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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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.