Information Age Education
   Issue Number 39
April, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/ and the end of this newsletter.

Using Computers as an Aid to Retrieving and Processing Trustworthy and Untrustworthy Information

“Garbage in, garbage out.” This is a modern restatement of the following quote from Charles Babbage who contributed substantially to the invention of computers. "On two occasions I have been asked: 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?'" (Charles Babbage; 1791–1871.)

The two previous issues of this newsletter have discussed how a healthy human brain can make effective use of the hodgepodge of correct and incorrect information that it contains. One of the keys to this is by making a concerted, conscious effort to check the results your subconscious produces as it retrieves and processes information, and passes it on to your working (conscious) memory. A good education helps students develop a high level of skill in checking the results their brains produce.

A computer is a machine designed for the input, storage, processing, and output of information. A computer’s brain has strengths and weaknesses. There is a strong parallel between dealing with information produced by your human brain and dealing with information produced by the computers you use.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

The statement “garbage in, garbage out” is used to help people understand that computers are not very smart. The quote from Charles Babbage indicates that from the early days of designing and producing automated information processing machines, many people have not understood the fallibility of such machines.

As an example, think about how easy it is to make a keying error when using an inexpensive handheld calculator. For another example, think about keyboarding and spelling errors when writing or doing a Web search using a computer. Fortunately, a good spelling checker and a good search engine will help catch many of these errors.

The idea of garbage in, garbage out applies to many other situations. Incorrect information you read from a book or Web site can be thought of as garbage being put into your brain. Processing and then retrieving such information is garbage out.

For another example, think about carrying on a discussion with a person. The messages you send to that person’s brain and the messages that are sent to your brain may well contain unreliable information. Such a discussion can be described as dual sharing of garbage in, garbage out.


Using Information That is Not in Your Brain

When time permits in problem-solving situations, people often make use of information drawn from resources outside of their own brains. Advances in technology have certainly aided this process. Here are a variety of types of examples. As you read these examples, think about the possible reliability of the information being retrieved and processed.
  1. You routinely use computerized instruments. For example, you want to know what time it is, and you glance at your digital wristwatch. Perhaps when driving a car, you make use of a GPS to provide directions. A store’s checkout counter clerk uses a bar code scanner and electronic equipment to process your purchases.

  2. You know someone who has some information you need. You communicate with the person face-to-face, by phone or by e-mail to get this information.

  3. You hire people to do some of the information processing tasks you face. You expect such people to have a high level of expertise in using their brains and information processing tools to solve your problems in an accurate and cost effective manner. However, the people you hire cannot read your mind. It often occurs that the communication between you and the people you hire is faulty.

  4. You have a personal and easily accessible library of hardcopy materials, including notes you have written to yourself, an address book, an appointments schedule, and so on. Much of this may be stored electronically and routinely carried with you. In essence, you use auxiliary memory to supplement your brain’s memory capabilities.

  5. You make use of the Web and other electronic digital libraries. In this endeavor, you want to take advantage of the huge collection of human knowledge that has been accumulated over the years. Electronic storage, such as on the Web, is particularly convenient.

  6. You make use of computers to process information. For example, perhaps you use spreadsheet, database, statistical, graphing, and other programs.
Each of these is subject to the difficulty of garbage in, garbage out. Each presents learning and use challenges to solving information processing and retrieval tasks.


Triangulation in Research and Information Retrieval

Triangulation is a term referring to the process of obtaining several different sources of information and cross checking the information. The term is used to describe a research methodology, especially in the social sciences. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangulation_(social_science).

In the previous issue of this newsletter, we described a variety of ways you can consciously use your brain to check on your mental information processing and retrieval tasks. In essence, we described a type of mental triangulation. A similar approach can be used in an attempt to detect errors in information processing and retrieval tasks such as described in 1-6 of the previous section.

For example, consider doing a Web search using a search engine such as Google, and receiving a large number of hits. These hits are arranged in an order that is determined by the search engine in a manner that it “thinks” will meet your needs. Different search engines will produce different lists of hits and will arrange the hits in different orders.

A well educated adult (such as readers of this newsletter) will browse the brief descriptions of the hits, and then visit several of the sites that seem likely to be useful. Such a Web user will compare and contrast the various information sources and content, and will also check for sense making against information stored in his or her brain. One way to think about this is that the Web is an auxiliary brain. Retrieving information from the Web is somewhat like retrieving information from one’s brain or from the brains of other people.

Effective information retrieval in a face-to-face conversation with another person can often be a challenge. However, extensive interaction, and both of you working together to clarify the communication, is very helpful. In a somewhat similar situation of “conversing” with a computer, the computer lacks the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a human being. While a computer can seem to be carrying on a conversation with you, it is a very limited type of communication. This places a considerable burden on the human who has specific information retrieval interests in mind. It suggests that part of the school curriculum in each discipline should include a focus on effective information retrieval from computers.

If you use the Web a lot, the chances are that you have identified a number of information sources that you consider to be trustworthy. In addition, you have probably developed techniques for making a rapid judgment as to whether a Web site is apt to be trustworthy. See, for example, http://www.virtualchase.com/quality/ for some ideas on how to check the quality of a Web site. See http://ergo.asu.edu/ejdirectory.html and http://www.doaj.org/ for free access to thousands of high quality research journals.

You may also have identified and make use of some of the Web sites that are designed to identify and debunk incorrect information that has been posed to the Web, is receiving wide circulation through other media. See, for example, http://www.snopes.com/, http://www.factcheck.org/, and http://www.truthorfiction.com/.

Finally, consider high quality problem-solving computer software sold or made available free by trustworthy companies. For an example, see the various free computer algebra systems and the statistical software listed at http://iae-pedia.org/Free_Math_Software. Generally speaking, you can think of such software as a reliable source of information processing. However, that still leaves you with the task of selecting software designed to solve the problem or accomplish the task that you are facing, and providing the machine with accurate input.


Education Implications and Recommendations

A healthy brain actively engages in sense making as it receives, processes, and makes use of information. It uses this sense making and fact checking in a triangulation process that helps to prevent poor and incorrect decisions. With appropriate education and experience, a person gets much better in this endeavor.

This sense-making analysis also works when dealing with external sources of information, such as from people, measurement instruments, print publications, advertisements, and the Web. Thus, one measure of the quality of an academic course or other unit of instruction is the extent that it helps increase a student’s skills in sense making.

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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