Access to an inexhaustible wealth of information is now taken for granted. Instead of leafing through a voluminous and often outdated encyclopedia, we type anything that interests us into a search engine, and within a split second it returns hundreds to hundreds of thousands of resources on a given topic.
When I was explaining the usefulness of the Internet to my grandparents, I searched for the keywords “steak recipe” as an example, which returned over 560,000 results. I was met with the first impression of a humorous but not out of place response, “And how on earth am I going to choose from so many recipes?” That question pretty much neatly sums up the theme of today’s article.
Information and knowledge
Unfortunately for humanity, access to information does not automatically equal knowledge and understanding. Even before, a student who took learning seriously had to carefully compare the reliability and veracity of the various sources from which he drew facts.
The difference is that today the same person does not have access to, say, ten books on a given subject, but to hundreds or even thousands of different articles, studies, e-books and video lectures. Knowing how to navigate through such a volume of data, to distinguish substantiated facts from personal opinion, and scientific evidence from rhetorical evidence, is an increasingly valuable and necessary skill. Indeed, the most powerful, and most insidious, feature of the Internet is that an author can write absolutely anything on his or her site.
So how does the average user discern quality sources from which he or she can actually learn something? The central role is played by “critical thinking”, which is unfortunately a very popular term nowadays that everyone hides behind and praises, but often without a deeper understanding of its meaning. There are many different knowledge and skills that hide behind the term.
First of all, you need to know the basics of logic, which allows you to decipher the structure of an argument, and evaluate whether the text makes sense at all (it does not contradict itself, the causes presented are actually related to the consequences, etc.). This will ensure that the source is in order formally, syntactically, but not in terms of content.
To judge the content, one needs at least to have a grasp of the scientific method (too small a sample size, for example, means that the study is of little explanatory value), but ideally also to have a rudimentary knowledge of the field. The more we know about the field, the easier it is for us to filter out nonsense and inaccuracies. A basic understanding of statistics and probability is also extremely useful to avoid very common human errors (such as fear of flying on an aeroplane and a preference for ground transport, which is statistically far more dangerous).
Prudence and distance
In addition to critical thinking, the ability to approach information with some detachment and cool-headedness is indispensable. Whether we like it or not, everyone has a tendency to defend their opinions and feel upset when they are contradicted. Especially around sensitive topics such as politics and ethics, there is far more emotional outpouring and opinion than actual facts and arguments.
If one is even slightly capable of this, it is advisable when researching and learning to suppress one’s opinions and prejudices for a while, and to read the sources one seeks out in a rational and probing manner instead of a dismissive or dismissive approach. As well as achieving genuine understanding sooner, this will also save a lot of unnecessary frustration and nerves.
Great potential, great responsibility
Only in the last two decades we find ourselves in a new, unique situation where almost all the knowledge of all humanity is only a few clicks away. With enough effort and consistency, anyone can learn almost anything today. I personally, for example, learned to cook and program almost entirely through self-study on the Internet.
At the same time, however, every dogmatist, manipulator and demagogue has an ideal platform where they can successfully spread their agenda regardless of the falsity of the information presented, and without paying in any way for the damage they do by spreading their lies. It is therefore purely up to us how we approach the new possibilities and what we choose to use the enormously powerful information technology for.