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Bad Information Run Amok

[My column in the Sunday magazine.]

It's dangerous, living in the Misinformation Age. So much of what you hear and read is incorrect, stupid, crazy. Thanks to the Internet, nonsense has been accelerated and globalized. To survive, you need procedures for finding the credible information amid the ocean of idiocy, rumor, superstition, paranoia and thinly disguised commercial advertising. You have to learn to think like a scientist.

Let's say you have to do a term paper on spontaneous human combustion. Thinking like a scientist, you know that the best way to do research is to type "spontaneous human combustion" into the search box of Google. That will quickly lead to scientific data from such sources as Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia that lets anyone write its articles, and in which truth is whatever people decide it is.

The Wikipedia entry on SHC basically says that sometimes for absolutely no reason, a person will go Foof ! and become completely incinerated while nothing else in the room is even scorched. For example, there was a lady who not only suddenly combusted, her skull shrank to "the size of a teacup."

Yes, it borders on the incredible. Therefore you must do what a scientist would do, and say: What exactly is "the size of a teacup"? What brand of teacup? It's not as if the teacup is an officially recognized unit of measurement. Maybe her head shrank to the size of a grapefruit. Stipulate all this so the teacher will know you're not gullible.

Or let's say you are doing a paper on extraterrestrial life. Via the aforementioned scientific method, you will soon be back at Wikipedia, reading about the red rain in Kerala. In 2001, during a monsoon, many tons of red "cells" rained from the sky in India. A scientist argued that they might be a completely new form of life -- alien microbes! -- carried to Earth on a comet that might have exploded in the atmosphere. But if you put on your scientist hat, you'll recall that alien life forms are green not red. A more plausible scenario? The red stuff raining from the sky was human blood.

Defending yourself against misinformation comes in particularly handy when dealing with your own real and imaginary medical problems. Let's say you see a TV commercial for a new prescription drug, featuring a soothing, authoritative narrator:

"Do you sometimes feel a little jittery? Have you ever felt a little anxious or out of sorts? Do you sometimes get a bad feeling about things but can't quite figure out why? Then you may be suffering from a newly discovered disorder known as Chronic Heebie-Jeebie Syndrome . . ."

And so on, with information about the new miracle drug that will solve your malady with only a slight risk of such side effects as infertility, incontinence, dementia, coma and death. So do you call your doctor and demand the stuff? No, you need more hard data. So you go to the Internet and type in your symptoms and discover that you probably have Lou Gehrig's disease.

But hang on: A scientist knows that just because you have one mortal ailment doesn't mean you can't have another. Keep probing, and you may discover that you have a hideous combination of Lou Gehrig's disease and mad cow disease that will ensure that you'll never play baseball or graze again.

Now let's take a particularly dangerous bit of controversial information: Was 9/11 an inside job? According to a recent article in The Washington Post, the people who are most skeptical of the official story about 9/11 assert that not only were there no terrorists involved, there weren't actually any planes. Bombs planted by government agents did everything. These people are known, in 9/11 conspiracy circles, as "no-planers." Of course you don't buy it, because by now your scientific instincts have given you a "nonsense detector," and you realize the conspiracy buffs have ignored the possibility that what we all perceive as "reality" is actually something you have dreamed.

You can't even be sure that other people are not robots programmed to act and sound like normal human beings. You may be a disembodied brain floating in a scientist's vat, with wires controlling your thoughts.

If the stuff you see around you were really "real," don't you think it would make a heck of a lot more sense? Go through the list of things that are so absurd as to be fundamentally suspicious: the international space station, Tom Cruise, synchronized swimming, race-war "Survivor," the resurgent Taliban, Twinkies, "Gov. Schwarzenegger."

Your nonsense detector should be not just tingling, but on fire.


[Speaking of Bad Intel etc.: I've been reading the Woodward book this weekend and it's pretty much as Kakutani in the Times described it in the opening sentence of her review yesterday:

"President Bush emerges as a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war."]

[Here's the official White House response to Woodward.]

By Joel Achenbach  |  October 1, 2006; 10:42 AM ET
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