Extraordinary eruptions of (mis)information

For us, there is no longer a fundamental mystery about Life. It is all the process of extraordinary eruptions of information, and it is information which gives us this fantastically rich, complex world in which we live.” ~ Douglas Adams

I have this quote on my About page, and it’s so joyfully worded. When I first read it years ago, being the data and information nerd that I am, I was delighted by it. There’s so much Stuff to Know in the world! It’s all so damn interesting!

I think the last few years have pulled some of the shine off these words.

The internet age has been remarkable in that it has mobilized and given voice to individuals and groups who may have formerly found it harder to get their voices heard. It’s given people access to tools and data and knowledge and connected people in ways that were not always easy or possible before.

But as we’ve seen, it’s also given rise to misinformation – some of it malicious, some born from ignorance, some born from hate and a need to blame others.

It occurs to me, as someone who works in data and information, that we don’t teach people how to read and think critically, how to vet sources, how to raise questions and do research. A lot of people believe they know how to do research, but what they’re actually doing is engaging in confirmation bias, which then strengthens the positions and belief systems they already espouse – it’s about validation, not keeping an open mind and exploring other perspectives, evidence, and analysis.

I wonder, as I stew in current events and contemplate what we can do to fight this trend of fake news and alternate facts and raging conspiracy theories, if we need to look at education requirements.

People need to be taught how to read statistics, how to root out conflicts of interest, how to analyze and think critically about what they’re being told, how to recognize implicit bias.

We need to be teaching this in school in age-appropriate ways. We need to be intentionally incorporating this into trade school and college classes. We need organizations to be helping their employees learn to recognize and root out issues within their industries. And it needs to be repeated and reinforced.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t deeply disturbed and worried about the directions I see many people going in. These are not fringe groups – these are large swaths of Americans who have radical anti-science beliefs, and there seems to be a strong intersection between those beliefs and things like racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

I could go on a tear about how we got here – suffice to say, a lot of variables worked together to radicalize so many in this country into beliefs and actions. Contributing to that is a sub-par educational system that too often upholds racism, upholds sexism, upholds untrue and destructive beliefs about American exceptionalism.

And it’s terrifying.

What’s even more terrifying is that it’s always been there. This isn’t new – it’s just gotten louder, because it had four years of amplification from the highest offices in our country. We were never a united nation, nor were we ever as great as we seem to think we were.

Or, if we were, we were only great for certain segments of the population, at the expense of others. To me, that’s not greatness.

Here’s a good article from Brookings about how to fight misinformation. Toward the end, there’s a small section called How the Public Can Protect Itself with two specific things that we as individuals can do to make sure we’re not falling for anything quesionable.

And to those two points, I will add a third: Speak up. When you realize something is questionable, or blatantly false, speak up. Offer other sources. Not everyone will listen, but you never know who might be quietly wavering, or who might simply be repeating without thinking. You never know where you might plant a seed of information that changes the course of someone’s life.

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