The Wall Street Journal describes a series of experiments by researchers at Yale University to find out whether or not searching for answers on the Internet makes us smarter or just makes us feel that way:
“The nine experiments, mostly variations on a theme, involved more than 1,000 volunteers. The researchers divided the volunteers into two groups and asked one group to look up answers on the Internet to such questions as, “Why are there dimples on a golf ball?” and “How does a zipper work?” The second group got the same sorts of questions without access to the Internet. Both groups were then asked to assess their ability to explain the answers to unrelated questions, such as “How do tornadoes form?” Repeatedly, volunteers allowed to use the Internet assessed their ability to handle the unrelated questions more highly than those kept from the Web. Researcher Matthew Fisher said that, essentially, “people are inflating what they think they know.”
I wrote recently about why the ignorant are so confident, and this supports that view. In the WSJ, one of the researchers Frank Keil, described it this way: “The cognitive effects of ‘being in search mode’ on the Internet may be so powerful that people still feel smarter, even when their online searches reveal nothing.” Mr. Fisher said that he considers the Internet beneficial, but he cautioned: “People using the Internet are less likely to appreciate the gaps in their understanding.”
Just because we can find answers in a few seconds on the web, doesn’t make us smarter. In an age where we’re being flooded with information, it’s a good reminder that simply finding answers online isn’t a substitute for knowledge, reflection, and the wisdom to know how to use that information. Essentially, the world is becoming obese with information, and yet we’re starving for wisdom.
Beginning today, make sure your confidence doesn’t come from your browser. Make sure it comes from a deeper well inside.