issue (No. 27,
September 2001), I quoted the great Arts & Letters Daily, who
speak of “vast mountains of low-grade ore” on the Internet, and who are
committed to panning for “precious nuggets of content”.
face it: 90% of the stuff on the Internet is crap.
Let me testify right away, however, that the other 10% is
pure gold, and it is in such precious places that the
Internet redeems itself. Trouble is, for some people it’s
difficult to be sure whether the information they turn up
is dross or treasure.
fool’s gold problem has come up before in this column. In Issue 15 (September
1999), for example, I wrote of the dangers of thoughtlessly accepting
the superabundance of electronic medical advice at our disposal. You’ll
recall also that in Issue 26 (July
2001) Fizzgig apologised for factual errors in the From the Back
Verandah column of Issue 7 (May
1998), some of which derived from uncritical acceptance of Internet
are difficulties in other areas as well.
instance, the cases of rumour and urban myth. Showbiz gossip, I sincerely
hope, can usually be seen for what it is, tittle-tattle of insignificant
consequence, though I dare say there are many who carry Fox Mulder’s motto
close to their hearts: they want to believe. But what about those
anecdotal odds and ends that become solidified into myth?
abounds in conspicuous examples, of course, almost all fuelled by greed or
wishful thinking. We only have to recall, say, these obvious instances of
overselling, if not fraud: Tulipmania, the South-Sea Bubble investment
scandal, as well as the cases of Ern Malley (Australian poet fabricated in
the 1940s), Piltdown Man, crop circles, cold fusion and UFOs.
mention a revived interest since 11 September 2001 in Nostradamus. Indeed,
in our own day, the Internet has hardly been backward in offering rumour
and myth, but in this case therapies are readily to hand using that
selfsame technology. A good place to start, if you ever suspect you’re
being hoaxed by something you read or download, is the About Network’s
Internet Hoaxes, Urban Legends, Rumors and Other Digital Lies.
further afield now, I want to move on to the hassles afforded by the
Internet for the millions of school kids — and their teachers — who remain
dependent on it.
Surely the Net is there to assist students, not hinder them?
gone by, the books on reading lists had been previously vetted carefully
by education committees, and, since it was a rare student who ventured
further than the prescribed selection of texts, the sources that pupils
consulted could be relied on. These days, however, schoolchildren are
exposed to the Internet from their kindergarten year onwards, and it is
becoming increasingly hard for their teachers (especially in secondary
school) to direct them solely to valid material, when error and bias are
but a mouse click away.
seems to me that already overloaded teachers now have the added burden of
teaching their students discernment in information seeking at a much
earlier age than previously. Once upon a time this outlook might have been
required of honours history classes, but now if not learnt in the first
years of secondary school all sorts of difficulties await the student at
every hyperlink that offers itself.
way you look at it, the germane questions for reliability testing have
always been these:
as regards quality, objectivity and “truth”, the Net itself provides some
excellent guidance, with most of the best suggestions on the subject of
information validation being offered by those unsung heroes and heroines
of the research world — librarians.
we ever fall into the trap of regarding the Net as just a big computerised
library, I first want to refer to the essay collection Cyberlines:
Languages and Cultures of the Internet (Donna Gibbs and Kerri-Lee
Krause, eds.). In a review that Harlish Goop referred me to, in the June
2000 issue (Vol. 8, No. 1) of Australian Style, one essayist
(Juliet McLean) is quoted as writing that, while the Net may seem to be “a
giant library with almost infinite resources”, it is no library at all,
merely a collection of “unevaluated trash”. Another contributor (Ross
Todd) distinguishes between the World Wide Web and libraries this way: the
former is “full of misinformation, malinformation, messed up information,
and useless information . . . the contrast with the controlled evaluated
contents of a library could not be greater — and yet for glamour the Web
wins hands down”.
useful sites on the subject of Internet information reliability I have so
far tracked down include the following.
novice Net researcher, a good introduction is provided by Angela Elkordy.
Her well set out Web site entitled
Web Searching and Sifting clearly explains the evaluation
process in the form of a series of questions to ask oneself.
Techpage: Evaluating Information on the Internet of D. Scott
Brandt, a technology training librarian, seeks to adapt traditional
information evaluation techniques to the Net environment. His motto is:
“To Search Is Not Necessarily To Evaluate”.
Web Sites: Criteria and Tools is written by reference librarian
Michael Engle. He covers search context, evaluation criteria and Web site
rankings, and appends a helpful “Webliography”.
Floridi (a research fellow in philosophy), in his
Internet as a Disinformation Superhighway?, takes a more academic,
theoretical approach, one that is readable and of use, however. For him,
“the fundamental questions remain human and social”, not technical.
Harris, a Professor of English, runs
Internet Research Sources, which is both academic and practical.
Evaluating Information Found on the Internet by Elizabeth E. Kirk
is another good piece, with a strong message on bias. Her closing
paragraph includes this warning: “If you find information that is ‘too
good to be true’, it probably is.”
the Information Quality WWW Virtual Library,
Information Sources is maintained by Alastair Smith. This
is a comprehensive list of links for librarians and others who are
“selecting sites to include in an information resource guide, or informing
users as to the qualities they should use in evaluating Internet
Evaluate sub-site at the University of California, Berkeley
provides some hands-on exercises for students to test their ability to
assess Web pages for authenticity and integrity. Actual sites are listed
for scrutiny, together with recommended questions and techniques.
U.S. University — Stanford — has a “Persuasive Technology Lab”, where a
major goal is to understand what leads people to believe what they find on
the Web. To this end they are conducting ongoing quantitative research on
several aspects of Web credibility. Some of their fascinating research
they publish on their site,
Stanford Web Credibility Research.
I should mention a site dedicated to the fundamental skills of “reading
and writing ideas as well as words”—
Critical Reading, put
together by Dan Kurland. It is his mission to show students “how to
recognize what a text says, what a text does, and what a text means, by
analysing choices of content, language and structure”. His pages, in other
words, set out to show what to look for and how to think about what you
commentators may conveniently be summarised as follows:
the authority and trustworthiness of the author (organisational
affiliation, position in an organization, availability of contact
the temperateness of the opinions offered (balance, objectivity)
find other sources that support the author’s viewpoint (i.e. apart from
those that merely quote it)
that any source quoted can be corroborated
stability of the information presented (currency and accuracy)
particular care when accepting views expressed in unsupervised discussion
stuff, as I think you’ll agree. All Dr. Bikwil can add for those sifting
the significant from the worthless on the Internet is the advice, “I
prescribe a gentle dose of scepticism, to be taken once per Internet