Knowing what we don’t know

It’s easy to know a lot these days. But being smart is quite another thing. It can’t be bought or taught. Not the way facts are. The internet is the reason knowing things is all rather easy. I research for my work every day and it amazes me how much information is on the net. I don’t mean all the great conspiracy theory pages and gossip – that’s entertainment, not information. By the way, did you know that the scientist who has the cure for cancer that the government won’t let you use learned everything from aliens caged up in Roswell, New Mexico? Their spaceship crashed because Eisenhower was secretly sending low-frequency vibrations through the atmosphere so Americans would be brain-washed into thinking that jet vapour trails are harmless while they are actually seeding a genetically modified ragwort that gives off pollen that makes people have fewer children. All this is top-secret, which is why you can only learn it from the internet. But that’s not the sort of information I was talking about.

There are sources that are more reliable. I was directed to a great website recently that is trying to gather various scholarly ‘open-access’ repositories in a convenient place. This is onlineschools.org and their list appears on a page they are calling Open Access Journals. From this jumping-off spot you can access Oxford University scientific papers or Wiley’s abstracts, for example. This is a fantastic resource for the millions of us not directly connected to a university who still need peer-reviewed materials for research and writing. As a tiny example, last week I wrote a bit on this blog about the first beekeeping book, written by Reverend Charles Butler. One can go to Wikipaedia and get peer-edited information, much of it good. But keep in mind that not all writers at Wiki are as conscientious as my 11-year-old son, who has been a wiki-editor for two years. He looks for multiple sources before editing and is unbiased in his entries. Not all of Wikipaedia’s editors are as careful and trustworthy. So, it pays to dig deeper and uncover source materials. If you go to Open Access Journals, you will find a link to JSTOR, a non-profit service set up almost 20 years ago to support libraries. JSTOR scans millions of pages a year, keeps them on-line, and allows humbles like you and me to obtain a free account and access 1,300 different journals – hundreds of thousands of articles. You can’t download them, but you can read the papers while logged in. Powerful for peasant researchers. Regarding beekeeper Charles Butler, among the papers I read on JSTOR was one written by a historian in 1943 and originally published by the University of Chicago Press. It has information I’ve not seen before – because no library in Calgary has a 1943 copy of that journal.

But even science journals and scientists can make ugly self-serving gaffes. You may remember Andrew Wakefield who was accused of falsifying links between immunization shots and autism – resulting in the spread of devastating childhood illnesses (measles, mumps, rubella) while autism nevertheless developed in non-vaccinated kids. Yes, Wakefield was peer-reviewed, but his work never passed the smell test. And that’s the part you can’t get from the internet – that’s the part that you have to bring into your research yourself. It takes critical thinking, not just knowledge, or you will be like someone I know who has been telling Facebook buddies about mysterious top-secret atmosphere vibrations that are government experiments to do something evil to its citizens. Sadly, we have entered an age when people believe they know things, but don’t bother to think – or at least double-check facts. That’s the element that can’t be bought or taught.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeeping.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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