17 May 2015

The failure of the Information Age

It seems only a short while ago, as the Internet and the World Wide Web made their appearance, that prophets talked of a new enlightened age. All the world's knowledge would henceforth be available to everyone everywhere. With every person and every world leader able to obtain all the facts available on every topic, we would share a new world order of fully-informed policy and decision-making. Well ... so much for predicting the future—always a mug's game.

A recent Pew Research Center survey measured the difference between what American scientists believe and what the American public believes, and the results are dramatic. For example, 87% of scientists (98% of climate scientists) believe the Earth is being warmed by human activity while only half of the public does. One hundred per cent of scientists believe living organisms evolved over time but only two-thirds of their fellow Americans concur. Eighty-eight per cent of scientists believe genetically modified foods are safe to eat; only 37% of the public agrees. And so it goes.

The striking gaps between the two groups are discouraging. Science is our only reliable source of factual truth and scientists the best arbiters of those facts. They are, in effect, the wise men and women of our age.

Not that we must always genuflect to their opinions. Not even they would want that. For example, although most scientists agree genetically modified foods are safe to eat, many nonetheless suggest it might be wise to proceed cautiously until much more is known about them, a sensible application of the precautionary principle. And if some people's faith precludes them from accepting evolution, not much harm is done. But failing to respond adequately to global warming will be catastrophic. The danger is so great that even if only a small group of climate scientists believed it to be occurring, we would have no sensible alternative but to act. And we are, but too little and possibly too late.

In this country, we have a national leader to whom inconvenient facts are irrelevant and whose motto, as he once instructed his faithful followers, is "ignore the experts, go with your gut." Well, you don't need any knowledge to "go with your gut." Unfortunately his approach, judging by both the masses benighted view of reality and the actions of our leaders, is all too widely accepted.

To say, therefore, the Information Age has failed is perhaps too strong a statement. Many have benefited by the abundance of knowledge available. But information age or no, one thing has not changed. As always truth, no matter how widely disseminated, has steep hills to climb to overcome ignorance, faith and vested interest.


  1. We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.

    - Carl Sagan

  2. Sadly, our poor excuse for a federal government engages in policy-based evidence-making rather than evidence-based policy-making.