Has easy, democratized access to “factual” information on the Internet bolstered late 20th century and early 21st century mythmaking under the guise of true science? A couple of nights ago I went to the 92nd St. Y to hear Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire) and Dan Barber (chef and creative director of the Blue Hills restaurants / agricultural complex). Pollan’s description of “nutritionalism” certainly supported this supposition and runs a parallel course with other contemporary mythmaking enterprises.
Pollan spoke about nutritionalism as ideology rather than science, and I found myself in total agreement with him. We are constantly demonizing one nutritional attribute (trans-fat) and lauding another for its benefits (antioxidants). He also spoke about the “everyone is an expert” phenomenon consistent with other ideologies. There is simply so much information out there, that one can justify an argument that we should never eat carbohydrates with a slew of facts, figures, studies, and statistics supporting their case. Likewise, there is no shortage of data suggesting that those very same carbohydrates are absolutely essential to a healthy diet.
The proliferation of information readily available on the Internet definitely is responsible for the misleading “everyone is an expert” phenomenon: anybody who has ever gotten a minor headache and diagnosed themselves with a brain tumor on Web MD can tell you that. Large scale, consensus driven, socially constructed mythmaking enabled by this empowered “expert” phenomenon is another thing to ponder though. When truth becomes a matter of consensus, rather than the result of specialized expertise, there is no safeguard against mass delusion: consider the scare tactics surrounding aluminum cookware. This is the downfall of Wikipedia as a reliable information source. Worse yet, myth is open to manipulation in a way true, pure, expert vetted science is not: consider how easy it is now for a corporate giant to preach the virtues of antioxidants so that you are apt to buy pomegranates. This is the downfall of Google as a reliable information source.
What does this mean? Is the public doomed to be misled by its collectively impressionable tendencies (Wikipedia), by top-of-the-pile capitalist search engine giants (Google), both, or is there an alternative? How can the government step in and have a positive role in all this? Where do public libraries, their resources, and their expertise in information science come into play?