Sentences from Kevin Drum

by on January 2, 2015 at 2:13 pm in Education, Science, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

…”the internet is now a major driver of the growth of cognitive inequality.” Or in simpler terms, “the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter.”

The post is here, Kevin’s earlier post on that theme is here.

1 JWatts January 2, 2015 at 2:38 pm

““the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter.”

Pithy, but I don’t really see that the internet makes people dumber. It might give people who are “wrong”, additional sources of information. But how often is the “wrong” idea just a code word for something someone else doesn’t ideologically agree with. I suspect “dumb” = “wrong” to most people.

I think it does provide smart people with an easier way to find information. Anyone without an inflexible ideological bias a good chance at seeing both sides of an argument.

2 NPW January 2, 2015 at 3:11 pm

All unproven opinions:

I’d have to say that motherjones is probably the single most irksome source of unproven medical information both pre- and post-internet development. Odd that this would be their quote of the day.

I find that the internet is tremendously more useful today in reviewing calc, physics, engineering than it was when I was studying it for the first time. I can get dozens of different professors explaining the same material. I can find engineers who explain how they solve real world problems. There are very few cases, approaching zero, where wrong technical information survives without someone pointing it out. I think facts are much easier to find and to find explained well.

I don’t think that ” Anyone without an inflexible ideological bias a good chance at seeing both sides of an argument.” is really helpful. Yeah, I can find the two main opposing viewpoints, but this is useless given that neither positions have facts involved in their creation.

3 dearieme January 2, 2015 at 4:01 pm

“the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter.” Just the opposite of Powerpoint, then.

4 mavery January 5, 2015 at 9:37 am

When has power point ever made anyone smart?

5 JWatts January 2, 2015 at 4:25 pm

“…but this is useless given that neither positions have facts involved in their creation.”

Why would neither position have facts involved in their creation? It seem most of the time, in my experience, both sides have some facts involved and a lot of opinioned derived from said facts.

6 honkie please January 2, 2015 at 2:43 pm

Tangential point but I seriously enjoy the community on this site. Plainly smarter than the people I can talk to on a daily basis in person.

7 Alina January 3, 2015 at 11:10 pm

+1

8 The Devil's Dictionary January 2, 2015 at 2:52 pm

The invention of alphabet was really, really bad for equality. Gutenberg’s invention of printing from movable type made things even worse. And the internet… What a horror.

9 JWatts January 2, 2015 at 3:00 pm

Thread winner!

10 Yancey Ward January 2, 2015 at 7:04 pm

Agreed!

11 Paul January 2, 2015 at 2:56 pm

I get the impression that “the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter” is both correct and incorrect. I’m not sure it makes dumb people dumber per-say. My guess would be that:
1. More information isn’t a bad thing, especially if the internet attempts to have the cream rise to the top so to speak (as in well-reasoned,data-based articles getting more attention/wider circulation than hastily-reasoned anecdotal stuff).
2. People with the intention of seeking out ‘bad information’ while ignoring ‘good information’ (whatever that may mean) would have been just as effective at doing that pre-internet.
3. I suppose there could be a ‘haves vs have-nots’ situation here though my guess would be that the internet generally allows the floor of knowledge to be raised across the board.
4. The ‘haves’ in this scenario would gain more, suggesting cognitive (though I’d prefer the term ‘knowledge’) inequality would increase without whatever specific population getting ‘dumber’.

12 q.e.d. January 2, 2015 at 3:01 pm

“dumb people dumber per-say” oh god I just experienced an irony orgasm.

13 msgkings January 2, 2015 at 3:43 pm

LOL

14 BenK January 2, 2015 at 2:59 pm

You can make people less intelligent without additionally misinforming the misinformed, just by giving them compelling opportunities to waste the time they would use for making decisions.

15 ya but January 2, 2015 at 3:03 pm
16 Marie January 3, 2015 at 2:10 pm

Excellent BenK observation, but super excellent paraphrase.

17 same old January 2, 2015 at 3:01 pm

This guy thinks making himself “smarter” means exposing himself to more and more of the opinions and babble of his peers. It’s indistinguishable from what the “dumb” people are doing on the internet as well, which just goes to show that smart and dumb is more political and ideological to people like this than any computational power or capacity for honest reflection.

18 Boonton January 2, 2015 at 4:22 pm

I purposefully make it a point to comment on blogs where I generally disagree with the group. I’d like someone to demonstrate how I’m wrong. If they can’t then I’m faced with two possibilities: I’m wrong but so much smarter than the group I’m playing with they can’t help me figure that out, I’m right and a group of people who would get a lot of pleasure out of demonstrating me wrong have failed to do so. Even in the worse case, I can at least at least feel good that I bested everyone else. If I’m able to be convinced that I’m wrong, then at least I can bet that I’ve discovered a flaw in my thinking and can work on that weakness.

I do see, however, there is a distinctively different mindset at work with many who comment on the Internet. They feel they are right and are seeking confirmation and affirmation that they are. Those with a different opinion are therefore not welcome. Even if they are wrong, they are spoiling the party by detracting from the affirmation. If they are right then that ruins both the pleasure from confirmation and affirmation.

Drum’s article, though, is not so much about those who agree or disagree with you…. it’s about collecting basic facts and information. The internet does in fact reward those who figure out quickly how to use it while leaving those who don’t falling behind as they get more and more bad search results. Could this be countered by better search engines that are better at intuitively guessing what the user is really trying to get at? I’m not sure.

19 ThomasH January 2, 2015 at 4:35 pm

I try this too, but at NRO, it just gets my comments deleted. Most other places they are just ignored, which I take to mean they are at least right enough that they are not easily refuted. This site would be so much better if it were on Disqus which really does promote discussion.

20 Boonton January 2, 2015 at 5:37 pm

I comment sometimes on First Things and Disqus does seem to faciliate discussion but the dreaded moderation requirement means that comments are posted with a delay and sometimes totally denied without any feedback. At best your ability to converse is slowed to a crawl, at worst you aren’t even sure what their problem is.

Lesser blogs sometimes like to just delete comments after you annoy them too much. I typically take that as a sign they can’t handle anyone who hasn’t drunk the kool-aid and write them off as not worthy of the effort (ironically these often tend to be the same blogs that will leap at any stories about political correctness silencing conservatives in academia or the media).

21 Ryan Holiday January 2, 2015 at 3:04 pm

I called this the “new digital divide” for the Observer last year. It’s less about access to the internet and more about actually knowing how to navigate it and sorting the good from the bad.

http://betabeat.com/2013/11/the-new-digital-divide-privilege-misinformation-and-outright-b-s-in-modern-media/

22 Boonton January 2, 2015 at 3:17 pm

Pithy, but I don’t really see that the internet makes people dumber. It might give people who are “wrong”, additional sources of information. But how often is the “wrong” idea just a code word for something someone else doesn’t ideologically agree with. I suspect “dumb” = “wrong” to most people.

Yes but wrong does actually exist. For example, if you really think the earth is flat and not round you are wrong. And not just wrong but dumb in the sense that there is more than enough evidence and information out there that if it was evaluated by a person of reasonable intelligence he or she would conclude the earth is in fact round and not flat.

But the Internet does allow a dumb person to become dumber. The dumb person with the Internet has a much easier time finding ‘information’ to reinforce his dumb view. He can find friends who share his dumb view around the world. He can find more bogus articles filled with spurious reasoning to justify his dumb view. In an earlier age he might have felt more and more isolated in his dumb view and felt more and more peer pressure to revise it. With the internet, though, he can opt to revise his peers instead! All anyone needs to see to confirm this assertion is the endless stream of fake news Facebook feeds users based on what they and their friends decide to like and share. Begin by adopting a modest wrong view today but don’t go out of your way to really try to fact check it. Then just start blindly following whatever is fed to you, get a bit of an activist bug by ‘sharing’ your ‘wisdom’ and watch how you are encouraged to double down on your dumbness.

Likewise the smart person can become smarter. He can not only arrive at the right opinion, that the world is round, but he can use the internet to become even more right. He can map out exactly how round the earth is, he can explore minute deviations from ‘true roundness’ that the earth has. He can explore in painstaking detail related topics like has the earth always been this round? Will it always be this round? What forces cause it to be round? What forces cause it to fail to be perfectly round? How would the earth be different if it was or wasn’t round? If all you had reference to was a textbook in grammer school and a globe on the teacher’s desk growing up in a frontier community in the 1870’s, getting that deep into the subject would likely be impossible unless you were willing to leave your home and go to a university.

23 dearieme January 2, 2015 at 4:03 pm

“in grammer school”: God’s a cruel bastard sometimes.

24 Mark Thorson January 2, 2015 at 4:34 pm

Exactly. Among the most popular sites on the web are:

http://naturalnews.com/

http://www.infowars.com/

If those aren’t dumbness amplifiers, I don’t know what is.

25 CD January 2, 2015 at 6:57 pm

yup, Folks might want to look at Goldacre’s excellent blog: http://www.badscience.net/

I understand that a lot of commenters here see “Mother Jones” and have an ideological reflex, but Goldacre has an interesting project that is really not ideologically aligned. You can argue that in terms of human health, the ‘net has made it a lot easier to spread bullshit and make it look authoritative: anti-vaccination, hundreds of varieties of dietary twaddle, baseless health scares of every variety.

Goldacre is not just debunking bullshit: he’s interested in the difficulty of knowledge, pushing back against both academic and media efforts to make ungrounded claims.

26 dearieme January 3, 2015 at 7:41 am

True, he’s written a lot of good stuff. But when he started to try doing research himself, he found that it’s more complicated than he’d bargained for.

27 JWatts January 2, 2015 at 4:45 pm

I’m unconvinced by your argument. How many people are successfully using the internet to prove that the “world is flat”? Or something else that’s so trivially disprovable. Indeed, how many users of the internet have an IQ less than 70? It seems as if you are just attempting to classify most people with a fairly normal intelligence as “dumb”. And even among those of average intelligence, I see no indication that the internet is causing some kind of mental decline.

28 Boonton January 2, 2015 at 5:23 pm

Inequality doesn’t require the average person to change, just the extremes. The average person in 1870 didn’t think the earth was flat either. But the person with the dumb view wasn’t reinforced in his view as he can be now. Likewise the person who wants to go beyond the right view and get really deep into it has tools and communities today that he never had before.

29 mpowell January 2, 2015 at 5:02 pm

The Facebook ‘news’ feed is the latest advance in this particular phenomenon.

30 So Much for Subtlety January 2, 2015 at 5:30 pm

Boonton January 2, 2015 at 3:17 pm

The dumb person with the Internet has a much easier time finding ‘information’ to reinforce his dumb view.

Except like a lot of people on the Left, you are confusing believing what all sensible Upper Middle Class people believe in with being smart. And they are not the same. A “dumb” person who invests a great deal of time and effort in their particular view, even that the Earth is flat, is likely to be quite smart. Wrong, of course, but smart nonetheless. They won’t have a dumb reason for thinking the world is flat. They will have a smart one. A dumb person would just concede to authority.

“Then just start blindly following whatever is fed to you, get a bit of an activist bug by ‘sharing’ your ‘wisdom’ and watch how you are encouraged to double down on your dumbness.”

But that is the mark of dumbness – accepting what other people tell you is true. The internet gives people better access to authorities and so might well make them dumber. The brain is a muscle like any other. You don’t use it, it atrophies.

“Likewise the smart person can become smarter. He can not only arrive at the right opinion, that the world is round, but he can use the internet to become even more right. He can map out exactly how round the earth is”

And this is the converse fallacy. Someone who blind accepts whatever Wikipedia tells them is not smart. They are just outsourcing their higher cognitive functions to Jim Wales. Having Wikipedia on call does not make them smarter, it just makes them less likely to be wrong at a cocktail party. That is not intelligence.

“If all you had reference to was a textbook in grammer school and a globe on the teacher’s desk growing up in a frontier community in the 1870’s, getting that deep into the subject would likely be impossible unless you were willing to leave your home and go to a university.”

And yet you would be forced to think about the globe. That thinking is likely to make you smart. It is Grammar by the way. It is a freakish case, but this is precisely what Satyendra Nath Bose did. Having the world’s knowledge on your smart phone just makes you lazy, less inclined to think or to study, much less remember, and more likely to defer to authority. That is, dumber.

31 JWatts January 2, 2015 at 5:58 pm

I think you make a more cogent argument than Boonton does about the internet making people dumber, by relying on vacuous Appeals to Authority. But that being said, I still see no evidence that this is more common than it was in the pre-internet days. Does reading the Huffington Post or the Facebook posts of your clique make you less intelligent than the local Book club or Bible study group from the 1970’s?

32 Boonton January 2, 2015 at 6:17 pm

I think in the 70’s you’d be more limited by whatever the local ‘commonsense’ was. You could search out groups that reinforced your offbeat views and help you either become more dumb or more smart but it would have required more effort.

33 JWatts January 2, 2015 at 6:25 pm

It seems to me you are conflating the words dumb and wrong.

34 Boonton January 2, 2015 at 9:05 pm

I don’t think so, I defined dumb as:
dumb in the sense that there is more than enough evidence and information out there that if it was evaluated by a person of reasonable intelligence he or she would conclude the earth is in fact round and not flat.

You can be right or wrong for reasons that are either smart or dumb.

35 derek January 2, 2015 at 9:25 pm

Not at all. In the 70’s the information was available but it required actually picking up a book and reading it, or figuring it out. Someone who had an answer had it because they had put some effort into coming to an answer.

I don’t know where you get the idea that strange ideas didn’t promulgate pre internet. They were as popular, spread as far and just as weird. People read about them in books or magazines or on TV, then told all their friends.

What the internet does is make someone who doesn’t know seem knowledgeable. It is easy to find a three sentence answer to almost any technical question, but rarely is there any understanding behind it. All the manuals and textbooks are on line, but you still have to read them and understand them. The quick answers can cause problems if they aren’t tied to a deep understanding of the issue. I run into this with the people working for me. They find some ‘solution’ on the internet but don’t do any thinking to come to that solution, hence the solution rarely applies, or if it does it is happenstance.

36 Boonton January 4, 2015 at 2:41 pm

I agree strange ideas did promulgate in the 70’s as well as at all times in history. However, the internet not existing essentially put a tax on the spread and adoption of strange ideas. You couldn’t just Facebook or Google your way to fellow flat earth believers, but it was possible to find a group of like minded people via newsletters, classified ads, and so on.

I think that you could overcome those burdens in the 70’s and before if you had some local interest or agenda that might play into the ‘strange belief’ (for example, the John Birch Society could tap into White racism). Or if the ‘strange belief’ was able to break thru the media barriers to get national attention (say if a celebrity suddenly joined the cult).

What the internet does is make someone who doesn’t know seem knowledgeable. It is easy to find a three sentence answer to almost any technical question, but rarely is there any understanding behind it

True but in discussion groups there are always trolls who get off by showing the limits of other people’s knowledge. Those who have a four sentence answer will always be happy to stomp on the guy with just three.

All the manuals and textbooks are on line, but you still have to read them and understand them.

I agree, but this plays into the inequality angle…the dumb get dumber because they have more opportunities to find reinforcement for dumb views but the smart also get smarter. Those who are able and willing to read a whole manual or textbook to really understand something in depth have an easier time with Google today than they did in the 70’s where that would have required a trip to the library or perhaps a friend with old manuals or buying out of print books/manuals from the classifieds.

37 Boonton January 2, 2015 at 8:19 pm

My father-in-law had a phrase, ‘smart-dumb’ which I think might apply….

In one case, a person thought maybe those ’round-earthers’ were wrong. He was told otherwise by his limited social network and decided it wasn’t worth the effort and accepted ‘authority’.

In another a person finds confirmation and reinforcement. So it’s easier to disconnect from their local social network and double down with ‘flat-earthers’.

This is, in fact, dumb. If life depended upon the shape of the earth and you bet that it was flat you would be dead. It really doesn’t matter how many ingenious theories you came up with about why the ‘truth’ was the earth was flat. It isn’t and if it ever really mattered, you would lose.

The brain is indeed a muscle, but muscles are used for a purpose. If you build up a muscle for the purpose of sawing off the branch you are standing on, it would be better if you had remained weak.

38 So Much for Subtlety January 2, 2015 at 11:27 pm

But you are still insisting that “smart” means agreeing with you. That is not what smart means. Someone like the late Lubbavitch Rebbe was a smart man. He also thought the world was created some 4000 years ago – but created in such a way that no possible scientific test could prove otherwise. Wrong, but smart. Maybe if his life depended on it, he would suffer. Maybe not.

Wrongness is not a monopoly for dumb people. Some of the smartest people in the world have been Nazis or Communists. They were wrong. But not dumb.

39 Boonton January 3, 2015 at 7:31 am

As I said elsewhere, you can be right or wrong for reasons that are either smart or dumb. But ultimately there are assertions IMO that are right and other assertions in comparison that are wrong. Earth being flat or round is an easy example but ultimately it does not reduce to anyone’s opinion, it reduces to an assumption that there really is some object called earth and it has a real shape which is either closer to round or closer to fat.

40 Alex January 4, 2015 at 10:47 pm

+1.
It’s amazing how many people think that they have independently reached a series of carefully thought out propositions but extoll ideas that are exactly the same as those of every Salon or mother jones commentator. Not that the right are any better.

41 rayward January 2, 2015 at 3:38 pm

$.89. That was the price of a gallon of milk when I bought lots of it – in 1970, when my son was an infant. It was also, ironically, the price of a six pack of Busch beer (in returnable 12 oz. bottles) when I bought lots of it – in 1970, when my son was an infant. Today, the price of milk is $3.50 (according to Drum), information Drum “learned” thanks to the internet, not, I assume, because he has to purchase lots of it. Drum doesn’t say anything about Busch beer. Today the price of a bottle of Clicquot is $62 (where I reside), which I know not because of the internet but because I drink lots of it. Fortunately, my son doesn’t care for Clicquot, but he does drink lots of beer, craft beers, not Busch. Can you believe there’s a four pack of craft beers that costs $28! Thank God for the internet.

42 David Condon January 2, 2015 at 4:40 pm

I would characterize it as people who are open to experience are smarter and people who aren’t open are more strongly dug into the same spot they always were. There is a correlation between intelligence and openness to experience, but it’s not one to one. Among the oldest, there may be a stronger link between intelligence and the internet as the dumbest have probably not figured the internet out entirely. There is also an exception for those with certain disabilities.

43 asdf January 2, 2015 at 4:46 pm

Twitter…

44 Rich Berger January 2, 2015 at 4:53 pm

I wonder what the internet has done to Kevin.

45 Dismalist January 2, 2015 at 6:46 pm

The internet intensifies competition. Nobody likes competition. J. Watts got it all right up-thread.

46 Yancey Ward January 2, 2015 at 7:06 pm

Shorter Kevin Drum:

The internet has made is harder for me to fool people into thinking I am smart.

47 Tom January 2, 2015 at 7:52 pm

I don’t want to sound like some idiot Fox commentator, but you have to notice here the fundamental self-contradiction of the left-liberal egalitarian ideal. We could have a much more egalitarian world if only so many people weren’t so dumb. Okay.

48 Keith January 2, 2015 at 8:51 pm

A related point is that the internet tends to make it easier for people to pursue their interests which increases inequality. Dumb people don’t use the internet to research the shape of the earth. They use it to set up drug deals, play poker, view porn,and chat about nothing with other dumb people. Smart people research the shape of the earth, learn about curling, chat with other smart people etc.
Any increase in opportunity provided to a population increases inequality. Is there an economic theory that explains this? I always believed this to be true but would love to know if there is a body of research to support it.

49 Doug January 3, 2015 at 12:34 am

I’m willing to be the average intelligence of people buying/selling drugs on dark net markets is significantly higher than average. Setting up TOR and transacting in Bitcoin is well out of reach to the 100 IQ median. I’m also guessing, but with less certitude, that poker is also above average. Dumb people prefer slots or dice, whereas poker requires cognitive power to calculate odds, form strategies and read opponents.

As for porn, probably no significant difference than the average one way or another. I don’t think smart people are any less interested in sex than dumb people.

50 China Cat January 3, 2015 at 1:13 pm

+1

Keith just demonstrates that ‘dumb’ is read by everyone as ‘other’.

51 Keith January 3, 2015 at 1:53 pm

Doug and China Cat, you aren’t getting my point, probably because I am not making it clear enough. Let me be clearer and avoid examples that don’t seem to help. The Internet enables self-improvement and self-harm. Since the Internet is so convenient and powerful, it amplifies people’s natural tendencies. 100 years ago a person with an addictive personality in a rural town didn’t have many avenues to experiment or get hooked; now they have many. The people may be smart in the sense that they have figured out how to use the Internet to buy drugs but dumb in the sense that they are using it for things that will harm them.

52 Tom January 2, 2015 at 10:10 pm

You obviously haven’t tried online poker. Full of math whiz teenagers.

53 Keith January 2, 2015 at 10:29 pm

Ok, lose at poker then.

54 Tom January 2, 2015 at 11:30 pm

Yeah sure, some dumb guys try. But online poker’s a math geek game. I’m a decent player and had fun for a few weeks seeing how far I could get. Won a few small tourneys then got up to $20 in for $10k prize pools, and then I was up against a bunch of grinders, as they’re called. Guys who do nothing but play all day every day. And I had no edge anymore. Later I met a brother’s friend who is one of those grinders. Quite the odd perspective on life.

A lot of poker strategy is very relevant to economics. Imperfect knowledge and forcing signals and adjusting incentives and training the customer and so on. An economist plays poker book could make an interesting read. What’s funny about it is that it’s illegal in the US because it’s judged to be a game of luck. Which is so completely contrary to how poker is played. I’m surprised no one can beat that in court.

55 Keith January 2, 2015 at 11:52 pm

Interesting. How much can these grinders make?

56 Steve Sailer January 3, 2015 at 12:13 am

Nate Silver’s book talks about his years as a poker professional in Las Vegas. Suddenly at the end of the 2006 all the fish disappeared and the big money games were just pros like him. After a few months he retired in the spring of 2007 and started his 538 website that got picked up by the New York Times. What’s interesting is that even years later Silver hadn’t noticed that he was sitting on the biggest score of his life and never noticed: the Poker Bubble was an offshoot of the Housing Bubble — people treating their houses like ATMs and going to Vegas with the cash — and when the Poker Bubble popped in late 2006, that was a signal that the Housing Bubble was over.

57 MotorBoatingSOB January 3, 2015 at 11:43 am

I was one such grinder, and played for a living for about 6 months in late 2007 after finishing graduate school and before getting a real job. There were plenty of bad players in the online games at the time, and according to a number of my former colleagues who continued to play online, the existence of lots of bad players persisted until the advent of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in 2009-2010.

In answer to Keith’s question, grinders could do very well. I was clearing $8-10k/month and I wasn’t a particularly talented poker player who played low and mid-limit games ($200 – $400 buyin games). And there were plenty of players doing better than I was. I make more money now, but for a 24 year old with no expenses whose alternative was entry level technical jobs ($60-80k/year) it was attractive enough.

58 Keith January 3, 2015 at 2:44 pm

Very interesting.
MotorBoatingSOB, that was good money, and no boss!

59 Tom January 3, 2015 at 9:38 pm

The guy I met made 4 or 5, on Party Poker tourneys, on average and very volatile. I think you must be excellent to make that these days. Pre-2007 sounds great.

60 Edward Burke January 3, 2015 at 9:31 am

With a simple change of terms we get “education makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter”, yielding identical outcomes.

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