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.

Evolution Pre-Programmed Your Brain… Really?

Hello, friends!

As humans, we all have brains [citation needed].  One of the coolest things about our brains is, of course, that they let us learn stuff.  But our brains can do something even cooler than that: our brains allow us to unlearn stuff, too!  That way, if we learn something that’s wrong, we’re perfectly capable of unlearning that thing and then learning a new thing that’s right (or at least less wrong).

Personally, I think this ability of ours to learn, unlearn, and relearn has been the key to our evolutionary success as a species.  If we weren’t able to learn from our mistakes, if we couldn’t modify our behavior in an ever-changing world, then we’d probably still be living in caves.  Or, even more likely, we’d be extinct.

But there seems to be this idea out there, propagated mainly by pop-science articles, that evolution has pre-programmed our brains.  There seems to be this notion that our genes pre-determine our personality traits, that our brains are hard-wired to force us to behave the way that we do.  This talk about hard-wired, pre-programmed behavior seems to be extra common as it relates to gender.  Men act like this, women act like that, because our genes say we must.

I don’t believe that.  Whether we’re talking about gender, race, class, or anything else, I don’t believe human beings come pre-programmed, and I don’t think the scientific evidence supports that notion either.  To quote from this article, entitled “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid”:

[…] growing data on neural plasticity suggests that, with the possible exception of inborn reflexes, remarkably few psychological capacities in humans are genuinely hard-wired, that is, inflexible in their behavioral expression.  Moreover, virtually all psychological capacities, including emotions and language, are modifiable by environmental experiences.

To be fair, I’m sure genetics, evolution, and so forth do have some influence over us.  I’m sure we’re all born with certain inclinations or predispositions.  But our ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn plays a far bigger role in determining who we are as people and how we behave toward each other.  The idea that we’re born pre-programmed to be like this or like that is, I think, a pop-science myth.

But, of course, I could be totally wrong about everything I just said.  If so, then I guess I have some unlearning to do.