Keywords: Politics, society, information, data, internet

Title: The Information Diet

Author: Clay Johnson

Publisher: O'Reilly

ISBN: 978-1449304683


The central premise of this book is a simple one. Just as there is a glut of cheap and unhealthy junk food, so we are surrounded by cheap and unhealthy junk information. And, to continue the metaphor, just as we have rocketing levels of obesity, we have information obesity, and therefore what is required is an information diet to get us all back to health and steer us away from the perils of junk. While the metaphor gets stretched way too long, there are some valid points about that emerge from this idea. In an age of almost unlimited access to the web, how can we sort sense from nonsense? How can we detect bias? Are there ways of spotting when we're being spun a line? And how do we ensure that the plethora of personalisation engines don't algorithmically feed us only the message we want to hear?

Unfortunately, despite raising some interesting questions, the author, Clay Johnson, ultimately disappoints by falling prey precisely to the ills he seeks to steer us away from. To be fair to him, Johnson makes no secret of where he's coming from. He's open about his liberal politics (that's liberal in the US sense of the description), and that he has spent a lot of time campaigning for various politicians and causes. He does a good job of describing the bubble that can end up enclosing campaigners - who can end up so wrapped up in what they're doing and who they're with that they can lose touch with reality. It's a danger that every campaigner should be aware, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum or what cause they align too. A poor information diet is part of the syndrome, as he rightly points out. And, therefore, by carefully adopting the information diet that he recommends one can become immune from this.

However, studded throughout the book are examples of where his bias comes through loud and clear. As a reader I can feel no confidence in his information diet when I see the blatant examples of misdirection and bias. It's like reading a book on weight loss and finding the author is clinically obese and lives on nothing but junk food.

The clearest example of this bias is when he discusses climate change. This would have been the ideal opportunity to illustrate the benefits of wide reading, critical engagement with all sides of the debate and a good look at different online data sources. The climate change arena is an exemplar of citizen science, with lots of engagement by ordinary people in projects such as reference checking the IPCC reports, the surface stations project where volunteers check weather stations across the US and so on.

Instead Johnson resorts to conspiracy theories and smears. He repeats the old line about climate change sceptics being funded by Big Oil, equates them with people funded by the tobacco companies to deny the link with lung cancer, and suggests they are all right-wing fanatics. When Johnson mentions the Climategate emails he does not even bother to suggest to his readers that they go ahead and read the emails themselves. Surely, this would be the thing to do if you're concerned about your information diet? Why not point your readers to the data and let them decide for themselves? But this is not what Johnson does. He does not even point out that the majority of the Climategate emails are not about climate per se, but are about ways of perverting the peer review process, hiding data from members of the public who want to see it for themselves, and in finding ways of denying scientific opponents a platform.

This may seem like a small point, but it is not. The central plank of this book is to foster healthy information habits, yet the author fails this crucial test. And it's not just to do with climate change. Despite all his claims he is still subject to the same groupthink syndrome he warns us of. Whether it's simplistic sloganeering about the Fox News network or his take on the US medical system, Johnson shows no signs of having taken the time or done the hard work to overcome his own biases.

The book is disappointing in other ways too. The food/information metaphor is dragged on for far too long and really doesn't add much of value to the argument. It would have made for a good paragraph or two, but not the pages and pages that Johnson pads it out to (like empty calories, perhaps?). More interesting perhaps would have been to use the food/information metaphor as a jumping off point for a discussion on research skills or the use and misuse of statistics, but no, we get more on information obesity…

I had hoped that this would be a book that would be about using the internet to look behind the headlines and biases (from liberals and conservatives alike). A book on the many tools available for digging into data, for accessing research papers, for ways of making ourselves more literate and numerate in an age where attention spans seem to be shortening and a soundbite is only a click away. Unfortunately this isn't that book.

Review © Pan Pantziarka. Site © London Book Review 2012. Published February 7 2012