I’m back from a conference on the reliability of information on the Internet. The motivation for the meeting was a concern about false information and people’s excessive credulity. There was a lot of talk about the need to educate young people not to believe everything they read online.
I’m beginning to think that credulity may not be our biggest problem. Every belief deserves to be tested. But what can you test a belief or claim against? Answer: other beliefs. In principle, science can proceed like that forever, testing each proposition and each method. But in practice, you can’t make any progress at all unless you treat much of what you know as reliable. If you doubt everything, you can say and do nothing. To borrow Otto Neurath’s metaphor, we are at sea, and we can repair our boat, but only one plank at a time. If we reject the whole thing, we sink.
I mention this because I suspect that some Americans–especially younger ones–suffer from a blanket skepticism. They doubt everything that politicians say, so they tune politics out. They doubt everything that journalists write, so they don’t use the press. And they note the prevalence of disagreement and uncertaintly in medicine, so they allow themselves to ignore all medical advice (especially the painful parts, like “eat your broccoli”). Thus I’m not as concerned about teaching young people to doubt what they read. I’m more interested in helping them to develop some sources on which they can rely.
The graph shows young Americans’ confidence in the press since 1972. (Source: General Social Survey; sample: ages 18-30). The dramatic drop in trust coincides with a steep decline in readership. Alternative news sources such as the Internet and talk radio have not come anywhere close to replacing newspapers as a source of information for young people.