It's Not The Internet Making People Dumb... It's Other People Who Benefit From You Being Dumb

from the agnotology-at-work dept

There have been various attempts to claim that the internet makes people stupid, though that seems difficult to support in actuality. As someone recently sent to me (uncredited, tragically -- so someone feel free to claim it!): "the internet doesn't cause stupidity, it just makes your stupidity more obvious to others." However, it does need to be admitted that there are a ton of ridiculous ideas online with no factual basis -- and some people cling to those ideas fervently. This certainly goes against the early utopian theories of the internet that said making more information available to people would help fight ignorance.

So what's going on? Clive Thompson checks in with a fairly compelling explanation. He points to research done by Robert Proctor, a science historian at Stanford, who coined the term "agnotology" to explain the phenomenon of ignorance increasing with the spread of information. But it's not the fact that information can be spread more easily that's at fault, but that there are special interest groups who benefit tremendously from that ignorance being spread. Thus, they make use of the same tools that most of us use to try to spread legitimate information to spread propaganda -- and it often works. Sometimes, it goes to an even more ridiculous level, where they purposely spread ridiculous information that's similar to legitimate information, just to make people stop trusting anything, including the legitimate information.

Of course, there's an immediate next question: can (and should) anything be done about this? Thompson suggests that collaborative tools like Wikipedia that are built through consensus are actually quite good at combating agnotology -- though, I would imagine that the internet-is-making-us-stupid supporters of the world (who tend to be Wikipedia-doubters) would disagree. They tend to prefer "official" sources of truth, though I think history has shown those to be just as prone to propaganda forces as well. In the end, much of it comes down to the individual level: how open are they to actually learning the truth vs. merely looking for facts that support pre-held opinions. One thing you can't change easily is how open people are to new ideas.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 1:22pm

    "the internet doesn't cause stupidity, it just makes your stupidity more obvious to others."

    Or as Mark Twain said,
    "It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt."

    The internet provides ample opportunity to remove such doubt.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Mac, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 1:23pm


    Stupid is as stupid does...
    Forest Gump

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Jamie, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 1:24pm


    I personally prefer the new atmosphere of lots of voices and sources to the old system where the gatekeepers of information were clearly defined.

    I can absolutely continue to believe and follow any ignorant or wrong belief I want to. And can easily find voices online to back me up. But if I want the truth, it is online as well. And I no longer am reliant on a few gatekeepers and their "official" versions of truth.

    Too often in the past(and even recently), the official versions of the truth were manipulated and falsified. And when that happened, people had no way to find any alternate views or versions of the truth.

    These days truth can be obscured by flooding the channels with false information, but it can't be hidden entirely because no single source controls the information channel. So the facts and true story will always be available.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 1:29pm


    You're telling me there's a scientific explanation for why Obama got elected? He used agnotology to leverage social networks?

    And I though people were just dumb... oh, wait.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Overcast, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 1:38pm

    Let us be thankful for the fools; but for them the rest of us could not succeed.

    -Mark Twain

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Joe, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 1:41pm

    Using the internet doesn't make you dumb, it can be hard for people to use if they aren't familiar

    The problem with the internet (which isn't it's fault) is that people make rash decisions, and the internet allows them to make decisions quicker than they would if say they had to go to the post office with a letter, or go to a bank and talk to a teller about removing their life savings.

    The speed of transactions/conversations/decisions have shrunk to an obscenely small amount of time, as communication has become increasingly easier.

    I guess the next evolution is video conferencing, maybe when people start seeing those they are talking to who are trying to hussle them body language may tip them off on whats going on.

    Or at least offer photos of the scammer given that i'm sure most video conversations will end up saved etc. Of course then they will start paying teenagers to "act/play parts" for them, or create avatars that look human/act human to allow them to scheme idiots ten fold.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Kevin, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 2:03pm

    Re: Sooooo....

    You're telling me there's a scientific explanation for why Obama got elected?

    Yes, there is.

    He used agnotology to leverage social networks?

    No. The Republicans spent the last 8 years running this country into the ground, and a majority of American voters decided that they didn't want more of the same and voted Democrat. It really is that simple. Some people call it shotgun podiatry, others call it digging your own grave. But regardless of which political party you support the simple truth is that people saw Republicans in control when things went into the shitter and voted accordingly.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Matt, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 2:10pm

    comfortable lie vs inconvenient truth

    I'm reminded of the editorial comic where it had 2 movies next to eachother (headlined) and people at ticket booths. On top of one said "I an inconvenient truth" and the other said "a comfortable lie" or something. The one with inconvenient truth had nobody lined up and "comfortable lie" had everyone.

    I think that about sums up a lot of it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    BillDivX, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 3:31pm

    Re: Sooooo....

    Obama got elected because he probably was the best choice. Note that this statement makes no implication about the overall quality of the available choices.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    frank, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 4:09pm

    ur all n00bs th4t c4nt 3v3n g37 a s1ngl3 fr4g

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    ECA (profile), Feb 11th, 2009 @ 4:11pm

    A point to refferance

    What I see happening is that MANY people are actually TRYING to gain some knowledge.
    But as you look for things, it gets confusing as hell, in this FOREST of knowledge.
    Im not saying that its ALL TRUE/REAL/pertinent knowledge.
    Knowing and understanding ARE not the same thing.
    Lets look at Digital TV.
    These are all the connections you COULD see on the back of a NEWER TV/LCD/LED/Plasma/LASER/OLED.
    WHICH of these WILL/CAN/SHOULD give you the best picture?
    WELL, ALL of them SHOULD be able to, EXCEPT COAX and Composite. The rest have the ABILITY to give you signal and video resolutions EQUAL or BETTER then those suggested for the NEW Digital Wide screen format.
    WILL a NEW TV give you ACCESS to these abilities WITH the other formatted inputs? NOT ALL, but a FEW companies WILL give you the MOST options..NOW to figure OUT what a TV will do? thats the fun part.
    GET the thing home, and you CANT figure out HOW to hook it up?? FUN..
    Cant figure WHAT res to use?? fun

    NOW try this idea/concept in trying to look up SOMETHING else, like religion. between the TRUTH and BULLS** out there, and what works for you.
    try it on "HOW to install Heating DUCTS" you wont find much.

    If you look at what was happening..the Other side THREW in the towel, and gave up. it was so 1 sided and the OTHER side didnt WANT the ball, or to be elected..they JUMPED out of the battle and RAN. they had to put SOMEONE up for the election, but after that they QUIT trying.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Jesse, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 5:08pm

    Along the same lines, I think that overall, "ignorance" has probably declined, but there is a larger proportion of the ignorant population who now has the ability to publish their ignorant ideas.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    His Shadow, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 5:30pm


    It is painfully obvious after the Iraq war that the "official" media were *perfect* tools for propaganda, relying as they did on "official" sources. Which, as some have finally come to realise, were lying.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 5:56pm

    Fox News

    Thus, they make use of the same tools that most of us use to try to spread legitimate information to spread propaganda

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    TDR, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 6:04pm

    "Here's your sign..."

    "You can't fix stupid."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    David Wynn, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 6:23pm

    Another explanation

    Couldn't another explanation, other than the profitability of stupidity, be that in the presence of overwhelming information, people cling to faulty heuristics tighter and tighter? Or maybe it's conceit in one's own ideas, since the ability to find supporting one's previous opinion rises with the increase in information.

    Basically, I'm not convinced that "special interests" are really the best explanation for this phenomena. I think individuals' own biases have a lot more to do with it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    miked (profile), Feb 11th, 2009 @ 9:42pm

    >Another explanation

    These "special interests" use disinformation along with individual biases to achieve their goal.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    bobby, Feb 12th, 2009 @ 8:04am

    Link to the wired article?

    I could possibly agree with the data from the research that you pointed to by Clive Thompson, but you link to the wired article. From the wired article I am left scratching my head and thinking who died and left this guy the gatekeeper of what is and isn't fact/truth. I agree that most people troll the internet for information that confirms what they already believe, but the very beginning of the article starts off like this: "Is global warming caused by humans? Is Barack Obama a Christian? Is evolution a well-supported theory?" So essentially he is saying that if you are skeptical of this or if you disagree than you are a dumb idiot, but that isn't always true. For instance global warming, while I certainly think that man is causing some of it, I am not sure that it is entirely man-made. So am I an idiot, because I might be slightly skeptical that our current state is entirely man-made? That isn't to say that I don't think we should cut emissions or limit waste or do everything within our power to slow down the warming trend, but entirely man-made?

    Truth and facts change (what I mean by that is that often truth can change as more facts are revealed), how many different theories of evolution have we gone through? Often a new theory arises based upon more research revealing more facts. And it seems that if a reputable scientist dares to question the theory or probability of evolution he is smeared for daring to question the theory. So sure perhaps as we have more information we become dumber, but the examples given basically makes him the gatekeeper of truth which defeats the entire purpose of the study, basically he is saying that I shouldn't drink the kool-aid from anyone else but him. End result is still stupidity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 12th, 2009 @ 8:09am

    Re: A point to refferance

    There are plenty of people that you can hire to assist you with subjects that are beyond your field of knowledge: doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.. Are you really so conceited that you think there must be something with anything that you don't personally fully understand?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 13th, 2009 @ 12:24pm

    Belief systems

    It's generally my experience that you can't change someone's opinions over the Internet. The most you can do is present opposing information, but that is usually dismissed as being from a non-credible source. My girlfriend tends to do this, and I've given up trying to argue with her.

    But I'm not worried she might read this, as she's convinced that all blogs are horrible and berated me when I linked her to this site. :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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