The following article by Monica Hesse entitled “The truth is not there” was published in the Lifestyle section of the Star on 26th May 2008.

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How many legs does a dog have, if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg – Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln never said this. He liked a similar, more long-winded anecdote about a cow, but the dog version? Nope. Still, the quote is credited to Abe on some 11,000 different websites, including quote resources Brainy Quote and World of Quotes.

Inhabitants of the Wiki-world, consider these random but related events, most of which pertain to the under-25 set, all of which occurred in the past sixmonths:

– The launching of Cumul.us, a wiki-weather site in which users can collaboratively decide whether it is raining outside.

– The release of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, Farhad Manjoo’s exploration of the “cultural ascendancy of belief over fact”.

– The addition of “collateral misinformation” to UrbanDictionary.com. The entry: “When someone alters a Wikipedia article to win a specific argument, anyone who reads the false article before the ‘error’ is corrected suffers from collateral misinformation.”

– And a scholar at the Hoover Institution performed an experiment with totally unsurprising results: When 100 terms of US history books were entered into Google, the topics’ Wikipedia articles were the first hits 87 times.

All these examples are signs of the times.

And all of them get at a big question: For the Google generation, what happens to the concept of truth and knowledge in a user-generated world of information saturation?

Of course, the information might be right. In one study, published in Nature, that reviewed scientific entries side-by-side, Wikipedia was found to be only slightly less reliable than Encyclopedia Britannica (four errors to Britannica’s every three). There’s at least a decent chance that the wisdom of the crowds is fine wisdom indeed.

The main concern is the fact that, without peer review, it’s so easy to be wrong, and for your wrongness to become the top Google hit on a subject, and for your wrongness to be repeated by other people who think it’s right, until everyone decides that it’s raining in Phoenix.

Information specialists call it the death of information literacy. Information is about, tidbits, crumbs of data. Information can be carried around on a Trivial Pursuit card. Information says: “It’s currently 35 degree Centigrade in Anchorage.”

Knowledge is different. Knowledge is about context, about knowing what to do with accumulated information. Knowledge is saying:: “Dude, based on what I know of Alaska, it’s never 35 degree Centigrade in Anchorage.”

Joining librarians as trench warriors for truth are some teachers, from grade school though college.

Mike Grill, who teaches Advanced Placement government at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, describes the progression when he makes his students do a research paper.

“At the beginning of the year their sources will be some crank blog,” Grill says. “Or they’ll cite The Daily Show as a source, as in ‘Jon Stewart said so’.” Grill says his students quote opinions as facts, and rarely consider whether the source is a person of authority.

For the six-week research project, he puts them through detox: limiting their online sources to a maximum of three, making them use library reference desks, dealing with their assertions that anything found in a book couldn’t be very useful – wouldn’t the information be, like, way outdated?

Anna Johnson, a George Washington University freshman from Iowa, sympathises with Grill’s students. “I got through my first semester without checking out a book,” she says sheepishly.

But during her second semester, she had the mandatory freshman seminar, which partners each section with a librarian to combat the decline of information literacy and is all the rage in liberal arts programmes these days.

At first, “I got really overwhelmed” by all the information, says Johnson. “The idea of having original thought completely terrified me.” Once she realized how much information was out there,the idea of synthesising it seemed impossible.

There is a lot of information out there.It overwhelms us. It grows at a choking rate.

You wonder: Who is right?

The student who lives online? Or the lame teacher who thinks that books are a necessary component to a well-rounded understanding of how information works?

As students must absorb increasingly more information throughout their education, perhaps expecting them to assess whether it’s true is simply too much. Four errors to Britannica’s three ain’t bad – and probably good enough for the research the average person does on a daily basis.

“The lessons that come through understanding a process should never become a thing of the past,” Grill says.

Online help

Chad Stark is a thirtysomething librarian from Hyattsville, Maryland, manning AskUsNow, a 24/7 online chat open to Maryland residents who need research help.

He accepts a question, from a user who wants to know the distance between New Jersey and Venezuela for a science project on migration.

Stark asks which cities in New Jersey and Venezuela, explaining that this variable could drastically change the answer.

The user seems annoyed. “It’s just science homework, dude. No need for such crazy accuracy.”

Stark finds the distance using two random cities, then answers three more questions from the same patron, including, “In what continent is Venezuela?’

Stark stares at the screen for a second before typing in “South America”. He doesn’t bother to cross-reference this information.

“This kid doesn’t know where Venezuela is, but he managed to log on and use this service,” Stark says quietly. “That is pretty amazing.” – LAT-WP.

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I hope you find it illuminating. By the next regular GE in 2013, more and more of all eligible voters will be of the younger generation therefore I sincerely hope that wisdom in knowing the difference and having the courage to make a difference is not lost in a Google search.