Thanks to the internet we can stay in touch with friends and family a little easier than trying to coordinate STD calls and at probably far less cost than we could 20+ years ago (free wifi and email and/or Skype calls anyone!!). We can trade in goods and services without stepping into a store. We can share ideas and form communities with people we've never seen “in real life". Perhaps in many ways the concept of the real world now irreversibly incorporates the digital self. Thanks to the rise of search engines over the last decade our digital and real self has access to more information than ever before.
Searching is king ...
With more and more information available in digital form the ability to search and collate information is perhaps even more important. Thankfully from simple beginnings in the mid 90’s search engines have improved. When internet goliath Google (now its own verb) whose origins was from within academia, pioneered linking advertising to search results the ability to find what you are looking for exploded. Google had found a way to make money while providing an index for free. There were already a number of free search indexes available, however Google seemed to better invest its dollars into service improvements, with its user base (and IPO) perhaps proving their approach was right. It seems at first glance to be a virtuous relationship.
However, Google indexes only a fraction of the available content on the internet. Within this fraction of the internet algorithms filter the search results based on a number of critiera including and not limited to the influence of advertising (paid results) and what you and others have searched for (popular searches). The potential dark-side to the search engines is the algorithms decided you should be able to see.
The rise of the factoid
Aside from the algorithmic influence on what people find when searching online, search engines have also lead to an increase in people finding the facts to support or refute an argument. At first glance this seems to be a fantastic result. However it is not uncommon for unverified statements to be presented as fact, or information which may be true in a given context but presented with the context missing. This collation of information can be called the factoids.
By way of example renewable energy discussions seem to be a popular area for the production of factoids. Such as “Country/Region X products Y% from renewable energy, renewables are cheaper/better/win”. While this may be a true statement in a given context, what is the context?
Questions I ask include was the measurement during one day, one week, one month, or one year? Was the denominator of the percentage the total amount of electricity or the total energy consumed (which would include transport)? What is the country/region using to produce energy when renewable energy does not?
Don't get me wrong, I think renewable energy should be an important part of the energy production mix (I pay for 100% wind for example), but cringe whenever I see factoids. This is because I think a war of factoids does more to undermin discussions than support them. It is a "I see your part-fact and raise my part-fact, so there" approach with good debate and knowledge formation being collatoral damage.
What to do?
In an ocean of information how does one sift through the factoids for the facts?
One way is similar to the approach mentioned in the piece "Is it really signficant?". The good defence when a factoid is presented to support or counter an argument is to ask questions. What is the factoid's context? Within the discussion taking place is the factoid being presented appropriate or is it an attempt to redirect the argument? Is the scale or scope of the factoid meaningful in terms of the discussion? Is there any data or evidence supporting the factoid or is it simply opinion represented as fact? Is the time scale of the data appropriate, or has a sub-section of the data been selected.
When considered with appropriate questions perhaps factoids can be seen for what they are, pieces of information potentially contributing to a discussion. Questions can help us ensure knowledge is not collatorial damage in the factoid wars.
Spreading the word
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Thinkyness came about from the charming @Perorationer who often tweets Jan & Noely in the morning with a random article he has found that would make you think, could be anything from Women in the 1800's to a potential world wide wine shortage which we would then discuss, obviously this led on to us tweeting each other #Thinkyness articles [...] more
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