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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Rational and Irrational Fears
Volume 40, Number 5 - September/October 2016

I do not watch horror movies. Roller coaster rides at amusement parks do not amuse me. I do not attend Halloween scream fests. Why not? Because I am not a fan of being scared by artificial means. There’s enough to be scared about in everyday life. Why add to fear if you don’t have to?

It’s not worth being irrationally scared about things you can’t control. A large boulder is not likely to fall on my house, killing me, so I see no need to construct a boulder net over the house. A lightning strike? Possible but highly improbable. Plus, staying in a safe place during a storm will forestall the event. I have no trouble ignoring the fear mongering from advertisers wanting me to buy additional insurance products. I’m not afraid of a black cat crossing my path or of walking under ladders.

Some fears, however, are justified, and being scared is rational. A natural disaster that destroys a library collection is a possibility you can forestall by having a disaster recovery plan in place. Scary, on a more personal level, is your computer being attacked by malware or your discarded hard drive leading to identity theft. These events are preventable, and articles in this issue of Online Searcher will guide you through the steps to take to minimize risk.

What scares me more than malware, identity theft, and natural disasters is the growth of anti-intellectualism and the celebration of fact avoidance. Where once expertise was considered a virtue, I now increasingly hear and read the phrase “so-called experts.” The opinions of ordinary people are apparently on the same level as scientific research. The “go with your gut” approach to decision making transcends the research process.

Fact-checking organizations publish their findings on the believability of statements from political candidates, yet this does not appear to influence voter behavior or perceptions. Discredited notions, such as those propounded by “anti-vaxxers,” parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because they fear it causes autism, still hold sway. Continuous repetition of erroneous statements apparently reinforces their validity—even when repeating them is in the context of disavowing and discrediting them.

What does the disregard of facts mean for information professionals? Should we stop referring to ourselves as experts in finding and evaluating information? Would that add to our status? Would people trust us more if we didn’t claim expertise? OK, that scares me.

The brainpower of librarians and other information professionals is formidable. It should be our strong suit, not a weakness. We should be the trusted advocates for truth. We should be the experts for searching in diverse topics, ranging from science to technology to business. We should be the people questioning whether what we’ve found is accurate, relevant, and timely. We should be on the forefront of understanding how web search engines actually give us the results they do.

We should not fear being considered experts. We should not be scared to fact-check. We should confront irrational fears and manage rational ones. Just don’t force me to watch a horror film.

Marydee Ojala is Editor-in-Chief of Online Searcher (the successor journal to ONLINE) and writes its business research column ("The Dollar Sign"). She contributes feature articles and news stories to Information TodayEContentComputers in LibrariesIntranetsCyberSkeptic's Guide to the InternetBusiness Information Review, and Information Today's NewsBreaks. A long-time observer of the information industry, she speaks frequently at conferences, such as WebSearch University, Internet Librarian, Online Information (London, UK), Internet Librarian International, and national library meetings outside the U.S. She has adjunct faculty status at the School of Library and Information Science at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis). Her professional career began at BankAmerica Corporation, San Francisco, directing a worldwide program of research and information services. She established her independent information research business in 1987. Her undergraduate degree is from Brown University and her MLS was earned at the University of Pittsburgh.


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