Ignorance and the Internet, Part I: A Culture of Facts

This past April 15 marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, and while many people were aware of the historic real-life event that was commemorated that day, there was a small population of Twitter users who were completely unaware that the Titanic was a real ship.

In more recent news, when it was revealed this week that Rodney King was found dead at his California home, it wasn’t surprising that his name started trending on Twitter. What was surprising was the number of people who had no idea who he was.

As the linked article above points out, the same trend has been seen with a dozen or so other celebrities and news events this past year, and many critics are pointing to “failures of education” and “generational gaps” to explain these face-palming displays of ignorance on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

But it doesn’t stop there. We are assaulted by ignorance on the Internet on a daily basis. We see it everywhere, and it’s often blamed on people getting dumber and lazier. But it got me thinking: is this ignorance really anyone’s fault? And does it indicate that people today are less intelligent or in touch with current and historical events than older generations?

I think the answer in both cases is ‘no.’

A Culture of facts

We live in a society which values objective facts and rote memorization as a measure of intelligence. Just watch any “street interview” session that asks average Americans simple questions (“Who is the President of the United States?” or “What year was America discovered?”) and makes fun of the dozens of people who can’t answer correctly:

But honestly, does the ability to regurgitate facts indicate a higher level of intelligence? Would you think any less of a Nobel laureate physicist who, because he had been raised in South Korea, wasn’t aware that George Washington was the first President of the United States? Personally, I don’t care if my dermatologist knows all the stages of the Krebs Cycle; my measure of his intelligence is whether or not he can accurately determine whether or not I have skin cancer.

I have NO IDEA if this mole is malignant, but would you like to hear me recite all the South American countries and their capitals?

Another problem lies in what we DON’T see in this video. How many people did the students have to interview to find this sample of people who couldn’t answer correctly? We see only the ignorance – just as we do in these tweets. Never mind the fact that Twitter has over 500 million registered users. Let’s focus on the dozen or so who have never heard of this particular popular fact and bemoan the downfall of society.

At the end of this video, the students actually provide links to unedited interviews with three of these people in which a number of their answers are correct. So what does that mean for their intelligence? How should they be graded? And do we take into account their backgrounds or previous education when “grading” their performances?

The same is true for a fact like the sinking of the Titanic. This is a Western fact, not known or taught frequently outside the US. Oh, and by the way, it’s not even required in the Georgia Performance Standards for Social Studies. And with teachers’ jobs riding on students to pass standards-based tests, what real incentive do they have to go out of their ways to teach it?

The point is, if you’re never exposed to it, and if you never memorize it, can you be blamed for not knowing it?

People know Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet because they’ve been exposed to it over and over again. What if the question had been “Who wrote As You Like It“? Or “Who wrote Troilus and Cressida?” (Both also by Shakespeare, by the way). The assumption is that the retention of popular facts – and popular culture in the case of some of the questions in the video – are the measure of intelligence.

Cressida? Isn’t she that chick on Jersey Shore?

Rote Memorization vs. Critical Thought

The real measure of intelligence is not in rote learning – or memorizing facts, but in applying those facts to evaluate and solve problems. That’s critical thought, and that’s what matters.

True, memorizing your times tables can make solving complex math problems easier, but does memorizing thousands of words that you’ll never encounter again just to win a spelling bee make you smarter? I don’t believe it does, at least not in and of itself. I do believe that the motivation, patience, and work required to memorize those words will transfer into other areas of personal development and serve that person well, but the simple act of memorization is far less useful.

Anyone who has ever studied Bloom’s Taxonomy knows that “Remembering” is the lowest learning objective in his hierarchy. With a basic level of intelligence and motivation, just about anyone can memorize just about anything. When we see a two year old reciting pi to 35 digits, our initial reaction is “Wow! What an intelligent girl!” When you realize that’s only 9 more significant figures to memorize than your ABCs, it’s not so impressive. Why? Because we ALL know our ABCs, but pi is uncommon, and therefore, we believe it takes an intelligent person to memorize it. It goes back to the “People are stupid video” – just as NOT knowing COMMON facts makes you stupid, KNOWING facts that are UNCOMMON makes you smart. That’s the perception.

I doubt the two-year-old in the video knows the significance of pi, much less how to use it to discover the circumference or area of a circle. And even those formulas can be memorized and regurgitated. So is she more intelligent than the average two-year-old?

I don’t mean to demean these people in any way. The point is to look at what we deem as “intelligence” in a more critical way. Taking the knowledge we have in order to understand our world, then applying that understanding to analyze problems and evaluate possible solutions, eventually leading to the creation of those solutions, that was Bloom’s idea of intelligence. In light of that, a misinformed tweet says very little about how smart a person really is.

-Mr. Franco

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3 Responses to Ignorance and the Internet, Part I: A Culture of Facts

  1. dc says:

    Yeah, saw that article. Factual ignorance is nothing new… though what surprises me is that Twitter users would reflexively broadcast their ignorance across networks. Sure, it might be seen as just a way of crowdsourcing an answer, but gimme a break, Wikipedia is a click or two away. The answer has already been crowdsourced and it’s right there. So they either don’t know about it, don’t know how to access it, or…. they don’t care? Who’s tweeting from a device these days that can’t access webpages?? I don’t mind ignorance per se, since we all have plenty of it depending on context. It’s what we do when confronted with our ignorance–what tools, skills, processes, practices, resources we have at our disposal–that makes the difference.

    This is starting to sound like the genesis of another article…

    • Mr. Franco says:

      I agree, but I think part of the reason these people broadcast that ignorance is because they have no reference for just how ridiculous their statements will appear to the general public. When you’re legitimately unaware that the Titanic was a real ship, then you’re legitimately unaware of just how significant of an event it was in Western history (and by extension, how ignorant you’ll look in revealing you didn’t know about it). You’re also more likely to believe that your peer group has access to the same information and knowledge base that you do, so some of these kids may have believed they were actually enlightening their friends (e.g. “Guys, the Titanic was real! #mindblown.”). I see it less as a form of crowdsourcing and more as the digital native equivalent of “water cooler” conversation. In a naive way, they believe they’re sharing knowledge and contributing to a conversation.

      I do agree with you though; what we do when confronted with our own ignorance is a reflection of our intelligence. I think that’s why I’m such an advocate of digital literacy. When I was young, the most embarrassing thing I could do would be to misspeak in class – 25 people or so might laugh at me, and I’d learn something new and modify my social behavior based on that experience. Now, kids have the opportunity to gaffe on a global scale, so they need even more guidance.

      • H says:

        Ahem, a little late, but…
        It’s not “check out this fact you probably didn’t know either” but more of a “wow, I can’t believe I didn’t know this” for the majority of those tweets. This is how some people react to something surprising and new that apparently everyone else knew. They are, for the most part, not trying to find out that something happened, they are sharing their reaction.

        Even in the Rodney King tweets it’s not so much asking people who he is. It’s a reaction to seeing the news make a big deal about him. If you saw them go on and on about someone and had no idea who that was, you might ask yourself that same question. With Twitter, they can broadcast their every thought.

        I see it as a generation gap in the sense that our generations focused on not only teaching about the Titanic, but having it around in popular media. So we learned that the Titanic was a ship that sank after hitting an iceberg, but we remembered it because of the film.

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