at the State level. Meaning the curriculum requirements for your state are owned by your state Superintendent of Public Instruction (or equivalent). In a world where all politics are local, this can be influenced by your local state representative and local state senator (again: not Federal. You’re not writing to the person that goes to DC, you’re writing the person that goes to your state capital).
Yes, writing. This is the sort of topic that would not come up (or only come up cursorily) during election season, likely drowned out by the myriad of other agita that happens at that time. The very best way to get action on anything from an elected representative is to visit them, which can be impractical (in terms of investment), so the second very best way to get them to look at a thing is to write a letter (like… the kind that gets mailed). Email is your third choice here. Don’t want to go through the pain of finding your state’s legislative site and then figuring out who represents you? Go here — you can find your state (and federal) representation. Here’s a guide on writing legislators. As to your State Superintendent of Schools — sometimes these are elected, sometimes they’re appointed, you can find that out here. (You can also use that link to find your State Superintendent, their office, and their office mailing address and email). In addition, you can get involved through your local school *district*, either directly with the district or via a PTSA council (if you have that kind of time, and not all do).
There is a contingent of folks who will read this who either 1. do not have children or 2. whose children (like mine) have already graduated and are off to their next endeavor. The inclination here is to say “this does not affect me” and therefore no investment is needed. I argue that that is shortsighted and obtuse: you as a taxpayer are paying for the education system and you are paying for the product of that system (its current and future students), who in turn are going to be your future co-electorate. If the purpose of public education is for a well-informed and productive public, then you should be very much incentivized to ensure your investment is well spent.
- The teachers explicitly stated not to use Wikipedia as it is not considered a credible source; we taught him to check out the footnotes to find the credible sources and use Wikipedia as a coalescing function.
- Let’s just wave a hand at it and say it started with the internet in the 90’s. That’s 30 years, and so we’re at least one and likely two generations behind here already. “Relatively newfound” is overgenerous. We are late.
- In a sad turn of events, searching for “critical thinking” (in quotes deliberately to get that phrase), plus curriculum plus legislation, all I got was the never-ending debate over Critical Race Theory, which is a different thing altogether. That and a WaPo article about how Texas doesn’t want to teach critical thinking skills but I couldn’t find a second source.