Web 2.0 and Judgement — are we losing Science in all this tech?

I was working with a family member and I had the opportunity to be a librarian next to him/her.

The good or bad thing about being a librarian to a family member is that all that professional stuff goes out the window. This person did not enjoy a great reference interview, nor did they get a non-judgemental view of their information need. They got “Ryan” who is close to them and who has rights to tell them straight what he thinks about their reading. It’s not being a good librarian, but it is being a good family member.

So, this family member bragged to me about a tome that the scientist in me just couldn’t let go without a swipe. I want to be fair here, but let’s just say that the resource purports to have a scientific basis, but a closer inspection gives you the idea that the source is questionable at best.

And Ryan the librarian went to demonstrate the sketchyness of the source to said family member. The first strategy, though, was to find a half-decent review. The first weed-through were sources from URLs that would suggest bias in favor of the book. Kind of like if I was searching for a review of a book on the nutritional benefits of apples and could only find reviews from URLs like “applelovers.com” or “musteatapples.org.” These resources were predictably positive and not rigorous at all.

The second weed-through was the Web 2.0 level: basically, Amazon-ish type reviews. And my librarian alarm bells went off yet again. The reviews were also predictably positive, probably because the tome is the sort that would be read only by the community that accepts it. So, this led me to a primary concern about Web 2.0-ish stuff in general.

Web 2.0 means an emphasis on how one expresses the things that a community of practice already accepts or believes to be true.

Clearly, Web 2.0 wasn’t helping my family member in evaluating a resource that he/she was prepared to take quite seriously. All I had left was an analysis of the book itself. So, I searched for a bibliography. Yes! There was one! The book listed some pretty serious resources that could be found in PubMed for instance. That’s pretty impressive.

The author had a PhD as well. So there was something else in the credibility factor that raised the level of acceptance. Sort of.

But there were none. . . zero. . . nada clear references tying the information in the book to the bibliography in the back. I mean, if you are going through the trouble of research, it might be nice to state your articles in context, don’t you think? Or even just of few of them. A PhD should know this fairly well, too. The bibliography articles were also the sort that required context: they were generally esoteric, and the average reader would not be able to map through the bibliography for a clear understanding of what was going on.

An even further route, of course, would be to hit the hardcore databases for citations to the book, but that’s expensive and time consuming and not a very happy thing for a late night visit to a family member’s house.

So, in the end, I had a fairly difficult time warning my family member that he/she could be about to take a bunch of tripe at face value, when maybe — just maybe — I should have been able to find an honest and measured review of the book from a reasonably reliable third-party source. Not happening via Google that’s for sure.

But the big picture from my perspective — and admittedly, this may not be that different from the Web 1.0 scenario — is that we have a huge information source that targets the sources that agree with them. As a general rule, I find that blogs, and other web 2.0 technologies do tend to support rather than challenge views from peers. I also find that those who do challenge others’ views receive a level of ostracism in the online culture.

Blogging appears like dialog, but isn’t exactly. In many ways it is like a rigorous form of bathroom graffiti. The rewards and punishments are there, but they are diffuse compared to real in-person conversations. And the collaborations that occur are not the same. You can correct, even contradict yourself in a conversation as you and your co-speakers attempt to synthesize or negotiate your views. The blog doesn’t have that synthesizing quality. The contradictions are formal, and need to be declared outright.

On the other side of the coin, blogging lacks the kind of personal introspection that the writer of a full-scale book or journal article produces. And the blogger trend is not as scientific either. There are few bloggers out there making clearly falsifiable declarations and testing them out in the real world. Instinct and intuition are the rule, not systematic analysis.

All in all, these are serious questions about the consequences of Web 2.0. The answer, of course, is critical thinking. As I used to tell my Music 1000 students “Don’t tell me what you know. Tell me what you learned.” That is the blogger’s challenge. If bloggers are to be effective, we must fight through all that knowledge in our heads to come up with something we did not know, or would like to learn more about.

There’s a role here for librarians to support this challenge, I am sure.


3 thoughts on “Web 2.0 and Judgement — are we losing Science in all this tech?

  1. *nods* The achilles heel of the “information revolution” has always been the embarrasingly low signal to noise ratio, and in subjects such as these, i don’t see how web 2.0 has helped matters much (maybe even made things worse?). Again that is where we (should) come in, but as human nature often is more inclined to look for supporting information for a previously held position than to actually learn something new (and posibly threatening)…


    At least this post makes me feel much less guilty about how rarely I update my blog… 🙂


  2. Thanks for putting down this frustration in words.

    When I know I’m looking at a book that might be preaching to the choir on a controversial topic at Amazon, I usually look at the reviews sorted by the lowest ratings. Sometimes that can be helpful, but sometimes it’s just pure vitriol.

    Can’t win.


  3. Thanks Meg. I double-checked the reviews for this particular book and, there was only one “lukewarm” review. The contention in this person’s case was more related to some stylistic issues rather than the validity of the content itself.

    I guess the problem is that a scientist wouldn’t touch this stuff with a ten-foot pole. Yet it is tauted by the community as overwhelmingly top-rate. Grrr.


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