Viral hit: we all suffer from an inbuilt psychological bug, exacerbated by the internet. Photo: Marcelo Graciolli on Flickr, via Creative Commons
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Omniscience bias: how the internet makes us think we already know everything

The internet is an answer machine, it doesn’t help us ask better questions. It feeds the illusion that we already know everything we need to know to be well-informed.

Last week, Washington DC was hit by an earthquake. The Republican congressional leader Eric Cantor lost his seat to a Tea Party upstart with the suggestive name of David Brat. This wasn’t just a surprise: it was a shock. Nobody saw it coming – not even Nate Silver.

The political press quickly concluded that Cantor had committed the ultimate political sin of losing touch with the voters. Spending his days and nights in the unreal world of the nation’s capital, absorbed in the high politics of the Capitol, Cantor had forgotten about the people who put him there.

No doubt this is true. But as David Carr, the media correspondent of the New York Times, suggests, certain members of the press might want to get an appointment with an optician to see about that log in their eye.

Carr points out that the only journalists who got even a sniff of the trouble that Cantor was in were from local newspapers. Jim McConnell is a staff reporter at the Chesterfield Reporter, which serves the district in question. He didn’t call Brat’s victory, but he did predict it was going to be very close at a time when everyone assumed Cantor was a shoo-in.

He was able to do this by employing the sophisticated journalistic technique of leaving the office and talking to people. “You could tell wherever you went that Cantor was incredibly unpopular, that people saw him as arrogant,” he told Carr. Meanwhile, members of more prestigious and well-funded national newspapers completely missed the big story about to explode in a district less than two hours drive from Capitol Hill.

Carr blames the internet, at least in part. The web is a tremendous boon to reporters: the world’s information is now accessible from a desk or smartphone. But it can also seduce journalists into thinking that they know everything worth knowing. As Carr puts it, “the always-on data stream is hypnotic, giving us the illusion of omniscience.”

Take another story that seemed to come out of the blue: the current violence in Iraq. There’s no shortage of pundits pronouncing with impressive confidence on its causes and ramifications. The real experts tend to be more cautious; they know how little we know about ISIS and its aims. They may have also have been left wondering why editors only got interested in this story once pictures started to show up in their Twitter streams.

Actually, I think Carr puts his finger on something with implications far beyond the media. We all suffer from an inbuilt psychological bug, which is exacerbated by the internet. Call it “omniscience bias”: the illusion that we know everything we need to.

In 1987, researchers at the University of Oklahoma ran an experiment in which they gave students a series of problems to solve, and asked them to generate as many solutions as they could. The researchers deliberately gave their subjects a very limited amount of information on each problem. One problem was how to provide enough parking spaces on the university campus, given the limited space available. The students came up with different solutions, including reducing demand for parking space by raising fees or using the space more efficiently.

After the students had generated their answers they were asked to estimate what percentage of possible good solutions they thought they had come up with, while, separately, a panel of experts were asked to compile a database of the possible solutions. It turned out that the average participant generated only about one in three of the best solutions – yet when asked, participants guessed that they had landed on three out of four possible solutions. Not only had they missed most of the best ideas, but they found it hard to imagine there were many alternatives they hadn’t covered.

Psychologists have replicated this or similar effects in different ways: we tend to be over-confident that we have the right information we need to form opinions or make judgements. The modern internet feeds this tendency by persuading you that everything you need to know is a click away or coming soon from a feed near you. Google never says, “I don’t know.” It is an answer machine, but it doesn’t help us ask better questions.

Even those paid to be intellectual explorers are can be stymied by the apparent certainties of the web. James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, assembled a database of 34 million scholarly articles published between 1945 and 2005. He analysed the citations included in the articles to see if patterns of research have changed as journals shifted from print to online.

His working assumption was that he would find a more diverse set of citations, as scholars used the web to broaden the scope of their research. Instead, he found that as journals moved online, scholars actually cited fewer articles than they had before. A broadening of available information had led to “a narrowing of science and scholarship”.

Explaining his finding, Evans noted that Google has a ratchet effect, making popular articles even more popular, thus quickly establishing and reinforcing a consensus about what’s important and what isn’t. Furthermore, the efficiency of hyperlinks means researchers bypass many of the “marginally related articles” print researchers would routinely stumble upon as they flipped the pages of a printed journal or book. Online research is faster and more predictable than library research, but precisely because of this it can have the effect of shrinking the scope of investigation.

According to the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, “our comforting conviction the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” It’s never been easier to go through life assuming you know everything you need to know. But that leaves you more vulnerable to information earthquakes. Just ask Eric Cantor.

Ian Leslie is the author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (Quercus, £10.99)


Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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Space suicide: the sad but noble death of the Cassini probe

It’s not surprising that scientists and space geeks around the world will bid it adieu with a heavy heart.

Since April 2016, a Twitter bot called @CassiniNoooo has been tweeting out “Nooooo” followed by random numbers of “O”s. The last tweet sent by the bot is just “I......”.  

The account has been paying a light-hearted tribute to one of the most important important scientific projects of recent times, and one which is soon to come to an end. 

Launched in 1997, Cassini-Huygens is a plutonium-powered probe that has been circling Saturn since 2004. Providing teams of scientists with unparalleled images of Saturn and its moons, it has allowed experts to examine the composition of solar bodies one billion miles away.

But on 15 September, Cassini will begin its final mission, referred to by Nasa scientists as its "Grand Finale". It will shed its modules and sensors as it heads towards a final fiery death in Saturn's gaseous atmosphere.

When news of Cassini's impending end was announced in April, scientists, casual space fans, engineers, teachers and other assorted stargazers expressed sadness about the craft’s suicide mission. Many are expected to tune in to watch the live stream of the probe's final moments on Nasa’s dedicated webpage

Cassini has provided some of the most intriguing discoveries about our solar system. It discovered a saltwater ocean under the icy surface of one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, by "tasting" molecules – a finding that could, in theory, support alien life. It also took photographs of Titan, a moon bigger than Mercury, which enabled scientists on earth to discover liquid on its surface – only the second body in the universe to have free-standing liquid after our own planet. 

In a way, Cassini's discoveries signed its own death warrant. Potentially life-supporting pristine environments must not be contaminated by Earth-originating microbes and, left to its own devices, Cassini could collide with one of the moons it discovered so much about.

Faithful until its last moment, Cassini will be diving in and out of the space between Saturn and its rings as it reaches the end of its final orbit, a feat never achieved before, transmitting completely novel data that would be too risky to gather unless it was already destined for immolation.

Cassini's contribution to science, laid out in this oddly moving webpage from Nasa, not only allowed us a deeper understanding of our solar system, but also helped us picture other kinds of worlds. It's a service that has been recognised well beyond academics or professional scientists. One six-year-old is even throwing Cassini a goodbye party, with a themed cake and games – because, he said, it was the “only spacecraft he ever knew”. Others have tweeted out music composed for Cassini, and comics depicting their versions of its final moments.

It has not been easy for the scientists who had to approve the decision to kill Cassini. In a press conference on 4 April, roughly three weeks before Cassini started its final orbit, Linda Spilker, a planetary scientist at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, admitted that it was hard to say goodbye to their “plucky, capable little spacecraft”. Some even referred the probe as their child.

On Earth, we get to think of these robotic explorers like astro-ambassadors, not least because so much of the current discussion around space monitoring centres on how information collected will enable life in space for humans. Now one of those ambassadors is about to make its final visit to a foreign planet, long before its creators will get to make their own introductions.