Human Intelligence

Does misinformation on the Internet force us to think more critically?
Answered by Vinton G. Cerf, Marshall Brain and 2 others
  • Vinton G. Cerf

    Vinton G. Cerf

  • Marshall Brain

    Marshall Brain

  • Michael Graham Richard

    Michael Graham Richard

  • Tracy Wilson

    Tracy Wilson

  1. Vinton G. Cerf Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google


    …There are all kinds of variations, where people put up misinformation either because they were misinformed or they deliberately do that for whatever motivation they have. Which leads to one other big challenge: When we're looking forward into this increasing world of information accessibility, we have to teach our kids how to think critically about what they're seeing. And it's not just on the 'net. It just happens to be a rather vivid place where you can see disparities in quality juxtaposed. But let's face it, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, our friends, our parents and our teachers, are also capable of generating misinformation. And we have to learn to think about what we're seeing and hearing in order to discern what we should pay attention to and what we should not.

    Critical thinking. I couldn't imagine a more important skill to teach kids -- or for that matter, the rest of us, so that we are more thoughtful about what information we accept and then process and use.

    More answers from Vinton G. Cerf »

  2. Marshall Brain Founder,

    Here is something that I find interesting about science: what we think of as information actually can be misinformation. It is when a person finally sees it as such that important scientific discoveries can be made.

    Here is a simple example to show you the process. If I say to you, "the sky is blue", that seems like a simple, obvious piece of information. But think about it. Half the time it is night, and the sky is not blue – it is black. If it is black half the time, why do we say it is blue? And it's not really black at night – it is black filled with pinpricks of light caused by stars and the frequent big light we call the moon. Sometimes the sky is filled with clouds during daytime, so the sky can frequently be white or varying shades of gray rather than blue. Talk to a Seattle resident about cloud cover. If there is a big dust storm or sand storm, the sky can be brown. If you are in the middle of a locust plague, it might even be green. Why would we say that the sky is blue if it is blue less than half the time?

    Another example: "The world is flat". If you aren't really paying attention to the details, the world does appear to be flat. Yet the world is not flat at all. When people realized that, it was a revelation.

    Another one: "The earth is the center of the universe". This is the geocentric model popularized by Ptolemly in the second century. This model persisted for over a thousand years and people believed this piece of information very strongly. Galileo got in big trouble for suggesting otherwise, yet he was right.

    Any piece of information, no matter how broadly accepted, is open to examination. Some of the most interesting scientific discoveries are made by doing so.

    More answers from Marshall Brain »

  3. Michael Graham Richard Writer, TreeHugger
    There’s an old joke about the Soviet Union, where misinformation and official propaganda was extremely common, that went something like this: “Here, people don’t believe anything until it has been officially denied by the government.”

    What’s not a joke is that when people are lied to constantly, they become cynical and more rarely take things at face value. This simple fact of human nature applied to the Soviet Union then, and I think it applies to the Internet today, but with a major difference that makes the situation better.

    For most of history, information was distributed one-way. It came down from up high via books, newspapers, radio, television, and the people who received that information couldn’t easily check facts and compare notes, and if they did happen to dig up mistakes or lies, they couldn’t easily set the record straight and let others know. The Internet changed all that... Now there are millions of independent fact-checkers who can let the world know about factual mistakes, half-truths, straight up lies, doctored photos, etc, on their blogs, on social media, or via whistle-blower sites. Not only that, but nowadays, fact-checkers don’t have to spend a week at the library to verify obscure data. With modern search engines and free online encyclopedias, it has become much easier to do most kinds of research.

    Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of misinformation on the Internet, but it also contains the tools to fight it. Critical thinking is not an end goal, it’s a process. The more people are doing their own research and fact-checking because it’s easy, or at least learn how it's done by reading the independent research of others, the more healthy skepticism we’ll have and the more people will develop the skill that is critical thinking.

    More answers from Michael Graham Richard »

  4. Tracy Wilson Site Director, HowStuffWorks
    The rapid growth of the Internet and rise in people's access to it has been a gift and a curse. For example, my mother was diagnosed with a rare motor neuron disease when I was in college. At the time, there was very little information available to patients and their families. The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) printed an information pamphlet, but that was virtually it, and a search of the fledgling Internet revealed no usable results. Getting good information at the time required going to a sizable research library in person and hunting through databases or physical copies of medical journals. But if I type her condition into Google now, a little more than a decade later, I get 478,000 results, with information from the National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic, in addition to NORD, on the first page.

    The downside is that plenty of information on the Internet isn't legitimate. In addition to the blatant jokes, hoaxes and scams are specious research, poor conclusions, distorted facts and other misinformation. And, sadly, people who are new to the Internet -- or to research in general -- don't always have the experience or skills needed to separate the fact from the fiction.

    A significant number of Internet users haven't been taught the basics of critical thinking or haven't learned how to use those skills in the context of the Internet. At this point in the Internet's existence, it's hard to tell exactly how people's understanding will continue to develop. As the 'net matures and more people begin to use it at a very young age, will thinking critically about content become an innate skill? Or will the current divide -- between people who accept what they find online at face value, and the people who question it (aka the people who forward false e-mails and the ones who refer to first) -- continue to deepen until it leads to real-world problems?

    A better question might be, how can we help more people think critically in the face of misinformation on the Internet?

    More answers from Tracy Wilson »

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