Informaticopia

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Comment on the social networking masterclass

I thought this was a really good workshop and thanks to all organisers and speakers. I had to leave to get a train and so missed the final discussion but wished to make the following point.

Rob Ward had listed as one of the possible perils of social networking ‘undue weight given to minority views’. I agree with his conclusion. Although the world of blogs, wikis, and social networks gives an opportunity for alternative views, which in some cases the ‘establishment’ may have wished to suppress (and Rod gave us some interesting examples from WikiLeak) we also should be concerned about the decline of the scientific approach and the use of evidence in healthcare. Helen Nicol had two points in her presentation, the implications of which I would dispute. She referred to ‘the wisdom of the masses’ and ‘more brains more information’. Quite often the masses do not have wisdom but follow prejudice, hearsay, and urban mythology. How often do we see public opinion radically influenced by the tabloid press, for the story to change a few weeks later? The tabloid press and tabloid TV use the case of Uncle Norman or sister Mary to tell one person’s story. That story may be true but if we are to take a rational approach, for example, to our understanding of the cost effectiveness of a particular treatment we need to consider evidence gathered on representative populations. Similarly, the phrase ‘more brains more information’ may apply in a limited range but if we were to ask 1000 or even a million people to work together would they have come up with Einstein’s theories? More information may just mean more noise rather than more intelligence.

What can we do to ensure that in the new (and exciting and productive) opportunities for collaborative working and more open debate we do not lose our science. The obvious and immediate response is to say we need both health and information literacy but my impression (and I admit that I have no hard evidence to back this up) is that society is going backwards in information and scientific literacy. Is there something that we can do on the Web to encourage the scientific approach

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