Maybe you were participating in a discussion on a blog when someone made a joke about Rowling’s latest book, Harry Partch and the Order of the Hobos. Ha! ha! everyone else said while you stewed in a broth of incomprehension. Maybe someone said, “Hey, you’re a physicist, right? Can they really get enough energy out of 3He from the Moon’s regolith to make it worth doing?” Or maybe you want to write a blog post about the US health care system, but you don’t know anything about the subject.
That’s the problem with living in the age of information. There’s too much to know, and the amount of stuff to know keeps growing. Pop culture, internet culture, cultures other than your own, scientific discoveries, political events, historical events — it’s like trying to take a sip of water by standing under Niagara Falls. There’s only one thing to do: fake it. Learn enough to bluff your way through conversations and to figure out where to go to fill in gaps in your knowledge.
Thankfully, the Internet has given us charlatans two wonderful tools. With Google and Wikipedia, we can fake knowledge about many subjects. It’s as if we are all Thomas Friedman, only without the giant moustache. The trick is to know how best to use these tools, especially if we later want to learn enough not to have to fake knowledge.
“Google?” you’re asking yourself. “Is he kidding me?” I am not. For one thing, not everyone uses Google when they should. For another thing, there’s more you can do with Google besides just typing in some words and looking at the results on the first page. The first-page approach is fine for easy searches, but to fake knowledge of more obscure topics, you may have to go farther.
One way of going farther is to tweak what you’re searching for. If you’re searching for a phrase, like part of a quotation or a snippet of lyrics, put quote marks around it. That makes Google look for pages that use the words as a phrase, instead of having the individual words scattered like shotgun pellets throughout the text. Exclude words from your search by putting a minus sign in front of them. For instance, a search on “kitchenaid mixer” returns very different results than one on “kitchenaid mixer -buy”. Change the order of words in your search or use different tenses and see what new results you get. People have a tendency to type near-sentences into Google, like “good science fair project for fifth grader”. Mix it up: “fifth grade science fair project”. Replace “fifth” with “5th”. Throw in synonyms or related words. Give the Google algorithm a shake and see what falls out.
What if you’ve got some results you like and want additional similar results? Google has anticipated your needs. For each result, Google gives a “Similar pages” link that lists other pages that Google thinks are similar to the one you’ve chosen. Google will also let you restrict your search to one website using the “site:” syntax. Let’s say you were looking for information about how accurate the TV show Jericho was about nuclear fallout and Google gave you a result from tvsciencesucks.com. You could see what else the site had to say about Jericho by doing a Google search for “Jericho site:tvsciencesucks.com”.
Eventually you’ll need to move beyond Google in your quest for more knowledge. The easiest way is by browsing sites that Google has uncovered. Follow those site’s links. Wander through other sites and see what turns up. You can even leave the web entirely and ask individual people for help. Look for people who seem knowledgeable and email or even call them. Asking experts for help is an art of its own. Instead of talking about how you should find and approach people, I’ll point you to Cherie Priest’s excellent How to Talk to Strangers.
“Wikipedia?” you’re asking yourself. “What’s to know? Type something into their search box and you’re done!” Well, not quite. Wikipedia’s search is so-so, though you can overcome that with judicious application of Google’s site: search, and you can find related information by clicking an article’s hyperlinks and seeing where that leads you. But the big concern is how much you should trust an article’s information.
That’s a problem no matter where you get information from on the web, or even off of it, but the “pedia” part of Wikipedia’s name can trump common sense and make you treat Wikipedia’s information as if it had been blessed by Calliope herself. The good news is that Wikipedia gives you hints about how good an article’s information is: the discussion and history pages.
At the top of every article are tabs that lead to to the discussion and history pages. The discussion, or talk, page is where people who’ve been editing the article discuss additions to, deletions from, and contentious parts of the article. If you want to see this in action, take a look at Al Gore’s talk page. An article’s talk page may list things that aren’t in the current version of the article because people have been arguing over them. You can go back to Google and do more research about those disputed facts and form your own opinion.
The history page lets you see every version of the article and compare any two versions. Using that, you can see evidence of edit wars, where different people keep adding and deleting parts of the article. You can recover information that might be useful but that was too divisive to be left in.
All of this emphasizes that Wikipedia is no more a final destination than Google is. Wikipedia is great for giving you an overview of a topic and helping you figure out what questions you should be asking, but you’ll need to go elsewhere for verification. Use the external links at the bottom of articles to go to other sites and continue your research.
Even though Google and Wikipedia won’t answer all of your questions, they’ll get you over the hump of abject ignorance. And in some cases, what you learn from them will be enough for your immediate needs: faking knowledge.