Sunday, December 18, 2016

Does the Web make you wise? Or the opposite?

Does using the web make you stupid?

There’s some evidence that it does, but how does that work? Why doesn’t having all the world’s information at your fingertips make you, like, the smartest person in the world?

There is a classic Hawaiian educational tradition that may make some sense of this. 

Nana ka maka, hana ka lima

It’s the dictate that children keep their mouths shut, and learning by watching, and figuring out how things work and how things are done by using their heads, their senses, their curiosity.

Instead of just asking and being told.

With the Internet, you don’t have to figure stuff out. You just look it up. 

And so often, what you look up is wrong, but since you’ve lost the skill of critical thinking, you don’t recognize that the web is lying to you. Worse yet, the web may be giving you exactly what you asked for—but you’re unaware that you’ve asked the wrong question.

A Michigan State study recently found that the more kids use the net, the worse they do in educational testing. The paper on the study is entitled, “Logged in and zoned out.” It is to be published in the journal Psychological Science. Here’s the university’s article on the research.

“The detrimental relationship associated with non-academic internet use raises questions about the policy of encouraging students to bring their laptops to class when they are unnecessary for class use,” said Michigan State psychology professor Susan Ravizza, the lead author.

Of course, if you spend a lot of time on the Internet, you already knew this, right? Because the Web is full of news on how dumb the Web makes you.

Psychology Today four years ago carried a piece called The Internet makes you stupid and shallow.

Author Ravi Chandra writes: “A tech-filled life means that we will have to be more careful choosers of our own mental and emotional destinies. Or else we’ll sell our souls to the search engine store.”

“As the internet trains our brains to be distractible, we are rewiring our synapses and losing capacity for depth,” he writes. He references a 2011 Pulitzer-winning book, The Shallow: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. 

Of course, not everyone agrees with that proposition. A Pew Research Center study found that most scientists (All of them internet users. I’m just sayin’.) say Carr was wrong. 

One theme in this review of experts is that we’ll be stupider in some ways, but smarter in others. 

“It’s a mistake to treat intelligence as an undifferentiated whole. No doubt we will become worse at doing some things (‘more stupid’) requiring rote memory of information that is now available through Google. But with this capacity freed, we may (and probably will) be capable of more advanced integration and evaluation of information (‘more intelligent’),” said Stephen Downes, of Canada’s National Research Council, cited in the Pew report.

So, if the Net is making us stupid in some ways and smart in others, what kinds of stupidity should we worry about? 

One is comprehension. A pair of Australian researchers, Val Hooper and  Channa Herath, say your memory goes to hell. Their article is Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Impact of the Internet on Reading Behaviour.

“In general, online reading has had a negative impact on people’s cognition. Concentration, comprehension, absorption and recall rates were all much lower online than offline,” they wrote.

UCLA psychology professor Patricia Greenfield said some skills are increased—spatial skills are improved among video game players—to the point that laparoscopic surgeons who are good at video games are better at doing surgery than those who aren’t so good at video games. 

"The best video game players made 47 percent fewer errors and performed 39 percent faster in laparoscopic tasks than the worst video game players," Greenfield said.

But she cautions that a lot of other skills are lost in the process at gaining in spatial skill. The loss of time for reflection, analysis and imagination—all things gained by reading—leads to a loss in the capacity to reflect, analyze and imagine.

So your doctor will be really good at doing surgery, but not all that good at deciding whether you actually need surgery.

There’s the old line, to a guy with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Going back to the Hawaiian tradition of learning, another Hawaiian saying is ‘U`uku ka hana, `u`uku ka loa`a. It means that if you only put in a little effort, you only get a small result.

Sometimes folks, seeking a quick response, don’t take the time to ask the question properly. If you can’t frame the question, how can you expect a useful answer?

A lot of people believe that agricultural chemicals with very low toxicity are actually very dangerous. How could that be? Perhaps it’s in how they ask the questions.

Let’s forget most agricultural chemicals and just look at water.

If you ask the Google question in a particular way (Is water toxic?) you get a whole lot of scary stuff about contaminated water in the city of Flint, about water intoxication, about toxic compounds in drinking water.

If you ask another way (Is water necessary for health?) you get a very, very different set of results.

If you ask a weird question (Does water contaminate groundwater?) you get answers about fracking, and contaminated groundwater and pesticides in groundwater.

If you ask another question (Is water a solvent?), you may be surprised to learn it not only is, but it’s the most common solvent—often called a universal solvent. 

Go back to the first question, is water toxic? There are lots of caveats. Are we talking about mineral-infused water, water being used as a solvent for something else, water in what quantities and concentrations? 

If water is that complicated, how are you going to make sense of products that are less common? You have to work very, very hard at it, and try to remove your preconceptions from your inquiry.
If you don’t realize that the results of your internet search are framed by your own limitations, perhaps you’ve been spending too much time on the internet.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016


Anonymous said...

So true!
Thanks for the post.

Tony Sommer said...

Sri, Jan, but I still have my critical thinking abilities. While there is bad info in the Internet there also is an amazing abundance of useful material. We're both old (!) enough to remember when looking up anything involved a long trip to the library, which often had limited collections.

There is much wrong with the Internet, especially for kids who are computer addicted and their parents who look at those iPads as a convenient way to keep junior quiet and entertained. In my opinion, the ability to do such easy research far outweighs the negatives.

Jan T said...

From Bob Melton:
Jan - I enjoyed your column today, and was interested to see that the traditional Hawaiian system of learning emphasized learning by 'doing, not telling'.
Years ago I had a lesson in the same concept from a middle-aged Eskimo who had lived his life outside the cash economy in Alaska, and who claimed to be the last of the traditional hunter-gatherers in his region. I was a summer deck technician on the University of Washington's research ship, the Brown Bear.
His name was Willy Goodwin, and he came aboard our ship while we were taking on fuel one night in the harbor of Kotzebue, Alaska. Willy said he came out just to meet people and tell stories. So we sat in a little booth in the ship's galley from 9pm to 3am swapping stories, while fuel was pumped from a barge to the ship's tanks.

(And the story of that expedition, in 1964, is amazing in itself - it was baseline research in the Chukchi Sea for Project Chariot, Operation Plowshare, which was Edward Teller's fantasy about using a nuclear weapon to blast an all-weather harbor into the Arctic coast of Alaska, so the Navy could keep ships up there to watch the Russians. The idea was crushed by opposition from Eskimo groups, and the story is told in an excellent but rare book called "The Firecracker Boys". Find a used copy of the paperback if you can - it is a great story about misuses of science)

Willy told stories about hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering - as well as about the 'little people' who live out there on the tundra, and who hunt by throwing sharp antler pieces at their prey.
He reminded us that outsiders often doubt the existence of the little people, but his own brother had often seen them - and if we believe everything we read in Life magazine, how could that be more reliable than believing your own brother.

Willy said he taught his children by doing, not by telling them how to do things. He said he would point at the sky and say 'notice that sky, pay attention to what the wind ', instead of telling them that it was going to snow. He said he taught them hunting and fishing by letting them try and fail at times. He said 'if you learn something from someone telling you, you will forget. If you figure it out for yourself, you never forget'. He said that to survive in the Arctic you must never forget how to hunt, fish, stay warm and stay safe. So you have to learn by doing.

It must be the same imperative that Hawaiians felt, traveling great distances between islands - you can't afford to forget your survival skills.

Willy went on to look at his watch and say - ' I have to get going, meet the plane soon.' We said - airplane - we thought you were a hunter gatherers. He said that his friend with a Cessna was taking the wife and kids out to the point to pick berries for a few days. The plane would drop them off and fly them back in exchange for half the berries. No cash transaction. So he really was a hunter gatherer!.......Bob