How to Be Smart

Hello, friends!

So there’s this anecdote I heard once, way back when I was a kid, about a math teacher who didn’t know the value of pi.  This teacher had to stop in the middle of class and look the number up in a book.  Naturally, this drew some snarky comments from the students.  The teacher replied, sagely: “Why should I waste valuable brain space on information I can easily look up?”

Why indeed?

I haven’t been doing much research lately.  Right now, I’m trying to pick the habit up again, and I thought I’d start by doing a little research on how to do research.  Specifically, I thought I could use a refresher course on how to tell the difference between facts and fabrications on the Internet.  I wound up reading several papers (this one, this one, and this one), and I still have at least one more paper (this one) that I want to read.  So what have I learned so far?

Well, the main take away from my research on research is that a lot of people implicitly share the philosophy of that math teacher who didn’t know the value of pi.  I may not know the answer, but I know where to find the answer, and in the end that’s good enough.  And maybe it is good enough, so long as you recognize that you’re getting your information from an external source.

Unfortunately, according to this paper from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the act of using a search engine can trick our brains into thinking we know more than we actually we do.  In a series of memory-related tests, people tended to overestimate their “unplugged knowledge” and underestimate their dependency on Internet search engines.  You don’t even have to have successful search engine results to get this inflated knowledge ego.  As the paper explains:

The illusion of knowledge from Internet use appears to be driven by the act of searching.  The effect does not depend on previous success on a specific search engine, but rather generalizes to less popular search engines as well (Experiment 4a).  It persists when the queries posed to the search engine are not answered (Experiment 4b) and remains even in cases where the search query fails to provide relevant answers or even any results at all (Experiment 4c).

I don’t think the lesson here is that we should stop using the Internet for research.  Rather, I think the lesson is that we need to stay humble.  It’s a little too easy to forget where our information comes from when information comes so easily through the Internet.  Unlike that math teacher who had to spend time flipping through a book to find the value of pi, I can just google it—or, faster yet, I can ask Siri.  But that does not mean I actually know the answer any better than that math teacher did.

P.S.: Yes, I did all my research for today’s post using Google.

14 thoughts on “How to Be Smart

  1. We need to be very skeptical when using the internet to find facts. One of the problems is that untruths tend to be repeated, so we can find the same false information multiple times, building the impression of reliability. It’s a problem of data abundance.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. One of the papers I read noted that people are generally good about double checking things they read on the Internet. But yeah, if the same untruth is being repeated often enough, all that repetition will make an untruth seem true.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmmm… let’s start with “not everything you read in the papers is true” and expand that to include the internet. It’s so important to qualify the quality of the source, but not enough people do it. I’ve seen so much stuff shared as “fact” where there’s absolutely no indication of who posted it, like alone what their credentials are. I still love Google though 😉

    Another problem is that of “Chinese whispers” especially in this world of social media. Himself is a military historian and we go to a lot of military shows. He hears a lot of mis-information being spouted as gospel. You heard a re-enactor say something and you assume they know their stuff. You write a post about it, which then comes up in Google searches and other people quote it. Rarely does what you heard get checked with historical records or accredited historians.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I can see that happening. In fact, I almost did that “whispers” thing in this very post. The math teacher in that anecdote was supposedly a famous and noteworthy mathematician. But I couldn’t find any sources to verify that the story was true, so I decided to leave the mathematician’s name out of it. It’s still true that I heard the story when I was a kid.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember reading something a long time ago that advised, when assessing a claim you found on the internet, search for the claim but append the word “science” or “skeptic”. If the claim is dicey, that will usually flush out material scrutinizing it.

    Of course, sometimes the claim is in a scientific paper. Then the thing to do is try to find out how much impact that paper might have had. Papers that make extraordinary claims but are ignored by the relevant field, probably should be handled with caution.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Hoax” and “fraud” are good words to add to those searches, too.

      Looking for follow-up research is important, though some of the planetary science papers I read cover discoveries so recent that the follow-up research doesn’t exist yet. In those cases, you just have to take a wait and see attitude.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s definitely the danger with reading new papers. There’s the old saying: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But also, extraordinary evidence requires third party replication. It’s why I often finish reviews of new papers with something like, “…if the results hold up.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I try to make some kind of note like that, too. Like when that phosphine on Venus paper came out. Although in that case, we didn’t have to wait long for the follow up research to come out.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. True. But a lot of the research I’m reading focuses less on actual intelligence and more on self-perceived intelligence. For example, the researchers might monitor your Internet use while you fill out a questionaire. Afterwards, they might ask you how much you relied on search engines to help answer the questions. You say you only used them a little, and you may even believe you only used them a little; but the researchers know you used them a lot. That’s the kind of thing they’re testing for.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Firstly I realllly like your theme!

    Secondly I love that you did research on research xD

    And thirdly I think most of us have this increased dependency on the internet and I fear over time we’ll stop remembering things. Of course it’ll start small.. like a fact or value of pi but then I’m sure it’s not going to stop there. We may even start losing brain cells for not using them..

    Liked by 1 person

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