Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Deceitful information

This post is, I suppose, in a similar vein to the one called 'the danger of know.' Some of you might have watched a show that's just come on the tube called 'Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?' Basically, it's a trivia show with supposedly grade school questions, and the contestant (an adult) has to answer them. There is also a team of 5th-graders on set answering the questions as well, one right beside the contestant. He has the option of peeking and cheating off the 5th-grader's answers. The questions aren't too hard, but the host (Jeff Foxworthy) plays mind games to confuse people I think--that's more or less why I think so many of them do so poorly.

Today I was wondering about that show and I visited their website, which happened to have a forum; so, naturally, I perused some of the threads. Apparently on one of the shows the question had been asked, in what year was president Lincoln elected? So off-hand I thought this wasn't too tough of a question, he is one of the more famous presidents, but I wouldn't have expected grade schoolers to know the answer. But the really scary thing that I found in those forums... was how people don't even understand information anymore!!

So first of all, he was elected in 1860. Elections are always in leap years, for one thing (I wonder if these peeps even knew what a leap year was, hm.) There were many users on that forum who had written in "THEY GOT THE ANSWER WRONG!" Their claim was that the show said he was elected in 1860, but they (the forum poster) looked it up (and gave the website too, be shocked) and found he was "elected" in 1861!!!

Did you just chuckle? I laughed the first time, but the more I saw so many people saying this exact same thing the more disturbed I became. Of course Lincoln was sworn in and began his presidency in 1861--in fact, it was in March. But was the election in March?

Have you ever heard of a presidential election in March? Of course not. It's sad really, that people looked it up, saw "1861-1865" and made that foolish assumption--some even insisted that the actual election was in fact in March of 1861!

But we can take comfort in one fact at least--we shouldn't have to worry about these fools voting come election day (which is always in November, and leap years like I said for presidential elections) because they're too mixed up to actually find it on a calendar.

But this brings me to the real issue I wanted to discuss here--the people were consulting "raw" information. They looked in Encyclopedias even (I guess they looked to find the answer in the first place...) but they still came up with the wrong answer. The misunderstanding demonstrates more than one failing of this society I think. But namely, in this case, the inability to research or understand their research.

The average Joe watching TV (watching this show for example, with his laptop handily tuned into google.com) is not equipped to find the answer to even such a basic question as the election of Lincoln. How can we expect him to find answers to more complicated questions like, why is there violence in Iraq? Why can't the Arabs and Israelis get along? Why is Chavez stalking Bush? The people now require filters for their information--they can no longer turn to encyclopedias and dictionaries, or journals. They need it summarized, quick, like they get from the news (TV news like CNN, etc.) They need someone explaining 3 or 4 times what it actually means using very simple language.

Because if they look up the answer, they totally misinterpret it.

As Muslims, do we have this problem? That we look up Qur'an and hadith directly without bothering to examine the commentary? Are we familiar enough with the basics to be able to do that? I think most of us actually aren't. And if we (like me) are pulling it up in Arabic then we have a huge problem.

I'd like to think that average Americans would have the basic prerequisite understanding of presidential elections and processes to know why it was 1860 and not 1861, and why 1861 was listed as the first of year of Lincoln's presidency. But apparently that's not the case.

It'd also be nice to think that the average Muslim has a well-founded understanding of 'aqeedah and Arabic and basic Islamic sciences to but a context around the information they dig up. But I don't think that's the case... at least I know it's not my case.

So the way I see it, we have at present two obligations. The first is to learn our deen, at least the basics, so when we are presented with information from scholars or even as a question by a non-Muslim or a child, we have the resources (prerequisite knowledge) to find an answer. The second is to always check with the people who have more knowledge and training--the scholars. That way we don't go barging into a deep discussion claiming that a sheikh is wrong because of something we found on the internet. How incredibly embarassing.

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