Friday, April 19, 2013

The "information" age

With all the technology we have, and methods of communication, people are sharing more information than ever, benefiting science, industry, and raising the quality of life.


Ahem. Excuse me. By now we all know that sometimes I can't help but be a bit cynical. At present, here in the "future", we do have more methods of communication than we once did. But have we actually overshot the balance between enough and too MUCH information?

As a young scientist, I would have told you in any situation that more data is better. How could it not be? As I get older and become more experienced, though, I'm less sold on this debate. During my first sampling trip, I didn't take down enough data about the sample sites. At one point I made a typo and all of the sample names were shifted. It took hours to fix this. What a pain!

On my second sampling trip, this one to Death Valley during the hottest week of the year, I sweltered and sweated in the sun, recording plants and soil type, location and the corresponding picture number on my camera for each soil sample. A lot of this data was never used, and I suspect that if I had been less concentrated on recording every detail and more focused on the big picture I would have laid out my sample transects a little more efficiently.

There are worse things. For example, Twitter.

Ok ok stop glaring at me! I know some people love Twitter. It's not necessarily Twitter. Or Facebook. Or YouTube or whatever. The bad part is that all of these tell parallel stories but not all are primary sources. To pull out a nerd word, it's pseudoreplication. The fact that two of these information channels say the same thing isn't confirmation that it's true; it only means that one got the information from the other, or they both obtained the information from a secondary source. It's like gossip; one crazy person starts a rumor and it spread exponentially. In 1969, Paul wasn't dead. But one crazy person said he was and then convinced a lot of other people to spread the rumor, which accumulated endless zany proof to support it.

A related problem is that the plethora of information sources have lessened the credibility of all sources. I'm currently on a train going into CT. Amtrak's Twitter and website say that service between New York and Boston (ie, CT and RI) is suspended. But my conductor says that our train is still officially destined for Providence. So, who do I believe? My answer is, none of them. I've made backup plans to stay in NY if needed and a friend willing to pick me up at the station in CT.

Maybe it's always been this way. Rumors have existed from the beginning of time, according to the Bible, with the devil as a snake giving the first piece of misinformation. In some ways, as in that case, we're all called to determine the truth from our experiences and good sense. But on the other hand, if Adam and Eve had seen a Tweet and a post on Facebook about how great the apples are, maybe we'd cut them a little more slack....?

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