An Internet-Fueled Illusion
by Shirley Duglin Kennedy
If you’ve been an information professional for any length of time, someone has probably said to you something like this, “You’re so smart. You know everything.” And you probably replied with something like this, “I don’t know everything, but I usually know where to find it.” It happened to me recently at work; someone asked for a particular statistic, and I was able to come up with it almost instantly because I recalled having seen it within the last week or so. You’ve probably been there; librarians, almost by definition, read widely and mentally organize the information we ingest.
|The thing about quotes on the internet is that you cannot confirm their validity.
—Abraham Lincoln, 1864
Sometimes, we fire off a few pithy reference interview questions to narrow the scope. We think about who would have a particular/vested interest in collecting/maintaining/storing certain information. A government agency? A trade association? But it always needs to be a legitimate source. Other people may be satisfied with something culled from the first page of Google search results. But not us.
How many times has someone asked you to verify something he “found on the internet”? Depending on where you work and what you do, you could hear this several times a day.
I don’t need to know everything; I just need to know where to find it, when I need it.
This particular quotation, complete with the oddly placed comma in the second clause, is all over the internet. But it’s not on any website that I would regard as legitimate or authoritative. However, there is commentary about it on Quote Investigator (“Exploring the Origins of Quotations”), which is maintained by Garson O’Toole, who claims a Yale Ph.D. and seems to be well-regarded by the media and other academics.
O’Toole attempted to source this Einstein quotation and didn’t have much more luck than I did, although he seems to have lots of good resources at his disposal. According to Quote Investigator, “This quotation is not listed in the key reference work ‘The Ultimate Quotable Einstein’ [UQEI], and QI has been unable to find any substantive evidence connecting the saying to Einstein.”
Quote Investigator (@Quote Research on Twitter) goes on to explore the concept behind this quotation and comes up with a number of similar sentiments expressed in other sources over time, including:
- “Educated people are not those who know everything, but rather those who know where to find, at a moment’s notice, the information they desire.” (The Expositor and Current Anecdotes, 1914)
- “Someone has said that the cleverest people are not those who know everything, but those who know where to look for and find any information that is at the moment required. Which is only another way of saying that they have methodical minds and habits and know how and where to store their knowledge.” (The Post Magazine and Insurance Monitor, 1917)
- “Of course, you can’t have facts for everything. The same thing is true here: you don’t have to know everything; you just have to know enough to work out solutions or methods of attack.” (Harold B. Finger, electronics engineer at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1970)
Incidentally, in attempting to source this quotation, I tried the local public library system’s reference desk and asked a friend/colleague who works at a large academic library. The general consensus was that the quote is apocryphal.
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.
—Frank C. Keil, the Charles C. and Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at Yale University’s department of psychology
I work with psychologists. Many, many interesting journal articles hit my radar screen all day, every workday. Occasionally, I see one that professionally resonates with me. To wit:
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. (M. Fisher, M.K. Goddu, and F.C. Keil, “Searching for Explanations: How the Internet Inflates Estimates of Internal Knowledge,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Advance online publication, March 30, 2015; dx.doi .org/10.1037/xge0000070)
The researchers here performed an array of different studies involving 1,000-plus subjects. Basically, those participants who ferretted out information using the internet rated their general knowledgebase as much greater than those who obtained the info using other means. In other words, the internet searchers regarded themselves as more knowledgeable about things that had nothing whatsoever to do with the subject area of the original search—what the researchers termed “a halo effect.”
In one experiment, the researchers told the participants, “Scientists have shown that increased activity in certain brain regions corresponds with higher quality explanations.” The participants were then shown a group of fMRI brain images “of varying levels of activation” and were asked to select an image that corresponded with their own brains when answering “self-assessed knowledge questions.” Those who had used the internet “chose the images with more brain activity.”
The most interesting part of this research—at least to me—is that it was the actual act of internet searching that boosted study participants’ inflated sense of personal knowledge. If they were simply provided with a single website link to answer a question, they did not report the same high level of “cognitive self-esteem.” The researchers also note, “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.”