Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How the internet make us smart, but makes us feel like idiots

My last post was about a science blog-world kerfuffle. Since I had spent hours looking over these comments, on a few different blogs, trying to pull together the story, and another hour or two writing my post, applying my expert knowledge on how important content knowledge is, I thought I might offer to write a guest blog at the Sci Am blogs about it, and what is to be learned from it all.

The gracious editor responded promptly and gently let me down. Of course, I was two weeks late, and had only grazed the surface of this debate, which played out over more blogs than I realized, as well as on twitter. So I was struck by the irony. Here was a conversation that I felt made me smarter, as I could see the thought processes on display as scientists, journalists and and a collection of otherwise very smart people publicly  turned over these ideas in their heads. But in retrospect I realize now that I was only seeing half the conversation, and not even fully comprehending the context and background of that half that I did see. In other words, even as I felt like I was probing deeply, I was made painfully aware that I was scratching the surface.

Which is an odd paradox of the internet. On the one hand, you can learn just about anything you want with a few felicitous keystrokes. On the other, as you do, you realize how ignorant you really are. Kind of similar to grad school that way. Just as you think you know a lot about a topic, you find someone who has spent years exploring a small slice of that topic.

The thing for me is that this is the _best_ way to use the internet. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating our own information bubble, nodding our heads at people who agree with us but don't challenge us, and failing to confront the boundlessness of our ignorance. The price we pay for valuing education is that we must also seek out ignorance and misunderstanding.

But confronting our own ignorance is uncomfortable and feels shameful. Well. At least for me it did. But I tell myself that the sting is necessary to prod us to learn more... and eventually, confront more ignorance and start the whole damn cycle again.

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