Monday, October 21, 2013

My phone is just as smart as you guys!

Dunning-Kruger Effect, the internet is your multiplier.

Anyone can search for anything, which makes knowing what to search for and how to interpret the results more important than ever. The comoditization of information increases the value of knowledge.

Early on in the most recent episode of The Big Bang Theory (season 7, episode 5, "The Workplace Proximity" *), Amy, Bernadette, and Penny are in Penny's apartment drinking wine and talking about Amy's temporary move to Caltech:

Amy: "I'm leading a study to see if deficiency of the monoamine oxydase enzyme leads to paralyzing fear in monkeys"

[Bernadette lets slip that she might have done that research with death row convicts, which she quickly denies because it would have been unethical.]

Penny: "Not many people know this, but the monoamine oxydase [mispronounced as "oxidize"] enzyme was discovered by a woman, Mary Bernheim.

[Bernadette and Amy are stunned.]

Penny: "That's right. My phone is just as smart as you guys."

And this captures a common confusion between knowledge and information. Note the pathologies illustrated in that vignette:

1. Who discovered MAO is irrelevant for the work Amy will be doing. Like Penny, many people pluck some vaguely related fact from the internet to interject into a discussion, in the illusion that they will appear knowledgeable. This behavior is becoming more and more common, especially with smartphones, but knowledge is a lot more than a simple collection of facts.

2. Penny searches for MAO because someone else brought up the topic. Without a framework of knowledge to integrate facts, people who depend on search don't know what to search for. In other words, the input for a meaningful search requires knowledge.

3. Even if Penny found useful MAO information, for example the mechanism by which it catalyzes the oxidation of monoamines and affects mood, she wouldn't be able to interpret the biochemistry and neuroscience involved. In other words the output of the search only gets meaning through knowledge.

Yes, I understand it's a joke. But this attitude that learning substantive material is passé, made unnecessary by the existence of search engines — an attitude that sadly can be found even among educators — is corrupting, corrosive, and counterproductive.

Without knowledge, information is useless. More people making knowledge-poor searches leads to more random facts being flung haphazardly into discussions; this makes having the knowledge to select and interpret the important facts more valuable than before.

Knowledge is power, the power to use information. Pity so few people know that.

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* Even though the general arc of the show has become a soap opera, there are still some good jokes in each episode, and the final joke in this one is among the best.