'INTERNET' AND 'RESEARCH' NOT ALWAYS A MATCH
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- A few years ago, science fair contestants started using a new expression. Little did I understand at the time that it was an omen of whole new things to come in national politics and of whole new ways of lying.
Being a judge in the state science fair for the past dozen years, I have heard a lot about natural insecticides, the propagation of viruses (biological, not computer) and various ways to use worms to mulch bio-waste. Starting three or four years ago, I have been hearing students say something that has really caught my ear. The remark is, "So then I went on the Internet and did my research."
The question I wish to pursue is not the wisdom of preteens using electronic media to look up facts more quickly than was possible previously, but the concept - quite new, I think - that this vast source of information rapidly propagates works of great credibility even amid the worst forms of lies and fantasies. The consequences, I would like to suggest, are a threat to the idealistic fantasy so many of us have had of the Internet as a tool of social, political and educational reform.
Back in the late Pleistocene when I was in high school, we didn't have hand calculators. Some of us learned the art of the slide rule, and computers only existed as giant devices taking up entire rooms at universities and Air Force bases. We were supposed to Look It Up, and I dare say that most of us probably didn't, at least very often.
The concept of a mechanical brain that could answer all the questions was a science fictional concept. Now we have something analogous, except for the fact that the information exists on tens of thousands of Websites created by humans, and the input function is not a mechanical brain but Google.
With a little bit of practice, most of us can formulate search questions, some as simple as a single word ("McCain"), some more complex ("vitamin deficiency"), and some quite complex ("Napoleon resistance Piedmont"). The difference between the Google search and the fictional mechanical brain scenario is that Google is not all-wise and all-knowing. It simply responds to those thousands upon thousands of Websites which somehow manage to fit the search criteria. (By the way, I am not trying to single out Google here. It just happens to be the most talked about search engine, to the extent that Apple's new browser incorporates Google search directly.)
In considering how well this process is likely to work, we might contrast the Internet and the print media.
In the traditional print media, there is of necessity some sort of editorial supervision. There are strong incentives to keep things terse, because every page that is printed, bound and shipped costs money. Somebody has to pay for printing, shipping and postage, as well as salaries for employees who research, proofread, edit and do layout.
In other words, there are severe barriers to entry in the print world. Publications which have been around a long time and have established their own audience have tended to survive. Newcomers need lots of luck and even more money just to hope to survive the first year.
Certain publications have achieved credibility through the virtue of having been accurate and trustworthy for many decades. The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker come to mind. Daily newspapers and political journals alike do their best to check their facts and make at least some semblance of separating pure opinion pieces from news. Whether you are the New York Times or National Review, you have to check your facts because you may accept or even relish being disliked for your opinions but you dread being laughed at for your factual mistakes. Credibility is a critically important asset to have and a disaster to lose.
Now comes the Internet and turns the whole thing, if not quite upside down, at least to rocking and pitching precariously. To get started on the Internet, you need $19.95 per month, except when you can do it for less. You can't expect to have millions of adoring fans downloading megabytes of material at this price, but you can make a start for yourself.
What is important in this whole equation is that there is absolutely no barrier, no matter how low, in terms of intelligence, honesty, tact, or tendency towards law-abiding behavior that is required of the Internet beginner.
One pertinent example: Matt Drudge, famous for his Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com), worked out of his penthouse apartment on Whitley Ave. in Hollywood. His email newsletter, started just a week after The American Reporter became the first original daily newspapaer, started in a 1919 bungalow three blocks away on Ivar. The Drudge Report became famous enough that AOL signed a contract with him to run his material, paying him the unprincely sum of $3,000 per month.
In one report, Drudge erroneously accused a Clinton era government appointee of being a wife beater. He almost immediately retracted the charge but was sued anyway.
By the time the dust cleared, Internet provider AOL was found to be free of all liability for Drudge's libel. The court pointedly noted that AOL publicized the fact that Drudge was being brought on to supply gossip and rumor to its subscribers, but found that federal law protects AOL and other Internet providers from liability for what its clients do and say.
What this means in practice is that there is little if any legal protection against thousands of stupid or malicious people presenting their horrible little fantasies, no matter how deranged or inaccurate.
Consider the results of the search process. The search terms described above, McCain, vitamin deficiency, and Napoleon resistance Piedmont were tried on Google, which reported finding 881,000 possible items for McCain, 465,000 possible hits for the vitamin deficiency, and a mere 1510 for the attempt to find out something about the nineteenth century French invasion of Northern Italy.
The problem with this is, of course, that you don't much know where to start except at the top, and this may or may not bring you to a site that is knowledgeable, honest, or even pertinent. When it came to the Napoleon search, I found a fascinating article somewhere down the second page of Google citations.
When I tried the vitamin deficiency search, it was easy to find crackpot pseudoscience and snake-oil peddling on the first page of hits, including a Website extolling a clinic offering a long discredited quack cancer remedy.
Consider the seventh grade student trying to develop a science project. The wonders of the Internet, which have been extolled in such glowing terms, are a mixed blessing at best. The more opportunistic students will go right to Websites dedicated to providing ready-made science projects. The more dedicated or adventurous students will find themselves awash in thousands of citations referring to everything from best, most credible sites to the lowest forms of lying, including that quack clinic.
In the old days, students had to do their research by reading books and journals. These had the advantage that somebody had reviewed and edited their content for obvious misstatements and errors of fact or logic. It was a slower, more laborious process but at least insulated us from the worst excesses of the Internet Age.
Google is not that infallible mechanical brain from 1950s era television shows. The Web pages it finds for us may be the fevered products of paranoid imagination, the opportunistic pseudo science used to sell a worthless product, a defense of a malignant ideology, or it may be the carefully thought out findings of the Yale faculty.
In the standard scientific literature, submitted papers are put through a process known as peer review, which assures the editor and the reader that what is being printed is at the very least honestly presented.
Political journals which want to preserve their hard won credibility do something very similar, that is to say, they check their facts.
The Internet leaves something to be desired when it comes to the sense of assurance we can feel when we pick up the Atlantic or the New Yorker, because it is often hard to know how well reviewed, fact checked and generally well edited any site is. Careful Internet readers eventually find a collection of sites they begin to trust. I tend to read this site, along with Salon and CNN, plus a few more inflammatory sites (such as FrontPageMag) to add a little spice.
The great idealistic fantasy that truth, goodness and beauty will be brought to the world by the Internet needs to be considered in the greater context, however, which is that thousands upon thousands of young people are exposed to virulent propaganda and rank ideological ranting, pseudo science and superstition, even as they try to develop themselves scientifically, socially and politically.
What this comes down to in practice is that students need to be pointed towards credible Internet sites just as they are pointed towards great literature and legitimate science.