She walked into the dry and dusty classroom with a glistening forehead. It was a hot August day in Arizona, and the heat had not helped to soothe her stress and anxiety. She came toward the desk where I sat and let out a deep, tired breath while she dropped her backpack from her shoulder to the floor. I nodded and offered a friendly (perhaps slightly obligatory) salutation and she sank into the chair beside me. “Everything okay?” I asked her with as much sincerity as I could feel at one-hundred-fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. Her eyes shifted toward mine after a lengthy blink and then her head slowly turned on her shoulders. She was facing me when she giggled with some definite incredulity.
“Yes,” she answered. “Everything is great.”
She laughed. “Everything is perfect. If the heat doesn’t melt my brain, lecture will.”
“Yeah.” I was actually agreeing with her. We sat there together in a full semester, graduate course on Microscopy and there were two minutes to go before the instructors closed the doors and started …instructing. Her proposed project was in environmental chemistry. Something about gas phase chemical reactions in atmospheric water (clouds) producing novel toxins from things like pharmaceuticals and other synthetic chemicals. Sometimes she used a microscope. Sometimes. Rarely. Her professor suggested she take Microscopy. Did she need to know that chromatic aberration slightly alters focus because the lens refracts separated colors of white light differently based on their wavelength? Probably not for what she was doing, but a PhD candidate is expected to have PhD level knowledge of everything relating to their project. This is tested. A PhD chemist is usually also a physicist, biologist, information scientist, and engineer. Not that they have the credentials, but the knowledge is required. We also live in a democratic republic, so any voting citizen should also be well-informed enough to make rational political decisions every voting season. They should be… (more on education reform and the voting citizen in a later post).
The problem with the information age is not that there is too much information. The wealth of knowledge and ease of access to knowledge is a positive thing, if the individual absorbing the information is able to process it effectively. This is one of the reasons I keep my writing brief and concise. I just read an article by Eric Ravenscraft on OneZero (check it out here) that addresses the important issue of processing information, fake news, etc. Ravenscraft writes about the tendency to blindly accept incorrect information when less time is spent comprehending it. The world is moving quickly, and some people lack the time to ride the current comfortably. In many cases, people will gravitate toward information sources that they already know they agree with, leading to the reinforcement of current ideas. In a democratic republic, the push and pull between conservatism and liberalism is what produces healthy progress. When the two sides become completely separate and indoctrinated (which is what I think we’re seeing more and more as the information age takes off), they lose sight of the healthy balance and heightened tensions lead to conflict.
It isn’t just that the sides are drifting apart either. The social and political issues on the table (including technology and science) are becoming more extreme, thrusting a wedge deeper into the system and producing extreme opposing candidates. Everything I’ve read on this issue highlights the problem without offering any real solution. Because we are required to teach our youth what they need in order to grow into productive adults, we can not ignore the information explosion. It just needs to be handled carefully. Additionally, and as mentioned before, the average citizen does not have the time required to build a well rounded view. My previous post, Love and War discusses the issue of emotional decision making. I believe that education and education reform will solve these problems.
Teaching someone to comprehend a subject entirely is becoming too large and daunting a task. Instead, critical thinking should be nurtured. This is the ability to hold an idea or belief while entertaining opposing ideas. It also allows the thinker to expand on or reform their understanding as new information becomes available. Smoking used to be cool. People used to bathe in toxic Mercury to treat Syphilis.
The stress and anxiety associated with the massive amount of information we have available to us is also an issue. Letting go of some of that, and being ok with knowing that we can’t and won’t know everything is beneficial. With so much information available, it is easy to feel like we’ve found all the answers, but the questions will continue to change and what is true in one social context may not hold true twenty years later. When we accept that there is always more to learn, we release the responsibility to be correct, minimizing emotional reaction, and improving our ability to communicate with one another.