I'm having a little problem with information lately. I try to be unbiased in my information-gathering by getting the news from multiple sources and always paying attention to citations and the respectability of sources, yet there is still a lot of uncertainty as to what is absolutely true. Take the issue at hand at last night's Toast Party: Does drinking out of aluminum cans give you Alzheimer's disease, or at least increase your risk? I spent some time researching this (just using on-line sources) and came up with the following answers, Yes, No, Maybe. All of those answers came from what appear to be reliable sources. Now that I've educated myself on the topic, I could come up with a fairly convincing argument for each answer and many people have. So where does that leave me? Nowhere. And the Alzheimer's/aluminum debate is just one of many. Sunscreen/Skin Cancer. Soy Good/Soy bad. Global Warming/Cyclical Climate Change. Antibiotics/Bloodletting. Okay, maybe that last one isn't much of a mystery anymore : ).
I've found that in a conversation where one party moves to the far extreme in a certain argument's theoretical continuum, it tends to force everyone else to the opposite extreme, if only for the sake of balance. This is unacceptable. If you are standing in front of me arguing that bloodletting is the ideal and only true way to treat infection, I shouldn't have to stand up and say that antibiotics are the ultimate panacea for all mankind's ills. But if I give a fair and balanced report on antibiotics (they generally do the job, but their success is waning; they tend to destroy the good bugs as well as the bad, etc), then the middle ground between us is somewhere in the area of "Leeches and antibiotics are both acceptable treatment options and patients should be advised about the benefits and risks of both before making any treatment decisions." This, of course, is ridiculous.
The only intelligent answer to these questions is the unsatisfying shoulder shrug. The evidence literally goes both ways and the only absolute truth is, We Don't Fully Know Yet. You may prefer one view over another, but to be rational you have to acknowledge all the evidence. So how do we take a stand? And how should we live our lives? And how do we communicate with people who refuse to acknowledge the evidence on both sides? Or why talk about it at all if there's no satisfying conclusion to come to at the end? And what about the possibility, put forth and effectively argued by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, that the more information we have, the less we are able to see the correct answer?