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book review

Seeking reliable facts in new world of knowledge

David Weinberger works at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

How can humans separate what is true from what isn’t? It’s one of the toughest questions in philosophy, so tough that hardly any of us stop to think about it. Yet suddenly, we’ve got no choice. The rise of the Internet has transformed the nature of knowledge in ways that are making us simultaneously smarter and dumber than we realize.

That’s the message of “Too Big to Know,’’ David Weinberger’s insightful new book. Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, doesn’t offer tidy solutions to the dilemmas posed by easy access to near-infinite information. Instead, he’s written a guidebook to this brave new universe of knowledge.

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Information overload has always been with us. For centuries, people have collected far more data than anyone could comprehend. But until recently, our tools for storing knowledge helped us preserve an illusion of mastery. Read a dozen books on a subject, and you’re an expert. But books, by their very nature, are limited in size and content. Even if you wanted to check the author’s footnotes for more information, it was usually impractical to obtain all those other books or articles.

TOO BIG TO KNOW: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room

Author:
David Weinberger
Publisher:
Basic
Number of pages:
231 pp.
Book price:
$25.99

But the Internet is inexhaustible. Footnotes are often clickable hyperlinks, providing instant access. And when information is stored online, it’s subject to constant revision and challenge. Consider the online reference work Wikipedia, where entries are rewritten on a daily or even hourly basis as researchers uncover new facts.

Thanks to the Internet, says Weinberger, the illusion of a fixed body of human knowledge has been annihilated. Instead, knowledge is a network, comprising the shared facts and insights of billions of human minds.

Our knowledge network gets smarter all the time, and we all share in the benefits. When Microsoft Corp. releases its new Windows 8 software this year, it will confuse us utterly at first. But within days, users will have posted millions of comments about the software on various Internet forums, a vast database of reliable information. How to enlarge the screen icons or change the background image? Just run a Google search. The network knows, and learns more every hour of every day.

The networked wisdom of nonexperts can provide vital insights into all sorts of problems. For example, Weinberger tells of InnoCentive, a Massachusetts company that holds Internet-based invention contests. Invent a solution to a difficult technical problem posed by a company or foundation and win a prize.

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The prizes are being won by all kinds of people - for instance, one engineer’s knowledge of cement helped him invent a new way to clean up oil spills. All the world’s oil engineers put together might not have come up with the solution, precisely because they were oil experts. Luckily, the Internet casts a much wider net.

But in the new world of knowledge, bad ideas have as much chance to flourish as good ones. Everybody has a voice, and ignorance can carry as much weight as wisdom. It’s a problem even in the ostensibly rigorous, fact-driven precincts of science. Scientists all tell us to vaccinate our children. But when B-list actress Jenny McCarthy says vaccinations could make your children autistic, thousands of people listen.

So how do we settle upon reliable knowledge, when there are no closed questions and no expert is beyond challenge? Only by getting a lot smarter in evaluating the claims from millions of competing sources using basic standards of trustworthiness and authority - an epidemiologist’s opinion on vaccination deserves more credence than that of a TV star.

At the same time, we dare not tune out the voices of dissenters, agitators, and nonexperts. Sometimes, they’re right, and we pay a high price for ignoring them.

Better to set high standards for our information sources. Insist they justify their claims, with plenty of links to supporting data. The very network that delivers their ideas will help us evaluate those ideas.

No, knowledge isn’t what it used to be, and facts are more plentiful and controversial than ever. But the truth is still out there.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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