With the growth of the Internet, learning has never been easier. If you hear an unfamiliar term, you can Google it. If you want to investigate an urban legend, you can consult Snopes.
And if you’re simply in the mood for discovering something obscure, you can click “Random article” in the Wikipedia sidebar and soon be reading about the parasitic ant species Lasius umbratus. Life is great for the intellectually curious.
Great, that is, until you stumble into one of the Internet’s many pitfalls for inquiring minds.
Browsing your way to an enticing URL such as educate-yourself.org, you are suddenly surrounded by pages claiming that swine flu is a hoax and the Illuminati have created vaccines as a weapon for cutting the population down to size.
How did it come to this?
Welcome to the world of post-barrier publication. During the dominant years of print media, spreading ideas was more expensive, and those controlling the presses typically demanded some adherence to quality standards. But now, access to a website suffices for anyone to share their thoughts on any topic, and we need to start weighing credibility with that fact in mind.
From the golden age of chain emails to the current epidemic of misattributed image quotes, electronic myth spreading has proven remarkably efficient.
Granted, there is relatively little harm in attaching the wrong name to a pithy comment that goes viral. That kind of misinformation can begin with an innocent mistake and ripple through Facebook without inflicting any significant damage. But the same efficiency is exploited by those who lie for the sake of their agendas — political, religious, financial, etc.
This problem does not only consist of gullible people being taken in by misleading sources. The relationship runs both ways: those who want to prop up their own beliefs also generate the demand for misinformation, and others are happy to supply them with it.
We all do this from time to time; once invested in defending a position, we go looking for evidence that supports it, and once we find the evidence we want, we stop looking.
Are you uncomfortable with the scientific consensus on climate change? Visit globalclimatescam.com and find solace in an echo chamber of fellow skeptics. Think 9/11 was an inside job? 911Truth.org has you covered.
This is how smart people can have stupid opinions. All it takes is a bad start, and the vastness of the Internet enables us to continue down the wrong path. As long as we can keep finding signs that assure us we’re heading the right way, we will be content.
What can we do about it? Confirmation bias is a habit, one that we can deliberately counteract. Try monitoring yourself. If you hear something that sounds wrong, and head to the internet in order to debunk it, don’t be satisfied with what you find on a website that is clearly biased in your favor.
Look for impartial sources. If you encounter an argument that doesn’t seem to make any sense, try to understand why someone else might think that it does. Don’t stop until you can either describe a specific logical misstep or until you find yourself agreeing, however tentatively.
I know this works, because I was once on the wrong side of many issues, from evolution to vaccination. I didn’t change my mind thanks to some instantaneous epiphany.
It took much exploration before I recognized where the greater weight of the evidence lay, and I only started comparing that evidence fairly when I was emotionally ready to have my mind changed.
Using the Internet effectively requires cultivating a skeptical attitude toward oneself as well as toward the numerous conflicting sources available. Godspeed.
Zack Truelson is a senior psychology major from Sioux Falls, S.D.