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April 1, 2015

Yale Study discusses disconnect between what you actually know and what you assume to know from Googling

by John_A



In a world where everything you want to know about anything is readily available by just visiting Google, it’s never been easier to educate yourself in the vast varieties of human knowledge. From mathematics to sociological theories, it’s all there for your cherry-picking pleasure.

But if you’ve spent any time on Internet forums or maybe even at real-life social events, you inevitably come into contact with “Internet Intellectuals”. This term is not for those who just simply read something cool on the Internet, but rather those theoretical physicists who were awarded their PhD from the University of Google or the YouTube Institute of Technology.

Well, psychologists from Yale have made a recent publication in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that discusses this very phenomenon. 

Here is the abstract of the article in case you don’t feel like visiting the .pdf link just at this moment:

As the Internet has become a nearly ubiquitous resource for acquiring knowledge about the world, questions have arisen about its potential effects on cognition. Here we show that searching the Internet for explanatory knowledge creates an illusion whereby people mistake access to information for their own personal understanding of the information. Evidence from 9 experiments shows that searching for information online leads to an increase in self-assessed knowledge as people mistakenly think they have more knowledge “in the head,” even seeing their own brains as more active as depicted by functional MRI (fMRI) images.

What this really means is that many people go from just having “read something cool on the Internet” to making assumptions that they’re knowledgeable in the subject material, to the extent that they feel comfortable saying they feel knowledgeable in tangential topics. People confuse what they actually know with what they know they can look up.

You might be thinking, “Well, how is this any different than learning from a library?” The psychologists state that this too is possible.

This illusion of knowledge might well be found for sources other than the Internet: for example, an expert librarian may experience a similar illusion when accessing a reference Rolodex. An individual in a highly integrated social environment (Hutchins, 1995) may conflate knowledge “in the head” with knowledge stored in other human sources, such as fellow members of a cockpit crew. While such effects may be possible, the rise of the Internet has surely broadened the scope of this effect.

This may all be typically innocent, though obnoxious, but, in my opinion, the real issue comes into play when you start entering the realm of policy making. I can think of one topic right off the top of my head where armchair scientists reign supreme: anthropogenic climate change. Or just look at the recent vaccination-deniers debacle.

Just remember, wisdom is knowing just how ignorant you are, and that’s okay and admirable.

Source: Yale via Engadget. Banner image: Science Over a Cuppa

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