Pirates, Global Warming and the Google Effect

Strangely, as the world-wide population of pirates has dropped, over the last couple of hundred years, global warming has increased.

So the solution to global warming must be more pirates, right?

Err, no.

Ok, there is a correlation between the two numbers — as one decreases (the number of pirates), the other increases (the level of global warming) — but obviously it isn’t rational to believe that changing one could effect the other.

As statisticians are fond of saying, correlation does not imply causation. Two sets of numbers may appear to be related, but that doesn’t mean that a change in one will cause a change in the other.

Here’s another one: people with poor general knowledge are greedier, or less kind to animals, than their better informed peers.

This assertion is made by best-selling author William Poundstone. Poundstone is concerned that the internet is having an effect on our memories; because we can more easily look things up on the Internet, we are less likely to remember things. This, he thinks, is both good and bad. It’s good that we don’t have to remember tedious, or unnecessary, stuff but, on the other hand, relying too much on the Internet, instead of our memory, can make us poorer decision makers. That’s where the greed and animal cruelty comes in.

In a survey for his book Head in the Cloud, Poundstone asked respondents if they would throw their pet off a cliff for a million pounds. While only 7% said they would, of those, the percentage was nearly double among those who scored badly on a general knowledge test.

So the less you know, the more likely you are to sacrifice your pet for money. Can this really be true? Is a lack of knowledge an indicator of callous behaviour? There appears to be a correlation. But might there be some other explanation? Let’s see.

It’s probably true to say that poorer people are, in general, less well educated than their better-off colleagues. Rich people can more easily afford a good education for their children and the better educated you are the more likely it is that you will get a well-paid job. It’s a vicious, or virtuous, circle, depending on whether you are poor or not so poor.

So less well-informed people are less well-educated, have worse jobs and thus be more strapped for cash than the ones that score well in a general knowledge test. Consequently, they might be more likely to sacrifice a pet for a large amount of money. A million pounds will go a long way towards buying a decent home and providing better schooling for your kids.

It may also be the case that the better-off people have more valuable pets and this might also affect their decision. Mrs Rich might not be inclined to tip her pedigree Afghan hound off a cliff whereas Mr Poor might not have to think too long before jettisoning his kid’s goldfish, or stick insect, for the million pound pay-off.

So is there a causal effect between general knowledge and pet cruelty? We don’t really know, but, personally, I have my doubts.

Poundstone isn’t the only one to be concerned about technology’s effect on our brains.

A paper published by Kapersky Lab (the software company), comes to the conclusion that in the digital age people don’t remember things as well as they used to.

Kapersky commissioned a survey about the use of digital technology and from the results concluded that the use of mobile phones is affecting the way we remember stuff.

People of a certain age who use mobile phones, apparently, cannot remember the phone numbers of their nearest and dearest but they can remember the phone number that they had when they were younger. There is a correlation, then, between the adoption of technology and our ability to remember phones numbers.

So do mobile phones cause our brains to operate differently?

Well, yes, in a way. The thing is that if you have a mobile phone, you don’t need to know phone numbers. You find the name of the person you want and your phone calls the number for you. In the pre-digital age you had to know the number you wanted to ring, because you had to physically dial it. And, of course, the more you did this the more it became embedded in your memory. So numbers you often dialled on an old-fashioned phone are lodged in your memory because of the number of times that you dialled them, whereas numbers you only have to know once (to put them in your phone) are hardly remembered at all.

If the question had been about street addresses, I’m sure most adults would have remembered where they lived now as well as where they lived as a child — even if they did have their current address in their mobile phone.

Another finding from the paper was that people don’t mind forgetting something that they have looked up on the Internet, if they know that they can easily find it again. Indeed, a quarter of people surveyed said that the would forget a fact as soon as they had used it. Rather than remember a fact respondents were more inclined to remember where they found it.

This so-called “Google Effect” was described in research done by Dr. Betsy Sparrow back in 2011. She explained that, for some information, people prefer to remember where to find it rather than remember the information itself. This was, she said, a type of “transactive”, or external, memory; it’s the same as going to an expert who you know will have some information you need rather than remembering it yourself. This is, of course, something that people have always done.

So does using technology affect our brains? The answer is, of course, yes. Everything we do has some sort of effect on our brains. It’s well-known that London cabbies have a well-developed hypothalamus due to the enormous feat of memorisation that they have to undertake when doing ‘the knowledge’. Musicians' brains develop differently, too, depending on the instrument they play. Your brain changes all the time .

But is any of this really a problem? It’s not as if people are forgetting their friends’ names, or how to tie their shoelaces. They simply do not find it useful to remember a string of numbers that are only meaningful to a telephone system. Why would you want to remember a telephone number if you didn’t have to?

By the way, if you are wondering about the pirates, I really don’t know why their decline is correlated with the increase in global warming. I could hazard the guess that the industrial revolution that began fuelling the increase in greenhouse gases may also have produced the technology that makes pirates easier to catch and bring to book, thus removing them from the high seas. Who knows? Maybe I should look it up on Wikipedia.

See more articles at mralanjones.blogspot.com.