A recent article in The Guardian pointed out how easily those searching on the internet could be led astray. The suggestions offered by Google when one began typing a question about Jews quickly led one to a large number of antisemitic websites which appeared to offer convincing evidence. Without a good grounding in objective knowledge, one could begin to believe the poisonous lies offered by these sources of ‘information’. Michael Fordham has recently written eloquently on the same theme, offering two examples of historical misinformation, and asking us whether we would be able to judge their reliability without relevant background knowledge.
It seems that Google is leading people astray. Because their search algorithms are based upon what people previously searched for, and because their results are based on what people previously clicked following that search, the information we find through Google is not sifted according to reliability, but according to popularity. Thus lies and misinformation can quickly assume an air of respectability, as long as sufficient numbers of people are willing to countenance them.
But Google is not to blame for this tendency to believe popular opinions, which has been leading people astray since time immemorial. We all tend to believe in things when we are surrounded by those who also do so. The internet simply provides a new arena in which lies can become popular and widely believed. It does not fundamentally change the challenge for all of us, which is the challenge of seeking truth rather than simply conforming to popular opinion.
We should not blame Google for leading people astray. We should look much deeper at the relativist philosophy which makes it possible for people to believe in the websites which they discover after a quick fifteen minute search. This is prevalent in our education system, where pupils are encouraged to express themselves without regard for objective truth or reality. If their teachers have been congratulating them on the forceful expression of ill-informed views throughout their youth, can we be surprised that so many people think they are able to become experts in a topic at the click of a button?
Along with relativism, there is the widespread idea that acquiring knowledge should be effortless and painless. Like the detergents which promise they will magically clean without the need for scrubbing and polishing, progressive ideas promise that knowledge will enter the mind without struggles or frustrations. And like the promises of these magical products, this can never actually be true. But if young people hear day after day that learning should be fun, why should they bother to make the effort to acquire in depth knowledge about a topic, when they could just google it?
We are preparing young people to be duped when we tell them that their ill-informed opinions are valid, or that learning should be fun. We are preparing them to believe in lies and misinformation. The only antidote to the age-old tendency to conform to popular opinion is to rediscover the traditional concept of education as what G K Chesterton called ‘truth in the state of transmission’.