“Why do I need to know anything when I have the internet in my pocket?”
With the ubiquity of high-speed internet access and smartphones, some might suggest that there’s no reason to make an effort in learning anything these days, since so much information is just a few finger-swipes away. This is certainly a seductive proposition – it really is an awful lot of work to learn new things… couldn’t we just get an app or something, and call it a day?
Now, I’m not going to argue against data-mining the internet – the information age has simplified and improved many aspects of my own life as a direct result of such effortless access to data. However, it’s important to remember the true nature of the internet, beyond all the information-for-the-masses hype. Think of the internet less like a giant library, and more like the aftermath of a devastating tornado: sure, there’s a library in there – somewhere – but you’re going to have to find it under the wreckage of the old dollar store and the porn shop. Once you finally dig your way down, you’ll find that the fiction is all mixed up with the nonfiction and reference, and – to top it off – a semi truck full of medication advertisements seems to have crashed into the pile…
When you search for anything online, you’re going to be presented with a slew of information: some of it relevant, some of it not, some of it accurate, and quite a lot of it total garbage. It’s important to remember that most of the information floating around in cyberspace was not put there by experts and curated by an army of librarians. The only prerequisite for posting content for the entire world to see is an internet connection: no PhD, no certificate of impartiality or even competency.
Of course, you should make every effort to ensure that your information source is solid, but even if you’re reading a well-edited textbook, it does not absolve you of the responsibility to think critically and evaluate the information yourself. People make mistakes. People have opinions. Even textbook writers. After you’ve made a reasonable effort to find the most reliable information you can get, it’s still up to you to make your own decision whether or not you’re going to accept that information as reasonable and likely to be true, or not.
So how does one go about verifying new information? Well, a first step would be to see how well the new information meshes with what you already know. This is really where it comes in handy to be a lifelong learner and not a bar-stool Googler. The more information about the world that you’ve already assimilated, the more likely it will be that your current research topic will be at least peripherally related to something you already know; this gives you context and a head-start.
Other ways of verifying new information include checking the primary literature (the actual journal articles that first presented the information), checking for conflicts of interest among the authors, seeing how current the information is, etc. I’ll discuss some of these topics in separate articles, but my main point here is that a being a lifelong-learner gives you a HUGE benefit in finding, evaluating, and digesting new information. While a simple internet search can be convenient and can provide you with information…if you haven’t learned how to filter and process that information, it does you little good.
The usefulness of a lifetime of accumulated information lies not in a database of lonely “facts,” but rather in a constellation of interconnected ideas that inform your way of thinking, streamline your approach when interpreting new information, and – most importantly – enrich your experiences as you interact with the world.