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)