credibilityI had a crazy English professor in college. She started the semester off by telling us we were all getting A’s and that this class was about self-discovery. The liberal arts students mostly took it seriously. The rest of us science and engineering students pretty much blew the class off and spent time on our “real” classes. For example, one day a few of us walked in and the prof wasn’t there yet. Somebody walked up to the board and wrote “Class is cancelled” and then wrote the date and the prof’s name. We all left and future students saw the note, and, thinking it was legit, they left too. By the time the professor arrived, she had no choice to but to comply with the note that she didn’t write. We actually got out of two classes, but the second one was even worse than the normal classes. She spent the entire class talking about authority. It was painful enough that we never pulled the stunt again* so I guess she got her way, one way or another.

I think back on that regularly and chuckle, but that whole scenario is applicable to what we deal with on the internet every day. Some random person writes an article and bam, it’s fact. We all joke “It must be true, I saw it on the internet”, but then time and time again we get sucked into giving something way too much credit because it’s on a website that looks like it must be legit. Whether it’s diagnosing a disease, predicting earthquakes, or one of millions of other topics, the ability to understand how much authority or credibility the author has is so important. I don’t know how to teach this to my son, but it’s high on my list of things that I want him to learn. How do you pick up a piece of text and decide how much to believe it?

We used to base a lot of decisions and beliefs on common knowledge from our local circles, but now we have access to huge amounts of actual data on a huge range of topics. Seeking out that data is a good step, but you still have to be able to filter out the human interpretation of the data. It’s not like the old days where you had to be a published author to get read. Now any yahoo with a computer can write on the Internet and pretend they know what they are talking about …

* Well… we never pulled it again on her. Back then mail servers were much less secure/complex so somebody sent an email that appeared to be from one of our profs to the entire class saying class was canceled. They were careful to not include the prof on the email.