Friday, August 21, 2009

Searching Questions

I do find it odd that people still treat the Internet as an unreliable resource for facts. Many library staff don't seem to trust Wikipedia, for instance.

Of course, in a market place you have to watch your purse, not buy any old thing unexamined, or get too excited by someone on a soapbox, but generally you can find what you want if you take your time.

As ever, I don't think of things in black and white. The OED and Encyclopedias may well have gone through fact-checking editors, etc , and can present relatively objective facts - but even Encyclopedias don't always agree on those 'facts'.

“Certitude belongs exclusively to those who only own one encyclopedia.” - Robert Anton Wilson

I do use these old reliable resources for simple matters of fact like the date of a king's coronation.

Bare facts, or fine detail?

For detailed research, however, the internet (taking Wikipedia as a perfect example) has compilations of detail that Encyclopedias (in their necessary compression and brevity) can't possibly compete with.

Taking an example from my own knowledge base, I checked out 'Juggling' (no entry, but found 'Juggler') in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and got a not very helpful 289 words or so, mostly about circus.

In Wikipedia you find a Juggling entry written by experts - with not only the speculative history of origins, lists of famous jugglers and their feats, but also the history of the last few decades when this obscure skill or art form became a hugely popular pastime as well as developing rapidly in both the entertainment world (skill levels have rocketed) and in the nutty, obsessive Guinness Book of Records mode. Links to animations and videos on how to learn; links to books, classes, and other deeper resources like the Internet Juggling Database (which includes lists like 'every film ever made with a juggling scene in it, or even a background character juggling).

Contribute to knowledge

Now not all those facts prove accurate (I had to correct the number of people at the first juggling convention, because I attended as one of the participants, and had first-hand knowledge). But the wiki structure means I CAN correct and tweak these facts. And yes, I gather people sometimes get territorial about certain areas of Wikipedia (much the way academics used to form a closed shop to alternative theories, while writing up their 'objective' encyclopedia entries!)

Learn to assess information

So even if some 'facts' online have got lazily copied and pasted around, have lost their source reference, or become misquoted - for inspiration justifying further search and verification it seems hard to fault the Web.

Training in assessing results, judging and estimating the value of information sources and resources, etc seem an extremely useful part of any future educational projects. Surely the combination of detective and investigative journalist could appear inviting to inquisitive children, if their exams didn't get based around finding 'the right answer' or 'the truth'.

The sooner people discover that 'hard facts' rarely prove that simple or obvious, and we all learn to hold back from jumping to conclusions or relying on just one Book or source of knowledge to the exclusion of others - and see what we know in terms of probabilities rather than certainties - the sooner we may achieve a more intelligent, tolerant, generous world. IMHO.

I thank you for listening to this rant.

[The speaker climbs down from his soapbox, picks it up and walks away].

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