Sunday, December 1, 2013

Post-Encyclopedic Apocalypse

When I was a little girl, everything I wanted to know could be found in the World Book Encyclopedia, the newspaper, or by listening to Walter Cronkite. These were trusted sources, and I knew I could count on them to tell me the truth.

The encyclopedia had history, science, and all sorts of interesting things in it; if they made a mistake, or discovered something new to add to a selection, it was published in the yearbooks they sent to us every year. I loved putting the stickers on the appropriate pages and reading the new, or corrected, information; I liked knowing that even people who wrote encyclopedias learned new things and didn't hesitate to let the rest of us know.

When our newspaper found an inaccuracy in a story, it printed a retraction where people could easily see it. When Cronkite made a mistake, he corrected it with a sincere apology while looking right into our eyes.

I grew up, the world changed, and information became available at the click of a mouse. I taught my own children not to trust sources; I taught them to question, to compare, to narrow in on the truth and discount repetition as a propaganda tool. I think they've gotten pretty good at doubt, as have I.

It's a survival skill, and we are survivors.

I like the wide variety of fact and opinion available to me, and I wouldn't want to go back to those limited sources. But, often, I miss the scrutiny they were under; I miss the attention to detail, the drive on their part to get it right, the emphasis on providing factual information. They tried to eliminate bias; even though they didn't always succeed, it was their goal. If they fell short, their readers and listeners reminded them to try harder. Information runs the gamut now; some of it is very well researched, filled with facts, and as trustworthy as ever. Some of it is not, and it's becoming increasingly hard to know what to believe.

Sometimes, even doubt isn't enough.


VanBeads said...

I love this, Cynthia. Thank you for writing it!

As a college student, I can remember the classes that I took in library and research skills. As a science major, those things were emphasized as being very important, and even though I'm doing the exact opposite of science right now, what I learned is still useful.

We learned how to check our sources. We learned what qualifies as a reliable academic source and what did not. We learned what peer-reviewed journals were. We learned the difference between scientific journals and periodicals.

It's so, so important that we continue to teach these skills to our kids. I wish I had learned it before college.

Shirley Moore said...

Yep, I'm doing the same as you with my kids, teaching them to check lots of sources, and then to form their own opinion based on the information, not on what everyone else thinks.

Cindy Holsclaw said...

Very insightful post! I'd echo what Jen said about checking your sources, and I'll add an old Japanese proverb: "If you believe everything you read, better not read."