Mo’ memoryhole backlash

Paul Raven @ 18-07-2011

That last week saw a whole bunch of Luddite handwringing over a science paper about the internet and its effect on memory is no surprise; what’s surprising (in a gratifying kind of way) is how quickly the counter-responses have appeared… even, in some cases, in the same venues where the original misinterpretations rolled out. This is some sort of progress, surely?

Well, maybe not, and those who don’t want to hear the truth will always find a way to ignore it, but even so. Here’s The Guardian‘s Martin Robbins taking the Daily Fail – and, to a lesser degree, another writer at The Guardian – to task for completely inverting what the report’s author actually said:

Professor Sparrow: “What we do know is that people are becoming more and more intelligent … it’s not the case that people are becoming dumber.”

I don’t get it, Daily Mail Reporter, why would you say that a study claims Google is making us stupid, when the scientist is saying the exact flaming opposite? Did you even watch the video before you embedded it in your article? Or read the study? Oh never mind.

Robbins shouldn’t feel too smug, though, because after pointing out the egregious editorialising of others, he swan-dives straight into the pit of ARGH GOOGLE THOUGH SERIOUSLY THEY’RE EVERYWHERE AND IF WE DON’T REGULATE THEM WE’LL ALL BE SPEAKING IN PERL AND SPENDING GOOGLEDOLLARS NEXT YEAR OMFG YUGUIZE. I guess we all have our confirmation biases, even those of us who know and recognise conformation bias in others.

(And yes, that totally includes me, too. But my confirmation biases are clearly better than yours. D’uh.)

Elsewhere, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang digs further into the report itself:

… as Sparrow points out, her experiment focuses on transactive memory, not the Proustian, Rick remembering the train as Elsa’s letter slips from his fingers, feeling of holding your first child for the first time, kind of memory: they were tested on trivia questions and sets of factual statements. I’m reminded of Geoff Nunberg’s point that while arguments about the future of literacy and writing talk as if all we read is Tolstoy and Aristotle, the vast majority of printed works have no obvious literary merit. We haven’t lamented the death of the automobile parts catalog or technical documentation, and we should think a little more deeply about memory before jumping to conclusions from this study.

The real question is not whether offloading memory to other people or to things makes us stupid; humans do that all the time, and it shouldn’t be surprising that we do it with computers. The issues, I think, are 1) whether we do this consciously, as a matter of choice rather than as an accident; and 2) what we seek to gain by doing so.


This magnetic pull of information toward functionality isn’t just confined to phone numbers. I never tried to remember the exact addresses of most businesses, nor did it seem worthwhile to put them in my address book; but now that I can map the location of a business in my iPhone’s map application, and get directions to it, I’m much more likely to put that information in my address book. The iPhone’s functionality has changed the value of this piece of information: because I can map it, it’s worth having in a way it was not in the past.

He also links to Edward Tenner’s two cents at The Atlantic:

I totally agree with James Gleick’s dissent from some cultural conservatives’ worries about the cheapening of knowledge and loss of serendipity from digitization of public domain works. To the contrary, I have found electronic projects have given me many new ideas. The cloud has enhanced, not reduced my respect for the printed originals […]

Technology is indeed our friend, but it can become a dangerous flatterer, creating an illusion of control. Professors and librarians have been disappointed by the actual search skills even of elite college students, as I discussed here. We need quite a bit in our wetware memory to help us decide what information is best to retrieve. I’ve called this the search conundrum.

The issue isn’t whether most information belongs online rather than in the head. We were storing externally even before Gutenberg. It’s whether we’re offloading the memory that we need to process the other memory we need.

And here’s some more analysis and forward linking from Mind Hacks, complete with a new term for my lexicon, transactive memory:

If you want a good write-up of the study you couldn’t do better than checking out the post on Not Exactly Rocket Science which captures the dry undies fact that although the online availability of the information reduced memory for content, it improved memory for its location.

Conversely, when participants knew that the information was not available online, memory for content improved. In other words, the brain is adjusting memory to make information retrieval more efficient depending on the context.

Memory management in general is known as metamemory and the storage of pointers to other information sources (usually people) rather than the content itself, is known as transactive memory.

Think of working in a team where the knowledge is shared across members. Effectively, transactive memory is a form of social memory where each individual is adjusting how much they need to personally remember based on knowledge of other people’s expertise.

This new study, by a group of researchers led by the wonderfully named Betsy Sparrow, found that we treat online information in a similar way.

What this does not show is that information technology is somehow ‘damaging’ our memory, as the participants remembered the location of the information much better when they thought it would be digitally available.

I expect we’re all but done with this story now, but I’d be willing to bet it’s no more than six months before we see a similar one. Stay tuned!

[ In case you’re wondering why I’m only linking to the debunk material, by the way, it’s because the sensationalist misreportings are so ubiquitous that you’ve probably seen them already. Feel free to Google them up though… so long as you don’t mind Google FEEDING YOU LIES! Muah-hah-hah HERP DERP O NOEZ ]

Conspiracy debunking checklist

Paul Raven @ 27-01-2011

Via David Brin, here’s Michael Shermer with a sort of Occam’s Razor checklist for assessing the validity of conspiracy theories.

While some conspiracies are genuine, most of the more popular ones are the result of our very fortuitous evolved ability to extrapolate patterns from limited data sets, which was a great survival tool back in the days when we roamed a savannah full of stealthy fast-moving predators. Its utility has been somewhat limited by the advance of civilisation producing an environment that’s significantly less threat-laden… which is clearly evidence of the Illuminati’s plan to emasculate us and bind us in servitude to defunct Babylonian deities with a taste for blood and gold (and blood-covered gold). Crafty bastards.

Anyway, that checklist:

The more that [the theory] manifests the following characteristics, the less probable that the theory is grounded in reality:

  1. Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy or when the evidence fits equally well to other causal connections—or to randomness—the conspiracy theory is likely to be false.
  2. The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. People are usually not nearly so powerful as we think they are.
  3. The conspiracy is complex, and its successful completion demands a large number of elements.
  4. Similarly, the conspiracy involves large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets. The more people involved, the less realistic it becomes.
  5. The conspiracy encompasses a grand ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. If it suggests world domination, the theory is even less likely to be true.
  6. The conspiracy theory ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger, much less probable events.
  7. The conspiracy theory assigns portentous, sinister meanings to what are most likely innocuous, insignificant events.
  8. The theory tends to commingle facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability or of factuality.
  9. The theorist is indiscriminately suspicious of all government agencies or private groups, which suggests an inability to nuance differences between true and false conspiracies.
  10. The conspiracy theorist refuses to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence to support what he or she has a priori determined to be the truth.

Just for fun, why not run this checklist aginst the “anthropic climate change is a manufactured hoax!” theory? We could make it into a game – first one to ten-out-of-ten is a cat’s-paw to the Left-Marxist conspiracy for the advancement of a less convenient world!