Sadly, the final lessons here are brutal. We cannot quite embrace
the wonderfully egalitarian world of knowledge on the web. Error, falsehood,
sloppy untruths, and just downright lies are found all too frequently and they threaten
to spread even further. That’s why we should defend institutions--such as
academia and the standard canons of traditional journalism--that promise full
fact-checking and tough standards of rigor. Yes those institutions are very
often hypocritical. Everyone faces a deadline or a budget. Nonetheless, dropping
our stated loyalties to such institutions would be like removing our thumb from
the dike and letting the flood waters in.
I don’t mean this as a call to let up on vigilance. We
should criticize our truth-testing institutions and try to improve their
truth-tracking properties; of course, this can mean an active life in Wikipedia,
Amazon.com, and the blogosphere. But
in the final analysis the standards of mainstream institutions are necessary. We
should use the web to strengthen, rather than weaken, those procedures.
If you cannot imagine a worse alternative to the mainstream quest
for replication and fact-checking, just spend a few minutes perusing the “diet”
section of your local bookstore. Maybe the academics don’t know much more about
losing weight, but at least their standards--or at least the standards they pay
lip service to--offer us the promise of someday arriving at better knowledge.