how not to ask a question: how q&a websites contribute to denialism

A little slice of the internet that irks me are Q&A websites like Wiki Answers and Yahoo! Answers, where people ask questions and any registered user can post an answer. A list of such sites is here. (That list includes Ask MetaFilter, which seems different, in that it encourages lengthy answers and discussion.)

You know I love the spirit of information-sharing that the internet has fostered. "Love" doesn't really describe it. Since I was in my 30s when the internet became widely used, I am both fully internet fluent and fully amazed by it. I adore that you can learn how to create, repair, cook, build, play - and a million other verbs - almost anything online. And I look up facts and jog my shoddy memory with Google and Wikipedia several times a day.

But these Q&A websites strike me as some of the worst the internet has to offer. Not only are the answers found there ridiculously unreliable, but it appears that people follow the sites without understanding how dubious they are. The crazy thing, to me, is that people ask questions of fact, the answers to which they could readily look up themselves. Someone comes along and answers the question, and that answer - regardless of accuracy or source - becomes The Answer. At Wiki Answers, an answer can be commented on or discussed, but not changed, and there can only be one answer per question. Yahoo! Answers asks users to rate answers with thumbs-up and thumbs-down, adding another layer of worthless opinions.

I recently saw a Wiki Answer (it turned up in a Google search) asking how many World Series rings a certain former baseball player has - meaning, how many championship teams he has played on or worked for. There was an answer posted. And it was wrong.

Now, why would someone go to Wiki Answers with that question, rather than check any number of baseball sites, or even the player's Wikipedia page?

I think I know the answer to that one: because they don't know how to get reliable information on the internet, and they don't recognize the difference between those two forms of information-seeking. (A bit of iSchool-speak there.) To that person, asking a question at a Q&A website is looking it up. I'm guessing the asker doesn't realize that a Q&A site isn't even as reliable as Wikipedia. Indeed, the asker may not even understand the concept of reliable sources.

Most net-savvy, educated people - and by that I emphatically include self-educated people - know that Wikipedia is to be used with a cautious and skeptical eye. It's great for a quick check of basic facts, such as a person's birth or death date, or the capital of a country, or the director of a film. For anything more in-depth, Wikipedia should be regarded as a jumping-off point at best. I often find it useful for finding sources, through an entry's footnotes.

But at least Wikipedia entries are written by someone who cared about a topic enough to do some research, however perfunctory, and write an entry. Wiki Answers and Yahoo Questions don't even require that minimal level of engagement.

There's a saying going around, attributed to Neil Gaiman: "Google can bring you 10,000 answers, but a librarian can bring you the right answer." Well, fine. But you can bring yourself the right answer, too - and good librarians want to teach you how. A lot of people clearly don't know how to find the right answer, and don't even realize their methods are not producing good results.

If any question can be answered by any person, and any answer can become The Answer, what are the implications for building a society based on ethics, justice and rational thought?

It seems to me that Q&A sites like Yahoo! Answers and Wiki Answers foster the mistaken, dangerous worldview that all points of view are equally valid, that expertise is "elitism", and that everything is "a matter of opinion". Even how many World Series rings a baseball player owns, or if climate change is caused by humans, or if the Earth is 5,000 years old.

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