The Danger of Easy Information

When I was on my way to work this morning, I was listening to a story NPR had done on the recent pair of Boeing airline crashes that both involved the same model of plane. They were interviewing passengers in airports to find out what they thought of them and to see if they felt safe on those planes. One interview in particular stood out to me, where a woman said she was going to go do a bunch of research before she made up her mind.

On the one hand, part of me wants to applaud the sentiment. Yay for wanting to research things out to come to a well-reasoned opinion. As a librarian, that’s what I want, isn’t it? But at the same time, I couldn’t help but cringe inside when I heard the quote.

These days, you can find just about anything you want to online. If there’s an opinion you have that you want to confirm is right, you can and will find someone saying just how right you are, whether it’s if the earth is round or flat, what vaccines do, or what really happened on 9/11. Access to tons of information is all fine and good, but I’ve noticed more and more many people struggling to sift through that information to be able to tell what’s worthwhile and what isn’t.

Let’s call it MCSP: Medical Cancer Search Phenomenon. Whenever I get sick, I start looking up symptoms to see what it is I might have. Typically, those symptoms end up describing any number of things. Most of them are lethal forms of cancer. So why in the world do I still bother trying to Google my way to a cure for my sniffles? Why can’t I learn that it takes a trained physician to be able to look at a person, evaluate their condition, and come up with a likely prognosis.

The same thing happened with my car battery a few months ago. (No, not cancer, but me searching for a solution to a problem I was noticing.) The car had trouble starting a couple of times, so I turned to Google. I became convinced the car battery was dying and that I needed to replace it. I blamed this for dip in my gas mileage as well, as some internet sleuths had found a connection and talked about it on a message board.

My mechanic thought I was crazy. He took a look at things and told me I shouldn’t worry for now, but I insisted he check the battery. It was fine. All my Googling had done nothing by alarm me.

Will an internet search tell this woman whether Boeing planes are safe or not? I highly doubt it, though I’m sure it will leave her with the impression that she’s well informed about the matter, regardless of whether that’s true or not. In some cases, I suppose that’s worth something by itself. You can sleep easy at night, feeling like you found The Answer.

But in cases of measles outbreaks, where someone’s random internet conspiracy ends up endangering the lives of thousands? That same “I’ll Google the answer” tendency can become deadly. And don’t get me started on climate change, a thing that might once have been debatable but which now has become almost incontrovertible as more evidence has piled up, regardless of what politicians and pundits might wish to believe.

I’m still going to search the internet for questions I have. I don’t think it’s possible for me to resist the urge. But I’ll also try to keep in mind that my fifteen minutes of internet searching might feel quite “thorough” to me, but it doesn’t make my results have the same weight as someone who’s an actual trained expert.

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