Sailing without a compass on an ocean of information

Opinion: Columns

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By John Hubbuch

Sometimes I feel like the old guy in Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." You'll remember the line: "Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink." But instead of being alone on an ocean with only seawater to drink, I have lots and lots of data, but I don't feel like I know anything.

We are living in an age of information. The computer and Internet put world libraries at our fingertips. We can read newspapers, magazines and journals, about everything from everywhere. Facebook, Google, Twitter and Yahoo let us know what P. Diddy had for dinner, or what Sarkozy thinks about a longer French work week. At the local level, we can read the minutes of all the various boards, review proposed budgets and parse the high school's disciplinary code.

So much data. So much analysis. So much information. And yet we know nothing. The sheer complexity of the issues, the hidden agendas, the lack of real transparency and the absence of unbiased experts leave us adrift in any search for objective truth.

There are people who tell me that I shouldn't listen to just CNN, but also to Fox News. Or I shouldn't just read The New York Times, but I also need to read The Wall Street Journal. That's like sticking one hand in ice water and the other in boiling water and calling it comfortable. At the local level you will never understand the Comcast building controversy by reading online comments. Almost all of them are advocacy with no interest in the measured truth.

Science data is equally unreliable. Studies of the effects of statins, hormone replacement, vaccines, eggs, vitamin E — the list goes on and on — tell us the way to live until subsequent studies tell us the opposite. If you want to know the science, you need to know the scientist and who is funding his study. Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis, the director of Stanford's Prevention Research Center, concludes that the majority of biomedical research studies are wrong. But then, how do I know if he's right?

And don't get me started on bloggers. Any idiot with a keyboard can put out information that is false or distorted. Yes, I know I'm a blogger. What can I say? I try.

The point? There is so much information, much of it technical and complex, that even though we may have access to it, we are necessarily dependent on having others interpret it for us. But those interpreters are often biased, and so we choose to rely on the person whose bias most closely matches our own. Not a very satisfactory way to discern the truth, I'm afraid. At one time newspapers had sufficient resources and interest to serve as our watchdogs, and to make an independent expert analysis, but the pressure of deadlines and bottom lines ended the glory days of investigative journalism a long time ago. The Tribune lists the top 10 highest principals' salaries, gets a couple of quotes and calls it investigative reporting. I don't think so.

So for those of us who try to know the truth of whether the schools need more money or the community a downtown hotel or whether we should intervene in Egypt or repeal health care legislation, we need to be very skeptical. And humble. We know nothing.

John Hubbuch, an Indiana native who moved to Oak Park in 1976, is a retired lawyer. Hubbuch served on the District 97 school board and coached youth sports. He is the father of three and grandfather of one.

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