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Dumber and Smarter

Entry 1586, on 2013-11-05 at 20:16:25 (Rating 4, Skepticism)

Is the internet making us dumber or smarter? Many people make assumptions regarding this question and they are split between the two options fairly equally indicating that just assuming isn't good enough. One problem is defining the words "dumb" and "smart" of course, because if they relate to intelligence instead of knowledge it might be that the internet can have no effect.

But I will continue discussing the wider context of the question and treat the two words more generally. So, which is it?

Many technology enthusiasts predicted the internet would be the great liberator, the great educator, and the great equaliser for everyone - or at least for those who have access to it (over 2.4 billion, or about one third of the world population, according to current estimates).

On the other hand many people see the internet as a provider of trivial, shallow information; as a way of storing information instead of it being memorised by a person; and of being a place where everyone can contribute, even if they maybe shouldn't!

Of course at this stage you should recognise that both are right. The internet provides vast amounts of incredibly useful, accurate, detailed information, but also has equally vast amounts of puerile nonsense. So internet users can get what they want (either accurate or nonsensical) depending on where they look. And that really is the problem.

If people could be trusted to look at various perspectives and to find well researched information, even if it didn't necessarily support their pre-formed ideas, then everything would be fine. But, of course, they can't.

For example, there's Wikipedia which is a (mostly) reliable source of good, relatively unbiased information (and it's all referenced so it can be easily checked). But there's also Conservapedia which is a worthless pile of lies, propaganda, and brainless nonsense. If a conservative Christian (for example) doesn't like the truth about evolution as presented in Wikipedia they can go to Conservapedia to get a dose of lies which support what they want to believe.

On Conservapedia we find this rather alarming claim: "The fossil record does not support the theory of evolution and is one of the flaws in the theory of evolution", and yes, it is referenced. But the references are to religious organisations with no scientific credibility at all. If you want to support or reject a scientific theory then you really should use science to do it, not an organisation with a fantasy-based worldview.

But for the naive, and those who desperately want to reject evolution, the two sources (Wikipedia and Conservapedia) seem the same apart from emphasising different perspectives. They're not of course. Wikipedia treats evolution as the scientific topic it should be where Conservapedia deals with it from a totally biased religious and political perspective.

Anyone who listened to mainstream news sources would soon realise which is right and which is wrong. There is constant discussion of evolution without the slightest hint that there is any controversy about its scientific accuracy (because there isn't) and the only mention of creationism is when it tries yet another dirty trick in its perpetual efforts to hide the truth.

But, of course, there are alternative "mainstream" news sources too. If you want to be poorly informed on almost everything you can listen to Fox News. It has been shown that its supporters are less well informed than people who listen to no news at all! Of course those people claim that sort of conclusion is all part of the vast liberal agenda which controls all the other mainstream news. Once a conspiracy is invoked to explain awkward problems any semblance reality is totally lost.

Another aspect of the problem is how the big social networks operate. Most of them (for example, Facebook) try to connect their users to people they already know and who probably have similar perspectives. So most users of these networks will probably just have their existing biases reinforced rather than being challenged by alternative ideas. Because Facebook, Google, and others just want the user to spend as much time on their sites as possible it is in their interest to feed them what they want.

In a recent interview I listened to the idea of "serendipity" and a "risk dial" were discussed. In some sources, such as conventional radio programs, the listener hears what is already programmed so there is always a possibility that there might be a serendipitous event where the listener hears something they wouldn't normally choose and which might make them reconsider their ideas. The "risk dial" is an idea where potentially controversial or challenging ideas might be presented to the user instead of stuff similar to what they already have experienced (when the dial is turned to "high risk").

The interviewee said that when he monitored his own internet use he found that he rarely looked at alternative perspectives. So I decided to do the same thing myself.

I must admit that I have a bias towards a particular type of site. For example, yesterday I visited Wikipedia about 20 times but Conservapedia once (and that only resulted in my opinion of it being so contemptible being reinforced) But if I had found Conservapedia fair and interesting I would have visited it more in the future. And even that one visit was worthwhile because it did give me another perspective: the perspective that so many people live in a fantasy world where they deliberately allow themselves to be deceived!

There's not a lot of point in being exposed to mindless propaganda just to get another perspective on a topic. When the "other perspective" is nonsensical why waste your time with it? The problem is that it's just too easy to use as an excuse, and my opponents probably look at reality-based sources the same way.

I guess there's just nothing much which can be done about the problem. While there are groups of people who want to be told a certain thing irrespective of whether it's true or not there will be web sites to cater for them. That's the downside of internet freedom, I guess.

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