Garbage In, Garbage Out

At one time or another, those of us who teach despair of the whole educational enterprise. We entertain the dark suspicion that some people simply can’t make use of information–that their ability to reason is faulty, that they are unable to consider and evaluate evidence to reach sound conclusions.

Happily, I’m wrong.  At least, that’s the conclusion reached by researchers at Princeton,  When a wrong choice is made, the researchers found that it might be the information rather than the brain’s decision-making process that is to blame.

The results of the study were reported in Science Daily, and the experiment involved very simple types of information; nevertheless, if the conclusions are replicated, the importance of good education and accurate journalism increases.

If human decision-making depends upon the quality of the information available, those of us in the information-providing business have an ethical obligation to provide information that is sound and verified. In public school classrooms, that means teaching science in science class,not religion. It means teaching American and constitutional history in much more depth. It means introducing students to the world beyond America’s borders–the world they will increasingly interact with, and about which they will need solid information.

As important as education is, the information we are fed daily is even more consequential. In a country that celebrates free expression, we can’t mandate truth in journalism–and even a cursory trip around the internet will demonstrate how much  unreliable and delusional “information” is out there. In the age of the internet, it’s increasingly difficult to separate fact from opinion and both from outright propaganda. When we relied upon daily newspapers and the evening news–the “legacy” media–we missed a lot, but those journalists generally followed an ethical code that required independent verification of information before it was reported. In today’s news environment, with the 24-hour “news hole,” speed often trumps accuracy even for the more responsible media–and there are more and more irresponsible media outlets competing for our attention.

We can’t make good decisions if we don’t have trustworthy information.

The Princeton study validates a couple of old sayings: “it ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you; it’s what you know that just ain’t so.”   And the even pithier, “garbage in, garbage out.”

1 Comment

  1. I came across a fine quotation from Thomas Jefferson the other day that fits nicely: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” (This is from a letter to a friend written in 1816.)

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