Conspiracy theories, junk science and kooks… Oh my!
Published: Monday, February 6, 2012
Updated: Thursday, July 5, 2012 15:07
Evgeny Morozov is worried about us. More specifically, the scholar (currently at Stanford University) and Slate.com writer is worried about our online information. For example, in his Jan. 23 Slate article, Morozov presents the case of someone who is unsure about whether vaccines are a good idea for babies, or whether climate change is real – and turns to the Internet for answers. Well, once online, as we all know, it's a bit of a free-for-all where reputable peer-reviewed science (telling us that vaccines are a good idea for babies and anthropocentric climate change is real) vies for attention with conspiracy theorists, junk scientists and kooks. As Morozov points out: "as so much of our public life has shifted online, [the conspiracy theorists, kooks, etc.] have branched out into manipulating search engines, editing Wikipedia entries, harassing scientists who oppose whatever pet theory they happen to believe in, and amassing digitized scraps of ‘evidence' that they proudly present to potential recruits".
Morozov's solution? Technology. Yes, Morozov proposes that browsers and search engines could, and should, play a more involved role in how we receive our online information. Why not "train our browsers to flag information that may be suspicious or disputed"? And why not "nudge search engines to take more responsibility for their index and exercise a heavier curatorial control in presenting search results" such that "whenever users are presented with search results that are likely to send them to sites run by pseudoscientists or conspiracy theorists, Google may simply display a huge red banner asking users to exercise caution and check a previously generated list of authoritative resources before making up their minds".
There is a lot to respond to in Morozov's ideas (last time I checked, almost 400 Slate readers had left comments), but what I am particularly struck by in his article — and how he elaborated on his ideas when interviewed — isn't his paternalism or his flirtation with censorship, but rather this: his avoidance of education's role. Call me naïve (you wouldn't be the first), but the real way to address junk science and conspiracy theories is to teach critical thinking. Do not wait to teach such skills to the select few young adults who find themselves in university, but start the process in kindergarten. My five-and-a-half year-old is bombarded by junk messages all of the time, and she and I regularly deconstruct them. What is that advertisement for? What is it telling you? Why?
What Morozov is right about, of course, is that there is a battle. But he's wrong about how it should be waged. For example, Morozov points out that the public face of the anti-vaccine movement is celebrity Jenny McCarthy. Apparently she unabashedly offers that she learned about vaccines from "the University of Google" and she likes to share her vaccine knowledge with her almost half-million Twitter followers.
"This is the kind of online influence that Nobel Prize-winning scientists can only dream of," Morozov writes,"Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous working scientist, has only 300,000 Twitter followers."
As I look up in the lecture hall these days I see lots of students staring into laptops and phones (often there's a phone and a laptop on the same desk). The real, fundamental fight, therefore, isn't about pitting technology against technology. The battle isn't a "better" search engine versus a "worse" search engine. No, the battle is to encourage critical thinking skills, starting with young children, such that we will learn to know junk when we see it (and maybe even learn that it's O.K. to occasionally turn off our screens and pay attention to information in the un-wired world).
Jennifer Good is an Associate Professor in Communication, Popular Culture and Film at Brock University.