Reflections on the internet.

An interesting item that recently crossed my ‘screen’.

I make no apologies for cutting corners for today’s post. Because the last few days of looking after, and worrying about, Hazel have soaked up so much of our time and energy that I just couldn’t find the creative impulse to do much more than ‘copy and paste’.

That’s not to downplay the great interest of this article that appeared over on The Conversation blogsite a few days ago.

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Why the Internet isn’t making us smarter – and how to fight back

April 15, 2016 5.58am EDT

Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan

Disclosure statement: David Dunning has received funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Templeton Foundation in the past.

In the hours since I first sat down to write this piece, my laptop tells me the National Basketball Association has had to deny that it threatened to cancel its 2017 All-Star Game over a new anti-LGBT law in North Carolina – a story repeated by many news sources including the Associated Press. The authenticity of that viral video of a bear chasing a female snowboarder in Japan has been called into question. And, no, Ted Cruz is not married to his third cousin. It’s just one among an onslaught of half-truths and even pants-on-fire lies coming as we rev up for the 2016 American election season.

The longer I study human psychology, the more impressed I am with the rich tapestry of knowledge each of us owns. We each have a brainy weave of facts, figures, rules and stories that allows us to address an astonishing range of everyday challenges. Contemporary research celebrates just how vast, organized, interconnected and durable that knowledge base is.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that our brains overdo it. Not only do they store helpful and essential information, they are also receptive to false belief and misinformation.

Just in biology alone, many people believe that spinach is a good source of iron (sorry, Popeye), that we use less than 10 percent of our brains (no, it’s too energy-guzzling to allow that), and that some people suffer hypersensitivity to electromagnetic radiation (for which there is no scientific evidence).

But here’s the more concerning news. Our access to information, both good and bad, has only increased as our fingertips have gotten into the act. With computer keyboards and smartphones, we now have access to an Internet containing a vast store of information much bigger than any individual brain can carry – and that’s not always a good thing.

Better access doesn’t mean better information

This access to the Internet’s far reaches should permit us to be smarter and better informed. People certainly assume it. A recent Yale study showed that Internet access causes people to hold inflated, illusory impressions of just how smart and well-informed they are.

But there’s a twofold problem with the Internet that compromises its limitless promise.

First, just like our brains, it is receptive to misinformation. In fact, the World Economic Forum lists “massive digital misinformation” as a main threat to society. A survey of 50 “weight loss” websites found that only three provided sound diet advice. Another of roughly 150 YouTube videos about vaccination found that only half explicitly supported the procedure.

Rumor-mongers, politicians, vested interests, a sensationalizing media and people with intellectual axes to grind all inject false information into the Internet.

So do a lot of well-intentioned but misinformed people. In fact, a study published in the January 2016 Proceedings of National Academy of Science documented just how quickly dubious conspiracy theories spread across the Internet. Specifically, the researchers compared how quickly these rumors spread across Facebook relative to stories on scientific discoveries. Both conspiracy theories and scientific news spread quickly, with the majority of diffusion via Facebook for both types of stories happening within a day.

Making matters worse, misinformation is hard to distinguish from accurate fact. It often has the exact look and feel as the truth. In a series of studies Elanor Williams, Justin Kruger and I published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2013, we asked students to solve problems in intuitive physics, logic and finance. Those who consistently relied on false facts or principles – and thus gave the exact same wrong answer to every problem – expressed just as much confidence in their conclusions as those who answered every single problem right.

For example, those who always thought a ball would continue to follow a curved path after rolling out of a bent tube (not true) were virtually as certain as people who knew the right answer (the ball follows a straight path).

Defend yourself

So, how so we separate Internet truth from the false?

First, don’t assume misinformation is obviously distinguishable from true information. Be careful. If the matter is important, perhaps you can start your search with the Internet; just don’t end there. Consult and consider other sources of authority. There is a reason why your doctor suffered medical school, why your financial advisor studied to gain that license.

Second, don’t do what conspiracy theorists did in the Facebook study. They readily spread stories that already fit their worldview. As such, they practiced confirmation bias, giving credence to evidence supporting what they already believed. As a consequence, the conspiracy theories they endorsed burrowed themselves into like-minded Facebook communities who rarely questioned their authenticity.

Instead, be a skeptic. Psychological research shows that groups designating one or two of its members to play devil’s advocates – questioning whatever conclusion the group is leaning toward – make for better-reasoned decisions of greater quality.

If no one else is around, it pays to be your own devil’s advocate. Don’t just believe what the Internet has to say; question it. Practice a disconfirmation bias. If you’re looking up medical information about a health problem, don’t stop at the first diagnosis that looks right. Search for alternative possibilities.

Seeking evidence to the contrary

In addition, look for ways in which that diagnosis might be wrong. Research shows that “considering the opposite” – actively asking how a conclusion might be wrong – is a valuable exercise for reducing unwarranted faith in a conclusion.

After all, you should listen to Mark Twain, who, according to a dozen different websites, warned us, “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.”

Wise words, except a little more investigation reveals more detailed and researched sources with evidence that it wasn’t Mark Twain, but German physician Markus Herz who said them. I’m not surprised; in my Internet experience, I’ve learned to be wary of Twain quotes (Will Rogers, too). He was a brilliant wit, but he gets much too much credit for quotable quips.

Misinformation and true information often look awfully alike. The key to an informed life may not require gathering information as much as it does challenging the ideas you already have or have recently encountered. This may be an unpleasant task, and an unending one, but it is the best way to ensure that your brainy intellectual tapestry sports only true colors.

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The way the world now communicates, for good and bad, using the internet is staggering. As the website Internet Live Stats reveals: (as of this moment today)

3,352,197,085 Internet Users in the world

1,016,623,500 Total number of Websites

2,060,120 Blog posts written today

So with that last figure in mind, I’ll send this for posting without delay! 😉

19 thoughts on “Reflections on the internet.

  1. I sometimes wonder if we may arrive at a point when very few care about examining the veracity of their beliefs – one thinks of religion as an exemplar – and that all the supposed information merely becomes play-stuff for the mind and emotions. I can imagine that happening, a world in which facts are for the many redundant, and that ignorance suffices in providing its blissful promise, perhaps occasionally by means of VR, but essentially in that we delegate responsibility for information gathering totally to the corporations, who then sell it back to us in whatever modified form suits their ends and appeases our desires.

    1. Your comment, Hariod, reminds me of that old saying, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good argument.” Or, in this case, never letting the truth get in the way of a belief! Funny old world.

    2. I recently read a social media post of a very good and intelligent friend (and one very much in the public eye) in which is stated patently false assertions about candidate Sanders. I began a private retort in which I was to inform him of glaring factual errors, pointing out that simply because he doesn’t like the look of the masses of young people flocking to the man like Jesus, himself doesn’t dispel the urgent and meaningful message, the man’s actual political record obtainable from legitimate sources, including film footage.

      I think we all have been more or less guileless regarding certain aspects of the Internet. I know I didn’t send that rebuttal, even privately. Because somehow the anonymity of Internet communications brings out the beast in some people. Assaults on character happen daily. News is often entertainment. Friends become targets of every nutcase tucked into niches of the collective unconscious. No, thanks.

      In the words of the Wicked Witch of the West, “What a world!” How quickly it is all changing. And I am so thankful for people like you and now Paul. We need these affirmations that a World-Wide Web can indeed be utilized for good. Aloha.

  2. Good article.
    It amazes me how confident many people seem to be on a given issue when they have done little research or reading and how often they are completely unaware of counter arguments, perspectives or complexities. I’ve also lost count of the times when I’ve been forwarded incorrect information in emails from friends who have never checked the veracity of that information on sites like Snopes etc. I really believe confirmation bias and intellectual laziness are pervasive in our society. Dichotomous thinking is too, whereas truth is frequently to be found in the many shades of gray and in the variables.
    “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubt, while the stupid people are full of confidence.” – Charles Bukowski
    Crossing my fingers for Hazel, Paul.

  3. Well, the internet is just a medium, I think people have always listened to arguments supporting their own beliefs. Any university offers (or did when I was a student) courses in how to check your sources, how to avoid confirmation bias (present also in science, proving it’s not just a question of our level of intelligence). It’s a good idea to question everything and consider changing our beliefs if they turn out not to be supported by valid data/facts – which is hard as we tend to like status quo-possibly because we try to preserve energy, the state described also as laziness 😉 Anyway, I wouldn’t blame the internet, it makes information more accessible. Whether the source we use is reliable is actually our choice.

      1. Wonderful! 🙂 Guess it’s the law of large numbers. In the sense that out of every zillion mistakes there comes a good move! So come on, let’s you and me keep making those mistakes! 😉

    1. Thank you, Bela. Hazel is livelier but still not eating anything like as much as she needs to. Tomorrow should bring answers. Big hugs, and Hazel sends you a special dog lick!

    1. Thank you, as always Sue, for your loving thoughts. I will be writing up an update for Friday as tomorrow (Thursday) we should have the results of the further blood titre.

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