Bad information drives out good

Bad information drives out good: a sarcastic way to describe one of the main problems of science communication in the internet age.

Our universities were created to make sure that society receives information that is up to date. In other words, they investigate things and educate future researchers in order to keep society as informed as possible. Until the mid-1990s, the relation between university and society could be described with the “sender-receiver model”, in which the university was some kind of radio transmitting information, which others received.

The rise of the internet has changed this. In the first place because it allows people to select whatever information they like, and in the second place because they can talk back. This might be called the “debate model”. An example is the Wikipedia, where activists can change articles to make them suit their own agendas. Or, if activists create a lot of noise, they can silence the voice of reasonable scholars. Communication of scientific and scholarly information has become a debate, and occasionally a shouting match.

In the perfect situation, a bona fide scholar and an activist will both refer to their sources, and can establish what is correct – or comes closest to being correct. Unfortunately, there is no level playing field. After all, bona fide scholarly articles are locked up in pay sites, so in an online debate, the bona fide scholar cannot refer to them. He fights with his arms tied.

An example can be found in the Netherlands, where a minister of Education, Culture, and Science named Maria van der Hoeven, commented favorably on Intelligent Design. In this way, the Dutch discovered that the woman responsible for their higher education did not understand what the “incompleteness of a theory” meant. Professional biologists and other scientists expressed their shock, while evangelical Christians defended the minister. There’s nothing wrong with that, but while the Christian information is easy to find, the other publications are all behind pay walls, giving someone studying this incident for the first time the impression that the minister has been the victim of a smear campaign by unthinking scientists. Their voices have been silenced.

An important lesson about online information is that as long as there is no free access, bad information drives out good. To some fields of research, like the study of Achaemenid Persia, the damage has already been done.

This page was created in 2014; last modified on 26 July 2015.