Sunday, September 14, 2008

Who vets the web?

Anyone who has visited amazon.com to order my new book will perhaps have noticed a surprisingly large number of reader reviews for a book that has only just been made available. A closer look will reveal that all of these reviews are part of something new called the Amazon Vine Program.

According to Amazon: "Vine is a program that enables a select group of Amazon customers to post opinions about new and pre-release items to help their fellow customers make educated purchase decisions. Customers are invited to become Amazon Vine Voices based on the trust they have earned in the Amazon community for writing accurate and insightful reviews. Amazon provides Amazon Vine members with free copies of products that have been submitted to the program by vendors. Amazon does not influence the opinions of Amazon Vine members, nor do we modify or edit their reviews."

What this means, I suppose, is that my publisher provides free copies of my book to Amazon, which then passes them on to readers who undertake to provide a review. And so Web 2.0 -- the democratization of web content -- further extends its all-embracing reach.

I will take my publisher's word for it that "generating a buzz" in this way is good for sales. It seems to me that the reviews so generated are of an uneven quality, and utterly predictable. Given the fact that the vast majority of Americans are believers in the supernatural, I wouldn't expect the untargeted provision of review copies of my more skeptical book would serve the cause -- but what do I know? The score, so far, is pretty good. Buzz is buzz, they say.

Is the democratization of web content a good thing? Certainly, as a card-carrying member of the blogosphere, I shouldn't suggest otherwise. As a good democrat I should be all for it. So bring it on. The whole glorious, anarchic flood of user-generated content. MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, Wikipedia, Amazon reviews, spam. The essence of the Internet is its promiscuousness. No more gatekeepers between sources and consumers of information. No more authorities telling us what we should or can read.

But let's not suppose that this promiscuity of content is without peril.

A few keystrokes will bring into our homes newspapers of record and the ravings of madmen, works of art by the great masters and by Sunday painters, Shakespeare's plays and the scribbles of the person next door, stock market wisdom and money-gouging scams, science and pseudoscience -- a vast unsorted sea of information and opinion, some valuable, some off the wall. Amazon reader reviews? You would be surprised to discover just how many unscrupulous writers have their friends stack the deck with raves.

We have entered the Age of Unfiltered Information.

Previously, we obtained information from books, magazines, newspapers, radio, television, libraries and schools. Editors, librarians, and teachers decided what information is "true," "legitimate," "useful" or "appropriate." This had certain advantages. We were saved from drowning in a sea of superfluous information. We were instructed by those who are wiser and better educated than ourselves. Our society gathered a stabilizing degree of cohesiveness.

By contrast, the Internet is a gate flung wide open. The loony web pages of civilian militias are as readily accessible as the web pages of a Nobel prize-winning peacemaker. The web pages of the International UFO Museum and Research Center have equal standing with the web pages of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This all-inclusive anarchy can be exhilarating, liberating, fun. For the first time in history, individuals can interact with the world of information without the constraints of official filters. The schools are fast becoming obsolete as purveyors of facts; facts come flooding from our computers faster than we can assimilate them. What the schools must now provide -- and quickly! -- are skills of critical thinking. Our children must learn to become their own gatekeepers.

How does one filter the information that gushes from the net? How does one distinguish information that has the backing of a broad base of educated opinion from fringe or crackpot information? In which web pages can we place our trust without the risk of getting burned?

Let's say a kid in a science class does a net search for "cold fusion." She gets over 5 million hits, more information than she could have obtained in a dozen years of teachers and books. However, these hits range the gamut from respectable scientific research to the incoherent thoughts of perpetual motion cranks. And to make things more confusing, some of the goofier opinions are found on the glitzier web pages. How does the student separate the wheat from the chaff?

Another student finds his way to the classy home page of the Institute for Creation Research in California. He notes that the institute has a faculty with Ph.Ds, a graduate program, a Science Education Center, even a list of ideas for science fair projects -- all the trappings of real science. How is the student to know that the Institute for Creation Research has pariah status within the professional scientific community?

The Internet is like a vast marketplace of ideas where every purveyor has the same size stall. Some stalls are decked out with neon and flashing lights; others are shabby and drab. Some stall-keepers promise the world; others offer only modest helpings of "fact." Where does one shop?

If we are to live in a society without information gatekeepers, we must educate our children to be open-minded but skeptical, tolerant of diversity but passionate about truth, respectful of received opinion but equipped with tried-and-true critical skills of history, rhetoric, logic, statistics, and the experimental method.

A vigorous marketplace of ideas is healthy, but a society needs a certain degree of shared conviction if it is not to disintegrate into anarchy. If all ideas in the marketplace are equal, then no ideas will truly matter.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.