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Truth-Seeking In The Age Of Speculation

The marvel-filled Information Age is also turning out to be the muddled-up Epoch of Conjecture. The Era of Error.

Seemingly, we know everything. What is not in Wikipedia can be found through Google. And what Google can't scrape up, the National Security Agency — or international hackers — can. Through crowdsourcing, we can solve crimes and answer questions.

Just as seemingly, there is an enormous lot that we do not know. For example: Where is Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? Is faster-than-light speed really possible? What exactly is causing colony collapse disorder among bees? Do cellphones cause cancer? Can we protect our privacy on the Internet?

And when we don't know for sure, we speculate.

And when we make frivolous guesses about something serious — that Flight 370 disappeared in a black hole, for instance — does that diminish the seriousness of the situation? If we traffic in speculation, does that dilute factual information? Do we become suspicious of what is real and what is not? Do we undermine our trust in information and in one another?

Or is this all just so much speculation — about speculation?

Origin Of The Specious

"The Internet allows us to obtain information if we are intent on getting good information," says Nicholas DiFonzo, a psychology professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors. "Or it allows us to obtain errors if we are intent on getting errors."

And if we are lazy. In recent years, speculation has led to spectacular misunderstandings. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing last April, the multiiversal website Reddit became a hub of information about fast-moving events. "However," blogged the site's general manager Erik Martin, "though started with noble intentions, some of the activity on Reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties." Tragically, one young man — mistakenly connected to the crime by some Reddit users — was later found dead.

In the more recent case of the missing airliner, Malaysian officials, reporters covering the story, even Rupert Murdoch, have all passed along speculative information. Truth-seeking websites, such as Snopes, try to keep up with all the hearsay. Others like CNN simultaneously spread speculation ("CNN considers whether a black hole swallowed the missing Malaysian plane") and swat it down. "This is how we cope with big, uncertain events," writes Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute — a journalism-monitoring site. "We grasp for ways to relate, to process them through our own lens. And when there is a dearth of information, we push, prod and search and speculate."

The Wisdom Formula

Because the Internet makes it easier "for people to choose who they want to connect with," Nick says, "vast like-minded echo chambers emerge, and it is difficult to get out of these."

So how should we deal with the onslaught of online rumors and virtual unreality? Nick suggests that the key to discerning valid information includes a real desire to find it. The formula, he says, might be:

Internet + accuracy motive + a lot of hard work

You have to want to find the correct information and you may have to dig for it.

And if technology has exacerbated the problem of speculation, can technology help solve it? "Some have suggested websites that track information flow and primary sources, and of course there are numerous hoax-busting sites now," Nick says, pointing to Snopes, for instance. "But I think that unless people trust these tools and sources and are motivated to use them, they are not useful."

In the end, he says, "wisdom is available to people — but it requires some work: the brainy sort — you have to think hard and check sources and ... the heart-gut sort — you have to be aware of and hold at arm's length your own fears, motivations and predispositions."

Just like in the real world.

The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers – Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers – of NPR. @NPRtpj

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.