The Jolly Librarian Ponders Information and Relevance

Last week, I was trying to decide whether or not to buy tickets for a concert. This was one of the biggest shows to come to town in years, but the only tickets left were bad ones behind the stage for a $130. Plus, it was going to be miserably hot, the concert was outside, and I was not a fan of  the opening act. Still, it was a big concert, and I was tempted to click buy. But then I inadvertently hit a link on a story about the lead singer.

And there popped up a picture of him on a yacht with arms around two nineteen-year-old girls in bikinis. Men of a certain age can’t pose like that without looking skeezy.  And skeezy he looked. Put off by the photo,  I logged off without buying the tickets.

Now the point is not to make me sound prudish because I’m not or to make him sound like a dirty old man. I’m sure he’s not. And even if he is, it apparently doesn’t hurt his songwriting ability. The picture really should have had no impact on my decision. And that’s my point: Not all information is relevant.

That is an important point in an information-drenched society where news is often instantaneous and ubiquitous. When everyone has access to the same basic story immediately, reporters often have to drill deeper and deeper into personal and tangential pieces of information to have something different to report.  And, though the infobits  may be salacious and interesting, they also may be totally irrelevant to the subject at hand.

In my case, the worst thing that happened is that I didn’t go to the concert. And it was a good reminder that, like everyone else, I can be influenced by irrelevant factoids.

Most of the time we feel lucky that we live in an information age where we can find almost everything at the click of a mouse. But we must always remember that information is only good when used wisely. So keep the following tips in mind:

  • Something  may be true without being relevant.  (Despite what you see on news shows, a husband or wife can cheat without also being a murderer.)
  • When pundits are telling you about something, don’t be fooled. Sometimes not everything you’re hearing or reading is fact. Some of it is opinion carefully slipped in. Learn to separate the two.
  • When information is presented as a package, take the time to tease out the different pieces. Determine what is relevant and what is not. Determine what is important. For example, a woman who goes out partying after the death of her child may not be the sort of person you want to ‘friend’ on Facebook, but that does not necessarily mean she’s a murderer. Those of us old enough to remember Susan Smith’s tears and pleas know better.
  • Be aware of your own prejudices. Now that I know that skeezy photos of my favorite singers make me a bit nauseated, I have declared a celebrity gossip blackout. I don’t need to know about their bed mates, their egos, or their plastic surgeries. In the case of celebrity news, I’m finding ignorance is indeed bliss.
On the old Dragnet show, witnesses were asked to provide “just the facts.” But the critical thinker (and citizen) knows that facts don’t get a free pass when it comes to analysis. Sometimes you’ve got to treat a fact like a hostile witness.

 

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