Saturday, December 17, 2005

The quality of information

I really should be writing a paper for class right now, but I got distracted, and well, here I am. Hopefully I can keep it brief and get back to writing things that I'm actually going to get graded on.

I've been meaning to write a post about this for a while now, but every time I've started I've kind of run out of gas in the middle. The arguments become too subtle, the examples too longwinded or convoluted, I lose my train of thought and eventually just give up. But here we go again. I guess we'll see how it turns out this time...

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It always goes back to an idea that I remember reading in Job by Robert Heinlein, where the protagonist keeps finding the world around him suddenly changing entirely. Except that [ok, so the following is a spoiler of sorts, BTW, just so you know] it turns out that it's not, really. Things do most certainly change, but it turns out that the changes only take place in the localized region where he can physically experience and interact with it. The rest (like the background of the overall society, its history and all that) only gets changed in the books -- history books, atlases. (It's SF/fantasy, ok? Just accept that it happens so I don't have to spoil the rest of it for you.)

And with all the "he said, she said" business that you find in the blogosphere, my mind always wanders back to that story, and I wonder, how good is the information that's out on the web really. I mean, how good is it *really*. It seemed like all it would take would be enough people to just *say* that something happened in such-and-such a way, and at some point it would hit critical mass and that would be it. But that couldn't happen, right? Is this ringing any bells? Heard about the controversy that's been going on over at Wikipedia recently?

But, y'know? People are talking about this now, which is good. And I figured since that dialog was going on elsewhere in the blogosphere, and probably better thought out and better written, I certainly didn't need to throw in my two cents.

Except that I was just surfing around because of something our new Physiology teacher was talking about at the end of class, when he felt the need (which I must admit, was in response to some specific feedback he was given when he had finished his lecture) to show that he could be an independent thinker, free from the shackles of the iron thumb of the school administration. (Dear god, the mixed metaphors!)

So he decided to talk about the evils of Aspartame. (ironic that I send you to a Wikipedia page, no?) You go, dude. And being a curious monkey and feeling unmotivated, I did a little web searching and, well, it was more of a mixed bag than I had hoped.

One of the first pages I looked at was on Snopes, a site that categorizes Urban Legends. In the past I've found it entertaining as well as an invaluable resource when receiving scare-chain-letters from well-meaning family, friends and acquaintances that urgently need to be forwarded it everyone I know. And their brother. A good site, but not a good sign for the anti-aspartame camp. (Especially since a lot of things our teacher said seemed to parallel points made in the email in question.) But I did note that they cite government organizations (such as the FDA) to debunk the claims, and there are those who suggest that the FDA was on the take. (The Wiki entry covers this somewhat) Unfortunately, most of the links only dismiss the chain letter, and only in broad sweeping terms. And can you really trust a reference from a site called or I did appreciate that the latter article at least addresses the formaldehyde concern with specific numbers. (although those too are called into question by other sources) Well, at least I trust MIT.

So that all made me a little concerned about the temperament of our new instructor. But I dug a little more, and found a few other sites of interest:

Kinda depressing really. And even trying to stay openminded, it certainly raises some questions. But I think that's enough for me; I've got work I need to get done, after all.

However, you might consider bouncing back up to the broader questions about the quality of information and the reliability of sources, where it seems the question fundamentally distills down to: who can you trust?

Again, no answers, but food for thought. Who's saying what, and why... be it a friend, a teacher, a writer or a liarleader.

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