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Saturday, August 8, 2009

The gatekeepers of knowledge

Howard Rheingold recently blogged on evaluating the quality of information. A good post - he says about the same as in thousands of similar texts, but does such a good job that I'll probably use this as a standard text in class for a while. This is quality because he both includes the latest cool tools, but makes his discussion fundamentally about attitude, not gizmos.

The basics here are of course critical thinking and source evaluation - good 19th century skills, it's just that kids have to start learning this stuff earlier nowadays and we have new tools to help us. It would be possible to lament the emergence of a world that requires these changes - wasn't it better when our main access to information was books, with their more rigourous editing process? Andrew Keen has built a whole career lamenting the disappearance of the 'gatekeeper'. He is mostly focused on news and culture, but the idea is valid everywhere: "Before", most of our media exposure was vetted by experts, so what you read in books, for example, you could mostly count on. "Now", any idiot with a modem can publish, so we all have to be our own gatekeepers about thousands of topics we are not experts on. (The Telegraph's technology blogs are a hotspot for the debate around 'gatekeepers'.)

What really got me thinking was a comment on Rheingold's post by someone called dogu4: "Questioning one's sources is useless, unless one is questioning oneself as well. Consider many of the supposedly irrefutable facts regarding human health just in the last decade or so". A seed in the back of my head suddenlty became a full-grown douglas fir. I must admit I think about Warren and Marshall a good deal. They are the two Australian scientists who in 1982 found good evidence to link stomach ulcers and h. pylori bacteria. Despite this connection first having been noticed in the 1890s, this finding went against several received truths of medicine and Warren and Marshall had trouble getting their findings accepted. It took well over a decade for the connection between bacteria and stomach ulers to be fully accepted.

Some of the other commenters clearly didn't understand what all the fuss was, but in my worldview, Warren and Marshall are key figures in the history of ideas. Both as a symbol of how knowledge progresses and practically, as a watershed in thinking about infectious diseases. Try a quick thought experiment. Imagine that the Web existed in 1983. Ulcer sufferers searching for information about their condition come across information about h. pylori. The chances are that neither their primary care giver nor their treating gastroentorologist would have heard of the study and that they would have refused to prescribe antibiotics. Within a year or so, so many people would have stumbled across Warren and Marshall's work that the medical establishment would have been prompted to respond more actively to their ideas - mostly likely producing a wave of anti-antibiotic statements from the medical establishment. (In real life, in those pre-Web days, Warren and Marshall were dealt with mostly by ignoring them.)

The point is, it is easy to find examples of how the old 'gatekeeper' model didn't always work. It was just harder to see its weaknesses and harder to get a debate going. The Andrew Keens of the world can lament all they want - the old model has not fallen apart merely because of new technology, but because it didn't always work so well. Now we are groping towards something new. Rheingold's post is a good example of the kinds of ways that are emerging to deal with this new, gatekeeper-less world.

(An example - this spring I did a whirl around American health web sites, checking for their view on feeding raisins to children. I limited my search to 'serious', mainstream sites, mostly those vetted by medical doctors. I did not find a single site that mentioned mycotoxins - they all limited their discussions to considerations for the teeth. It's odd - mycotoxins aren't some kind of secret (just Google the word and see what happens) - do these people know how to publish to the internet, but not how to do basic research? So in this case, I'm left without a 'gatekeeper' to help me sort the data here - I just have to bring all my research skills and critical thinking to bear to make my own decisions.
This is the world we not only have to live in, but prepare our students for. Clinging to the textbook and locking down all computers looks like head-in-the-sand behaviour from here.)

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