Author: William Poundstone
APA Style Citation
Poundstone, W. (2016). Head in the Cloud: Why knowing things still matters when facts are so easy to look up. Little, Brown and Company. New York, New York.
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Experienced educators around the globe have heard the argument about moving away from a course centered in facts and lecture to a more active classroom in which students are actively engaged in the learning process. William Poundstone has some interesting insight into the nuances involved in this argument. Poundstone acknowledges that it is fairly simple today to look up endless bits of information. He believes that technology is beneficial in many ways and can help both educators, students and those in other fields in many functional and time-saving ways. For example, perhaps it is no longer necessary that students learn to properly cite in MLA or APA style when many online referencing tools can help them properly organize and cite in any style selected. Perhaps it is no longer necessary that students remember historical speeches when they are available at the touch of a button. However, if all students know are independent, disparate facts, which are not woven together by context and connectivity it is like knowing much about a number of cities without knowing how they relate and interact with the other villages and cities in their region and around the world. Poundstone argues that context is what makes learning meaningful and important. He poses that students must first know something before they can actively engage with the information they have.
Poundstone starts the book with a fine example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. A bank robber read on the Internet that lemon juice made you invisible. He believed that since he had doused his face with lemon juice prior to robbing a bank that he would be free from detection on the security cameras (he was arrested). This floundering bank robber had a great deal of information available to him, but he could not determine what information on the Internet was real and what was a prank. Unfortunately, those who know the least often estimate that they know far more than they do. Those who know quite a bit, on the other hand, tend to underestimate their knowledge only slightly.
Poundstone discusses taxi drivers in London who have to sit for an intense exam known as “The Knowledge” which tests the names and locations of landmarks in a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross in central London. MRI scans have demonstrated that those taxi drivers who have passed The Knowledge exam have larger hippocampal mass than a control group and as they have more experience, the hippocampus is even larger. Uber has now been introduced in London, and the fight is raging between those who have completed “The Knowledge” and those who believe that anyone can be a taxi driver if they have a GPS. The former insists that internal knowledge is critical for the job, while the Uber drivers argue that it does not matter because they can easily retrieve the information.
While Poundstone generally argues in favor of knowing facts, a much more difficult question is which ones? The Common Core curriculum has answered this question in the many states that have adopted these criteria for mixing fact-based learning with critical thinking skills. However, one could very well argue that what the Common Core asks first graders to know as facts, seems somewhat irrelevant and silly. Included in these “Must know” facts for a first grader is that the sun is a star and that Pluto is a dwarf planet. When tested, only 51% and 47% respectively of adults answer these questions correctly. A team of Common Core experts decided what children should know, but the evidence for how these facts were selected over others seems wholly subjective.
A study by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) indicates that high achieving American students are scoring relatively well compared to their counterparts in other countries, but low achieving Americans are scoring far behind nearly everyone else in their knowledge of basic facts and understandings. Poundstone argues that this low performance may be due to the Google effect in which we know we can look up information at any time and therefore, we make no effort to remember the information. Poundstone found high recall rates for information that individuals thought would later be unavailable, thus increasing the efforts they had to make to remember the information in the present. Because our information now comes from so many different potential outlets, source amnesia is becoming more common, and we cannot recall where the information came from, thus often attributing the information to an incorrect origin. While information is easily accessible, it is also easily forgotten.
Poundstone argues that the wealth of information available online is not making us less smart, but like those who experience the Dunning-Krueger effect (the less people know about something, the more highly they rate their knowledge), it is likely making us less aware of what we do not know. Advertisers and pollsters track Internet usage and recommend pop up sites that may be of interest to the specific individual. Typically, these recommendations are based on past searches and reinforce products that one had already expressed interest or that are consistent with one’s opinions. This process of choosing recommendations based on your past history can lead to confirmation bias and the belief that more people share your views (false consensus effect) than actually do. There is, however, evidence to suggest that in some topical areas, Americans are woefully underinformed despite what they believe. Poundstone asked random Americans to answer sixteen general knowledge questions (including the location of North Carolina and Ukraine), followed by a political opinion question. Those who had the lowest scores were most likely to favor a border fence built between the United States and Mexico; one might indeed argue that this is impacting elections and thus policy. These misconceptions range from tax rates to average income of CEOs, but with correlational data, one cannot demonstrate causation. While this type of factual information can be found online, however, this is generally not what people are spending their time on while surfing the web. Americans are better at recognizing the judges from American Idol that current Supreme Court Justices and one may safely guess which of these two groups gets more hits on Google (except for perhaps the notorious RBG).
While people may not spend time looking up factual information on the Internet to supplement their general knowledge, they do seem to spend a fair amount of time on information that has no basis in truth. Because there is little oversight for posting false information to social media accounts, false, misleading or unsubstantiated information is abundant. Conspiracy theorists who may not have a voice through vetted news outlets may use the Internet to their advantage, but the results is often the spread of misinformation.
Ultimately, Poundstone argues that knowing disparate facts is not beneficial except perhaps to win trivia at the local bar. Knowing facts and how they fit together globally to inform decision-making and critical thinking is what education should be emphasizing. Facts do matter, but this does not mean one should discount the benefits offered by the unbelievable amount of information available at our fingertips. Knowing how good research can be detected from flashy headlines, the ability to evaluate false claims or the ability to use evidence to support claims are important skills. We can benefit from Googling some information, but we cannot use this as a replacement for critical thinking and the hard work that learning involves. Poundstone argues that the things we really need to know cannot be Goggled. For then, we truly will have our Head In the Clouds.
Other Related Resources
William Poundstone: Author’s website
Check out his “About Me” page in particular
How Google is Changing your Brain
Google's Effects on Memory: Cognitive Effects of Having Information at our Fingertips
Sparrow, Liu and Wegner
The Knowledge, London’s Legendary Taxi-Driver Test Puts up a fight in the Age of GPS
New York Times
The Power of Political Ignorance
John Oliver on the Importance of Scientific Research
The Marshmallow Test
John Cleese on the Dunning Kruger Effect
Slate: Debunking fake news makes people believe it more
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Cause and effect
Correlation does not prove causation
False consensus effect
McGuire Taxi Cab study
Serial position effect