Friday, December 9, 2011

How You Should Use the Internet

This week's been busier than I'd like, but it ended up with two object lessons we can use for today's entry.

Case #1: We're happy owners of a Prius -- one of those nifty gas-electric hybrids. After 2 1/3 years and 88000 miles, we'd had no serious trouble with it until this week, when we went out to find it essentially "dead" -- the electronics would not respond, and the car could not be started.

Until we waited about 30-60 seconds. Then the car would resurrect itself, and we could be on our way.

It's not Easter Sunday, so this was obviously some sort of electrical problem. I brought it to the mechanic, who had a hard time figuring it out. To aid the process, I put my search skills to work looking for similar problems with a Prius by other owners. I also signed on to a Prius owners' forum and related the story (in an area reserved for such stories).

I found one account that seemed close to what had happened, I shared it with the service adviser, who carefully and intently read it. However, based on the evidence, he said it wasn't quite a match. The quest continued as other owners made their own suggestions and I related them to the service adviser. They were able to eliminate each suggestion.

In the end, by process of elimination, the problem was discovered and fixed. The solution hadn't matched anything I found online, but now there's a record of the problem and the solution -- a short in the Prius' 12V starter battery (not the large hybrid battery) which required it to be replaced. From here on, the story is available for any other owner with the same problem to find.

Case #2: Last month, readers may recall I had a personal encounter with a kidney stone -- my third in 7 years. Unfortunately, unlike the last two, this one doesn't seem to want to follow Elvis out of the building. It's been stuck for the last 4 weeks at a place called the uterovesical junction (you can look that up if you're morbidly curious). It's causing no pain or discomfort, but it's apparently not a good idea to leave it there. Unfortunately, the only option other than waiting it out is a rather unpleasant surgery.

In coordination with my doctor, a Tekton reader who is a doctor, and my own online research, I've sought out ways to get rid of it, in addition to prescribed medication and exercise (which so far hasn't done the job). Someone along the way recommended a herbal remedy -- marshmallow root tea. I conferred with my Tekton reader and did online research, but found only anecdotal evidence; thus far there have been no scientific studies.

In the end, I found that the tea was cheap enough that I had nothing to lose by trying it. If it had been too expensive, I wouldn't have bothered, but since both anecdotes and my physician reader agree that it certainly can't hurt, and it's available for a low price -- why not?

And so the object lesson. These are two examples of how the Internet -- and personal experience -- are supposed to work: As a balanced network of sources, governed as needed by expert advice (eg, my service adviser and physicians). Not with one at the expense of the other. Not by just taking one or the other at their word and walking away down Wikipedia Lane as though that's the end of it.

One of the Christian goombas I've been tormenting lately is making one of those mistakes right now with respect to the issue of whether agonistic, collectivist peoples experience what we call conscience. In his little mind, because he finds such a notion hard to believe, it must not be true; it's outside his experience, which is enough for him. Never mind the experience of "native witnesses" who affirm that it is true. Never mind the scholars who say it is true (dahhh, they must have an agenda or something!). His experience says no, and that's the end of it. (Kind of reminiscent of Hume, isn't it?)

On the other hand, you're also not supposed to grab whatever pops up first on the Internet and assume that someone there knows the heck what they're talking about. This week I was advising a reader who was concerned about some material on Yahoo Answers -- a reader response tool which rates in my mind as only slightly less offensive than Wikipedia, if only because so few people use it, comparativeyt speaking. As I asked the reader, why give any credence to a rant by some user of unknown qualifications when he says that the Gospels are anonymous -- and that's the extent of their "argument"?

Some people think that the Internet gives us a chance to buck authority and thereby open minds, so that we need not be in thrall to experts like physicians and mechanics or even Biblical scholars. But in reality, they've just traded one authority for another -- themselves, and other equally ignorant people. If they're lucky their angry defiance of authority won't end up doing more harm than good. If they've extremely lucky they might learn something their particular expert didn't know -- but which another one did.

Either way, the supreme error would be to assume that a "5 second Google search," as one atheist put it, is enough to find the truth that will set you free. And that's the sermon for today.


  1. Good post JP. I remember just recently one atheist said that because he found an article on the Christ Myth as the top result in a google search that it means the Christ Myth is still taken seriously... what a sad state of affairs we (or perhaps they) live in.

  2. Fantastic example, as usual.

    Oddly, this is exactly what I was trying to communicate while writing a chapter for a book I'm working on. I fought with how to practically show people Bible scholarship shouldn't be ignored when trying to understand the Bible. And similarly, I came up with an example relating doctor advice to natural remedies.

    I personally have fun at Yahoo Answers these days, but it is definitely a community where "sound bites" are more important than thought-out responses.

    A few years back, I practiced responding to skeptics there when I was first putting apologetics into practice. I almost got fired at work for using it too often, so I stopped going for a while. But now I love to throw some wrenches at the skeptics when time allows. Even simple things fly right over their heads...

  3. @Gio: I found similar silliness when I wrote an article for CRI on this subject -- such as British school kids thinking Google ranked results according to truthfulness!

    Dynamite in the hands of infants....