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How to Use the Internet
November 21, 2013 J. P. Holding

How to Use the Internet

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Today I’d like to share some points from my background as an information scientist (fancy way to say “librarian”). I was using search engine that worked like Google when no one knew what Google was, so I’ve had a few years extra practice on how these things work. Unfortunately, many Internet users don’t.

Case #1: We’re happy owners of a Prius — one of those nifty gas-electric hybrids. A couple of years ago, I went out to  find it essentially “dead” — the electronics would not respond, and the car could not be started.

We waited about 30-60 seconds. Then the car would resurrect itself, and we could be on our way.

It wasn’t Easter Sunday, so this was obviously some sort of electrical problem. I brought it to the mechanic, who had a hard time figuring it out. To aid the process, I put my search skills to work looking for similar problems with a Prius by other owners. I also signed on to a Prius owners’ forum and related the story (in an area reserved for such stories).

I found one account that seemed close to what had happened, and shared it with the service adviser, who carefully and intently read it. However, based on the evidence, he said it wasn’t quite a match. The quest continued as other owners made their own suggestions and I related them to the service adviser. They were able to eliminate each suggestion.

In the end, by process of elimination, the problem was discovered and fixed. The solution hadn’t matched anything I found online, but now there’s a record of the problem and the solution — a short in the Prius’ 12V starter battery (not the large hybrid battery) which required it to be replaced. From here on, the story is available for any other owner with the same problem to find.

Case #2: I’ve historically had just one major health problem — kidney stones. My most recent one a year or so back got stuck for the last 4 weeks at a place called the uterovesical junction (you can look that up if you’re morbidly curious). It was causing no pain or discomfort, but it was apparently not a good idea to leave it there. Unfortunately, the only option other than waiting it out was a rather unpleasant surgery.

In coordination with my doctor, a reader of my work who is a doctor, and my own online research, I’d sought out ways to get rid of it, in addition to prescribed medication and exercise. Someone along the way recommended a herbal remedy — marshmallow root tea. I conferred with my reader and did online research, but found only anecdotal evidence; thus far there had been no scientific studies.

In the end, I found that the tea was cheap enough that I had nothing to lose by trying it. If it had been too expensive, I wouldn’t have bothered, but since both anecdotes and my physician reader agreed that it certainly couldn’t hurt, and it was available for a low price — why not? (The end of the story: The stone did leave the building…Christmas morning that year. A hospital ER really is very quiet at 5 AM on Christmas, by the way.)

And so the object lesson. These are two examples of how the Internet — and personal experience — are supposed to work: As a balanced network of sources, governed as needed by expert advice (eg, my service adviser and physicians). Not with one at the expense of the other. Not by just taking one or the other at their word and walking away down Wikipedia Lane as though that’s the end of it.

At one time I was advising a reader who was concerned about some material on Yahoo Answers — a reader response tool which rates in my mind as only slightly less offensive than Wikipedia, if only because so few people use it, comparatively speaking. As I asked the reader, why give any credence to a rant by some user of unknown qualifications when he says that the Gospels are anonymous — and that’s the extent of their “argument”?

Some people think that the Internet gives us a chance to buck authority and thereby open minds, so that we need not be in thrall to experts like physicians and mechanics or even Biblical scholars. But in reality, they’ve just traded one authority for another — themselves, and other equally non-informed people. If they’re lucky, their angry defiance of authority won’t end up doing more harm than good. If they’ve extremely lucky, they might learn something their particular expert didn’t know — but which another one did.

Either way, the supreme error would be to assume that a “5 second Google search,” as one Skeptic put it, is enough to find the truth that will set you free. And that’s the sermon for this week.

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