The Internet

More and more of our information is coming from the Internet. I probably go to it a dozen times a day for information and data from NASA, the Jet Propulsion Lab, the Space Telescope Science Institute, and other sources, as well as to read newspapers such as The New York Times and Washington Post. But virtually anyone can put anything on the Web.

Allegedly scientific ideas are posted on the Internet without being reviewed by competent scientists. Even in monitored "chat rooms," the technical competence of the monitor is often unknown to the participants. In contrast, whenever we scientists want to publish results of our work in respected and widely read scientific journals, the papers must be reviewed by one or more specialists first.

Today, anything goes on the Internet, pretty much as was true in parts of the American West throughout the late nineteenth century. You can buy infinitely more snake oil and other miracle cures on the Web than you ever could in Dodge City, Kansas. The problem extends far beyond unscrupulous people wanting to steal your money. Many people and organizations who have Web sites knowingly or otherwise want to steal your mind. There are untold thousands of sites containing utterly inaccurate information about science (and every other aspect of life, of course).

It is incredibly important to withhold judgment about what you read on the Web. Even sites with excellent provenances often contain incorrect information posted by nonspecialists. For example, press officers for scientific organizations are not usually Ph.D. scientists; therefore, they too can make unintentional mistakes that get posted. These errors range from emphasizing different points than scientists would to entering wrong numbers or units that subsequently explain things incorrectly.

At the many sites with unknown or questionable reputations, we don't know what agendas people posting their ideas have. These intentions often become clear, but not always. For example, some of the slicker "creation science" sites look legitimate and sound scientific but contain numerous arguments that are logically inconsistent or inconsistent with accepted science. Incorrect information from such sources can create dissonance at several levels. First, when you read information from an allegedly reliable source that is inconsistent with what you believe to be correct, it may cause you to question sound beliefs. This is, of course, just what the site owners want you to do.

Second, if you read something on a topic you knew nothing about from a source providing wrong information (intentionally or otherwise), you will have a much harder time accepting the correct information when you learn it later. This is because our minds are wired to accept as correct the first information we receive about new subjects. Therefore, it is very important for children to learn accurate information about the natural world. Their minds act as sponges for knowledge, and when initially taught incorrect information, they have much more trouble comprehending correct science (and other topics) later on.

Third, once you get burned by incorrect information from a source, you have much more difficulty accepting correct information from it. By and large this is a healthy response. However, the amount of valid online information is so great that it would be a shame if you felt you couldn't trust any of it.

The first line of defense against accepting incorrect information from the Internet or anywhere else is to maintain a healthy skepticism. The second is to be sure of your sources. The third is to check with other, reliable sources. The bottom line is to verify things for yourself.

It's nice to have a list of sources that you can blame for your own incorrect beliefs and ideas about the natural world. But once information from these sources gets into our minds, we have responsibility for processing it and accepting or rejecting it. I will explore two determinants of our individual responsibility for incorrect beliefs: sources of these ideas that are not preprocessed by other humans and ways our minds can fail us when we have information to evaluate—from any source.

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