Tuesday, September 19, 2006

"The Sting of Ignorance"

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an article by Harvard Medical School professor Jerry Avorn detailing his experience with a toxic jellyfish tentacle, an emergency medical team powered by conventional wisdom, and the omnipotence of the internet.

One of the unmistakable points of his piece, however, is the paramount importance of doing one's own research. Not taking others' suggestions at face value. Not blindly following the lemmings who lead the way. Not falling in the rut of "we've always done it like this..." No -- there is much to be said for personally looking into a thing to gain a greater understanding of it.

True, when using the internet, one must be careful of one's sources. But that's true of any research project.

I use the internet so much on such a consistent basis, that I find it hard to remember how I ever fared without it. But I am amazed at how haphazard many students and other users are toward what it has to offer.

It's not that they're unfamiliar with the computer or the internet. They know how to use all the pieces of the research puzzle quite competently. But too often, they're not entirely sure how to assemble the pieces in order to come up with a discernable picture.

The problem, I fear, is not a lack of information. Nor is it that the information is somehow difficult to access. The problem is simply that solid research skills are taught less and less. To many students, all sites are created equally -- they carry equal academic weight, are equally factual, and equally impartial and unbiased.

My friend TG and I have had many discussions on several variations of this theme.

When she taught at the university level, she routinely ran into administrators who told her not to "waste time" teaching things like critical thinking and research skills. Often, classes such as literature, comparative studies, and writing intensives that would make use of such skills were eliminated entirely from the curriculuum. Instead, they were replaced with things like "keyboarding," "business writing," and other benign courses designed not to educate, but to turn out cubicle drones.

I am inclined to agree with Avorn when he categorizes the internet as one of the three most useful medicines he knows (along with aspirin and acetominophen). It places potent information at our fingertips. It remains to be seen, however, how long we consider information valuable enough to ascertain that it remains free and available to all.