Information acquisition is very different today than it was a generation ago, and this is both good and bad. Quick internet searches have replaced traditional means of learning through books and trips to the library, and while instant information is certainly convenient, it isn’t always accurate. Worse yet, increasingly more people are relying exclusively on Google, social media, and YouTube and gaining a false sense of confidence in their level of expertise.
Information: Then & now
Before the internet, if one wanted to learn something he/she would need to actively seek information by means of going to the library and/or finding experts that you could consult with directly. Often the effort in gathering new information was quite laborious, resulting in many people quitting their search even before it ever began. These old ways of learning something new weren’t the most efficient, but the effort needed to seek new information had an interesting way of keeping true knowledge in check compared to today. For example, before the internet and social media became such a robust tool for new information (good and bad included), people were not exposed to bad information and instead simply sat with the solid information they already possessed. Compare that model to today where people regularly google questions, and then pick up on the first hits that confirm what they had suspected (confirmation bias). The net result today are millions of people with a false sense of “expertise” built upon flimsy cognitive attempts at learning truth, facts, and reality. Whereas in the past when we didn’t know something we did not attempt to pretend to be an expert, today people spend 5 minutes clicking away on Google and then immediately assume they are an expert.
Knowing less may be better than knowing more…
The true irony today is that by acquiring more information, many people are actually falling behind cognitively with respect to critical thinking, objective measurement, understanding opposing hypotheses and views, and entertaining the notion that there is often nuance to understand when examining complex problems and situations. Today, it is a race to be right and to win arguments, and this has become an easier effort with the unregulated internet just waiting for us to explore by means of our computers, phones, and pads. When we had less information it kept people alert, aware, and open to what might be, and we regularly deferred to experts in their respective fields who clearly knew more than we did. We did not go toe-to-toe and argue with experts like we do today, and we never thought of ourselves as equivalent to experts simply because we acquired a nugget of unverified information online that simply sounded good and aligned with our beliefs.
Stop “doing your own research”
There is so much information available that it is mind-boggling, but a strong argument can be made that while there is more information available, the ways in which we acquire, process, and use information has not been for the better. Increasingly more people actually know less than what they knew a few years ago, and yet they display an aura of confidence that is nearly impossible to cut through with real, valid information. Doing a quick internet search will never lead to equivalence when in the company of true experts in a chosen field. Your 10 minute googling of cancer will never be the same as what an oncologist knows about cancer, nor will your google information provide equal footing with just about any expert from a specific field. Doing research, regardless of the field of study, is quite complex and requires objectivity and a 100% commitment to the search for truth, not simply looking for webpages you can send to friends that “prove” your point. If you have never taken apart a car engine then you don’t know more than a mechanic, regardless of how many Youtube videos you watched today. Similarly, Youtube alone is not going to prepare you to be on par with engineers, physicians, carpenters, psychologists, attorneys, chefs, nurses, chemists, or teachers. All of these experts, plus so many more I cannot list them all, have developed their expertise over years and years of training — effort that cannot be equaled simply because you googled some articles this afternoon.
Ironically, you will often find more insecurity and inquisitiveness from scholars than from laypeople misled into thinking they are experts. When I am in the company of academics, I often witness uncertainty and an ongoing commitment to truth seeking — even at the expense of what the scholar originally hoped or expected. Increasingly more laypeople today, by comparison, display an unwarranted overconfidence built on bad and/or false information that leads them to believe they are right. In fact, when demonstrable evidence is presented, a common counter-move is to end the discussion (and possibly the friendship). We should welcome information that leads to truth, not de-friend those who are actually helping us better understand something we don’t know a lot about.
Yes, we have more information today, but that does not necessarily mean better information, and in fact “more” might actually lead to a decline in knowledge. When more information results in over-confidence not grounded on anything more than simply wanting to be right in an argument, and when true experts are loathed and looked at as equivalent because you “did your own research,” then it becomes clear that more is not always better when it comes to information acquisition.