Wednesday, December 10, 2008

From where does authority vest in a post-Internet era?

Reading Ben Goldacre's excellent Bad Science book&column, and reading Robert Peston's exemplary explanation of recent economic trends, and (just hot off the press) the latest judgment reversal by the the IWF, one could be confused about where real authority lies and from where it vests.

I think the problem is that the Internet (and before it, mass media like daily (tabloid) newspapers, radio and TV, while democratizing those previously elite owned systems, also removes the metadata that gives the information its authority.

Goldacre lambasts folks like "nutritionists" for having bogus qualifications (from non "accreddited" organisations) and for citing research that is not "properly" peer reviewed.

Let me say that we came very close in Cambridge University recently to not bothering to have our computer Science degrees accredited by the IEE (IET) and BCS because their processess were so annoying. Let me say that I have been on about 5 programme committees and 3 journal editor duties a year for 20 years and I frequently see papers published which are "peer reviewed" and do not disclose all the information necessary to verify, validate or reproduce (or, more scientifically correctly speaking, to falsify potentially) the results.... ....

so this has all gotten worse because of the Internet, the Web, Google, and Wikipedia etc

The authority possessed previously by Banks, Governments, Medical Science, the Church, partly vested in Big Buildings - impressive looking temples (go look at the bank of england or houses of parliament or guy's hospital - all look like ancient greek theophilists dreams:), all go to make the little guy (or even the middle man - trader, investor, sick patient or supplicant) to trust that the organisation the building stands for wont vanish or fall down ("fly by night").

Now this has all gone - sub prime and fine mortgages, good and bad shares, medical information and nutritionist marketting/misinformation, and random religions (flying spaghetti monsters and the scientologists) are all on a level playing field in the Flat Earth Infosphere...

How could we fix this? what could we add (and I am not just talking about syntactic sugar like the so-called semantic web) information that would lend support to people's discernment (learning and retaining) ? what would go to show that some item was the result of discipline and investment of real effort, rather than (like this blog itself) just a fad/fashion/press release?

I don't know, but we sure need it for all our wealth, health and sanity... ... ...


SDJ said...

"...what would go to show that some item was the result of discipline and investment of real effort, rather than (like this blog itself) just a fad/fashion/press release?"

Perhaps such authority will vest on the basis of the price people are willing to pay - in terms of money, time and/or effort - to acquire the item (or other items from the same source), over a sustained period of time.

I add "a sustained period of time" because, of course, people will devote a hell of a lot of money, time and effort to fads and fashions. Conversely, however, not all "discipline and investment of real effort" is necessarily going to be considered as worthy of reward.


Daniel Gyllstrom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Gyllstrom said...

In my opinion, the difficulty (and often inability) to verify the integrity of information/facts found on the web is a scary problem. There is a spectrum of consumers of Internet data. On one hand, you have people that put forth their best effort to objectively consider the integrity of the information (by say synthesizing this new information with their current body of knowledge and/or searching for other sources that confirm or dispute the claims they have read). On the other end of the spectrum, there are consumers that assume everything they read online is true (perhaps out of naivete or just wanting to believe something). The potential (dire) consequences for the latter group are the scariest in my mind. For those in the first group (e.g., those doing their best to evaluate facts from the web) their job is difficult, if not impossible. We (as computer scientists) can do better than that.

Having said this, I do not know how to best tackle this problem with the current Internet. I need to think about that some more, especially since I think it's an immensely difficult task. Maybe we need a redesign of the entire Internet (this is not the first impetus for doing so)?

On a lighter note, the Onion has a nice story on this topic:

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