Fred the Atheist continues to email me with his demands. He acts like a fourth grader who hasn’t had his nap. His ability to argue well has been muted by his constant use of unsupported internet sources and his unwillingness to consider counter evidence. I mentioned in an earlier article about how after 20 emails challenging him to send me the source from one of his cut-and-paste jobs, he still would not admit the information he sent me about James Watt on the environment and the second coming was bogus. Of course, unsourced references also find their way into books. Barbara R. Rossing attributes the same bogus citation to Watt in the first edition of her book The Rapture Exposed (2004, page 7). In the revised 2005 edition, while changing the wording somewhat, she still gets it wrong and offers no source for the information.
Mark Bauerlein is warning about what he describes as the “Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future” (2007) (also see here). Nicholas Carr, writing in July/August 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly asks, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Don’t get me wrong. I love the digital age and what it has done to make gobs of information available in a blink of an eye. It’s unfortunate, however, that many people never learned that there are pitfalls and obstacles in the information business.
For most of us, going to the library to research a topic for a paper for a history class was pure drudgery. There was the deadline to narrow the topic. When approved, it was off to the library with your stack of blank note cards to research the topic. If you didn’t have a typewriter, the paper had to be written out in long hand. If you did have a typewriter, you probably didn’t know how to type. Writing itself was a chore, because almost no one wanted to write papers on topics that seemed so irrelevant at the time. Fooling with footnotes was enough to turn off any budding writer. Don’t forget proof reading. A couple of mistakes on the first few pages of your neatly typed report meant the entire paper had to be retyped.
With the advent of the internet, anyone can become an “expert.” Search a topic, copy something juicy that you’ve found Googling a topic, paste the information nugget into your ready-made website or handy-dandy blog, and then declare yourself an authority on the subject. It’s become too easy. Tom Hank’s line to Geena Davis in A League of Their Own is classic: “If it weren’t hard, everyone would do it.” Writing and researching used to be hard, and it was the hardness that made it challenging, satisfying, and worth pursuing. It’s great to see that Christians are leading the way on challenging young people to Do Hard Things. Hopefully the principles in this book will carry over when it comes to the use of information and the use of argument.
Does this mean that everyone got it right before the advent of the digital age? Not at all. But because writing and getting a book published was difficult (it still is), poor research and argumentation did not circulate and multiply as quickly as they do on the internet. When someone wrote a poorly argued book, the bogus information was usually contained. Before long someone would write a scholarly counter response. Again, this did not mean that bad information did not continue to circulate. The “flat earth” myth is a case in point, although the counter scholarship is beginning to make its way through the channels of information flow.
While the internet is a great blessing, it needs to be used judiciously and with a critical eye. Just because someone finds a bunch of scattered quotations on the internet don’t assume that they are valid, not even when you track them to four other sites where they are still unsourced. Always ask this question: “What is the source, and can I see it?” And when a source is noted, keep in mind that the context of a citation is also critical.