Like the printing press long before it, the Internet is truly groundbreaking in its facility for distributing information. But this sharing hasn’t spread to the academic world nearly as much as you would think, though this is changing.
Not everything is available on the Internet, especially the free, legal Internet. You won’t find most recent books, most magazine and journal articles, or back issues of most newspapers and magazines.
The same is true with academic publishing. Despite much scholarly research being subsidized by tax dollars, access to papers controlled by such gatekeepers as JSTOR and Elsevier often requires a university ID or ponying up $10 to $30 per article.
But websites such as Academia.edu, ResearchGate, and Google Scholar are slowly opening up current research. You can often follow the work in specific fields and by specific researchers, who sometimes post drafts of papers, lecture notes, and conference speeches as well as formally published articles.
Much material, however, remains inaccessible. What’s needed most is the development of a micropayment system so that publishers, researchers, and authors are paid for their work, depending on how it’s used. Even if this is just a fraction of a penny per view for each book, publication, or article viewed, this would encourage both the creation and sharing of information.
Matters with college students aren’t much better. You would think that universities would be at the vanguard in making study materials available online since student papers are typically submitted online.
But some professors still write hardbound textbooks and require their students to buy them, some academic publishers release new hardbound editions with insignificant page numbering changes to try to sabotage the used book market, and a semester’s worth of books can sometimes cost $800.
With the changing media landscape, other areas of society have progressed faster. Cable TV networks such as HBO and Showtime and Internet streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu have doubled the IQ of the boob tube when it’s not entirely replaced by smartphones and other video viewing options. Creative, thoughtful TV shows with a relative small potential viewership are a reality.
Today, science in particular could benefit from increased public access. A great deal of pseudoscience, or junk science, percolates out there, including conspiracy theories in which people believe the government or corporate world is covering up the truth.
Some people believe that the government was behind the September 11 attacks, the JFK assassination, and drug addiction among inner-city blacks, that the moon landings were faked to try to bankrupt the Soviets, that childhood vaccinations are responsible for an autism epidemic, that natural cures for cancer are already out there but are suppressed by pharmaceutical companies because plants can’t be patented, that cancer deaths are caused by chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery rather than by cancer, that every war this country has fought has been based on lies, that UFO sightings are alien spacecraft, and that an alien civilization is directing the course of human civilization.
The numbers aren’t small. Half of all Americans believe in at least one healthcare conspiracy theory, according to a survey reported at the website of the American Medical Association. Even in the Information Age, falsity flourishes.
Though conspiracy thinking has been around for a long time, the Internet intensifies it. Even if you don’t believe something you read the first time, if you read it enough times it can change your mind. Or maybe you actively look to the Internet for content that confirms what you believe, engaging in “confirmation bias.”
Even reasonable people sometimes unreasonably doubt reason. It’s often about the subculture you’re a part of. As with a clique in high school, some people believe what their friends or community believe.
Not all scientists are necessarily reasonable either. In his 1998 autobiography Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, Kary Mullis, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry, praised astrology, insisted that HIV is harmless, asserted that AIDS is caused by recreational drugs and anti-HIV medications, and described his encounter with a glowing, talking raccoon.
Some lay people doubt science because of mistakes and flip-flops. But disagreement and self-correction aren’t necessarily negative. In fact, they’re a key reason that science works. Science to be science must necessarily be falsifiable. Scientists try to prove each other wrong, and they often succeed, which creates new facts, new knowledge.
Even though the facts and the knowledge are provisional, science is the best method we have to understand and explain the world and ourselves. We just need access.