Weekend Roundup 10/25/2010

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
(2010). A Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for The New York Times, Wilkerson spent about 20 years interviewing and archive-diving to put a human face on a massive population shift of African-Americans from south to north that – as the book makes plain – transformed the nation. Wilkerson tells the tale through three main characters, supplemented by recollections of others, including her own mother. Among the book’s conclusions is that southern blacks were to all intents and purposes immigrants in the north, even though they were born full-fledged citizens. The wealth of detail about the struggles and determination of ordinary people make the book irresistible and unforgettable. One point little known today – decades after slavery ended, untold numbers of black people, effectively held in bondage had to leave the south clandestinely.

Peter Katel, Staff Writer, CQ Researcher


Are You Part of the New Elite?
The Washington Post, Oct. 24, 2010

Synopsis: Tea Party activists charge that a “new elite,” raised in affluent suburbs, educated in prestigious universities and marrying among themselves, is out of touch with mainstream America and ignorant of how “ordinary” folks live, argues conservative scholar Charles Murray. He buttresses his claim with a 10-question quiz. “Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis or Rotary club? Do you know who replaced Bob Barker as host of ‘The Price is Right’? Can you identify a field of soybeans?” and so on.

Takeaway: Whether Murray's argument holds water or not, it’s a reminder that thought leaders inside the Beltway Bubble -- Congress, the national media and policy wonks among them – who ignore the views of “ordinary” Americans and see themselves as some sort of ruling class do so at their own peril.

Thomas J. Billitteri, Assistant Managing Editor, CQ Researcher


N.F.L.’s Crackdown Tests the Boundaries of Mayhem
Judy Battista, The New York Times, Oct. 24, 2010

Choosing Bearhugs Over Big Hit
William C. Rhoden, The New York Times, Oct. 24, 2010

The N.F.L.’s Head Cases

Nate Jackson, The New York Times, Oct. 24, 2010

Should You Watch?
Michael Sokolove, The New York Times, Oct. 24, 2010

Synopsis: On “any given Sunday,” tens of millions of Americans are jammed into stadiums or glued to their TV sets watching professional football. Over the past few years, medical research and player activism have focused attention on the risks to player health and safety from the game, especially severe brain injuries from helmet-to-helmet hits. The issue gained wide public attention after a number of violent hits during the games of Oct. 17.

The New York Times’ coverage a week later included an overview by sports reporter Judy Battista that explored players’ and coaches’ reactions to the National Football League’s announcement that it would impose harsh discipline for prohibited hits to the head. Sports columnist William Rhoden approves, but former Denver Bronco tight end Nate Jackson (on the op-ed page) disagrees. Meanwhile, Michael Sokolove, a journalist-author who writes often about the culture and sociology of sports, asks the ultimate question: If injuries are inherent in pro football as played today, is it morally defensible to watch?

Takeaway: “The players understand the risks,” Jackson writes, “and the fans enjoy watching them take those risks.” Is he right?

For our report on player-safety and other issues, see “Professional Football,” Jan. 29, 2010.

Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor, CQ Researcher


The Calling
Bill Donahue, Washington Post Magazine, Oct 24. 2010

Synopsis: If you're still a bit uncertain who the Tea Partiers are, and what they stand for, take a bus road trip to a Washington rally with a group of Tea Party members from Ohio. Embraced by the group as "a shaggy dog cousin from the Left Coast," reporter Bill Donahue transforms them from political buzz words to flesh-and-blood people -- Middle Americans to be sure.

Takeaway: The lives of these conservative Americans -- both personal and political -- rest on deeply held Christian beliefs.

Tom Colin, Managing Editor, CQ Researcher


What a Scientist Didn't Tell the New York Times on Honeybee Deaths
Katherine Eban, Fortune, Oct. 8, 2010

Synopsis: Early this month I -- and the writer of this Fortune article, apparently -- did a double take when a front-page New York Times headline declared that scientists had found the sole answer to the honeybee die-offs that have been occurring over the past few years. The die-offs jeopardize both the environment and farms’ food production, since so many plants, including food crops, depend on pollination by the bees. Previously, I had heard that the die-offs were a complicated phenomenon and that some human-made factors, such as pesticides, were probably involved. But the Times headline and front-page placement strongly suggested that a fungus and virus are now considered the prime suspects and that the mystery has largely been resolved. Turns out, though, according to Fortune, that the study's lead author has a longtime funding relationship with Bayer Crop Science, a company whose pesticides have come under suspicion as bee-death-related in some other research. The scientist involved apparently never disclosed this relationship to the Times reporter.

Takeaway: Beware of headlines that may overstate scientific findings and scientists who don’t make full disclosure of their funding sources.

Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer, CQ Researcher

Do animals think?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher report on "Animal Intelligence" by Marcia Clemmitt, October 22, 2010.

Just a few decades ago, the jury was still out on animal intelligence. But agreement now is virtually universal among scientists that animals of all kinds perform remarkable feats of mind — including actual reasoning. However, while some argue that several species perform very high-level cognitive activities including “metacognition” — loosely defined as “thinking about thinking” — others contend that studies of such complex thought are prone to experimental designs that tempt researchers to overinterpret.

“Abstract concepts are extremely widespread in the animal kingdom, all the way down to bees,” says Peter Carruthers, a professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park. Studies in which bees navigate a maze demonstrate that the insects grasp the concepts “same” and “different” because they can learn and follow a navigational plan that requires them to turn right, for example, when they spot a design that's the same as one they previously saw but turn left when the picture is different, he explains.
Just How Smart Are They?

Furthermore, “Bees have a cognitive map and can find their way home even if they've never flown that way before,” Carruthers says.

Some animals, such as monkeys, show a fairly sophisticated ability to form “representations” of things in their minds, rather than being able to reason only about real-life objects that they can see in front of them at the present time, says Herbert S. Terrace, a professor of psychology at Columbia University in New York City.

For example, a monkey can memorize an arbitrary sequence of photographs, and then, when later shown only two pictures from the sequence, arrange them in the order of the original sequence, even though the picture sequence isn't in view, Terrace says. To do this, the animals must consult mental “representations” of what they've seen — evidence of an ability to “think without language,” Terrace says.

Recently, wild crows in a New Zealand laboratory experiment showed an especially remarkable cognitive feat — “insight” — the ability to devise a correct solution to a novel problem without doing any trial-and-error manipulation in the real world, says Carruthers. Confronted with a situation that required the birds to use one stick to retrieve a second longer stick, which they could then use to retrieve a food reward, one bird “looked at the setup for about a minute, and then accomplished it on the first try,” he says. [Footnote 12]

“What would a human do to arrive at the answer? Go through possibilities” mentally, waiting for an “insight.” It's hard to escape the conclusion that the crow did something similar, Carruthers says.

Recently many studies have examined whether some animals show forms of “higher” thinking traditionally considered the sole province of humans, such as a “theory of mind” — awareness that other animals or humans have thoughts going on inside them, just as one does oneself — and metacognition. Unlike humans, animals can't tell us what's going on in their minds, so to examine metacognition researchers set up experiments that give animals a way to demonstrate through their behavior that they recognize that they're in a certain mental state — such as being uncertain about which of two test answers is correct.

In a typical experiment, an animal is offered a test with two possible answers — such as that one musical tone is higher or lower than another — and has correct choices reinforced with a substantial food reward. Once the animal knows what constitutes a correct answer, the task is made harder — the tones get closer together, for example. At this point, the animal gets a third response option — usually the choice to opt out of choosing either of the other answers — for which there is a guaranteed, but relatively small reward.

Opting for this less rewarding “uncertainty” response demonstrates that the animal recognizes its own mental state — i.e., that it's uncertain which of the two other choices will yield the big reward that's reserved for getting the right answer, says J. David Smith, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. When macaque monkeys and humans take the same test, they choose the “I'm uncertain” response at the same rate. That's evidence, he says, that, like the human test subjects, the monkeys recognize their own mental feeling of uncertainty — a mark of “metacognition.”

In a similar experiment by Columbia's Terrace, a monkey was presented with two “confidence icons” just after the animal had given its answer on a perception-based test similar to the musical tones test. “One icon signified high confidence; the other, low confidence” in the answer the monkey has just given, Terrace explains. [Footnote 13]

“Choosing the high-confidence icon was a ‘risky’ bet.” If the monkey chose that icon after it had given the right answer on the test, it won three tokens, but if the monkey chose the “high confidence” response after a wrong answer, it lost three tokens, “and they really don't like that,” Terrace says. Choosing the “low-confidence” icon always got a reward of one token.

Monkeys chose the high-confidence icon more often after they had given correct answers and the low-confidence icon more often after they had given incorrect answers, the exact same response one gets from humans — who can not only feel a mental state like “uncertainty” at the moment we experience it but can also remember the feeling. The experiment shows that a monkey “can monitor its accuracy on perceptual tasks and transfer that ability to monitoring its memory” — i.e., it can consult an after-the-fact “mental representation” of the feeling of uncertainty it previously experienced. This activity indicates some level of metacognition — an ability to think about mental states — wrote Terrace and his fellow researchers. [Footnote 14]

But other scholars say that so far no experiments show that animals can use abstract concepts to reason about their own minds, or about anything else except concrete objects, a clear limitation to their thinking.

“To some extent, this is a verbal confusion,” says Carruthers. Experiments do show that some animal species — just like humans — are aware of their feelings of uncertainty, but that awareness alone doesn't meet the standard definition of “metacognition,” as it's used in human psychology. True metacognition requires actual “thinking about thinking” — reasoning based on one's awareness of the state — and that hasn't been proven, Carruthers argues.

Evidence has shown that many animals form abstract concepts based on sensory perceptions, but no evidence actually shows that they can form concepts about things that they cannot see or touch, like mental states, says Daniel J. Povinelli, a professor of biology at the University of Louisiana, at Lafayette.

“The question is whether the experiments as designed have the power to” produce these more far-reaching conclusions — such as that “monkeys and parrots are interpreting their own mental states” or “that crows think about the principles of physics.” While it's possible the animals do these things, “there is simply no evidence that they do,” Povinelli says.

For example, after observing many individual instances of fellow chimpanzees pursing their lips and bristling their fur just before hitting or charging them, chimps certainly form a catch-all concept — like “threat display; better look out!” — to reference such occasions. [Footnote 15] There is no evidence, however, that a chimp goes beyond this concrete representation to form a concept about some state existing within the pursing, bristling chimp that motivates the behavior — as a human would do by positing “anger” or “aggressiveness,” for example, says Povinelli.

From experience with lifting things, both a chimp and a human can develop the concept of “heavy” and sort objects by whether they're “heavy” or “light,” for example, he says. But humans routinely take abstraction much farther, generalizing beyond concrete objects to things we can't see or touch, for example, by applying the concept of “heavy” even to nonphysical things like sadness, as when we have a “heavy heart,” and by immediately realizing that an object from the “heavy” pile is the one to choose, if the goal is to knock another object over, he says.

“We haven't seen any evidence” that chimps or other animals can handle these levels of abstraction, Povinelli says.

The Issues:

* Do animals think?
* Do animals use language?
* Are animal and human minds more similar than once thought?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Animal Intelligence" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF

[12] For background, see Alex H. Taylor, Douglas Elliffe, Gavin R. Hunt and Russell D. Gray, “Complex Cognition and Behavioral Innovation in New Caledonian Crows,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, April 21, 2010.
[13] Nate Kornell, Lis K. Son and Herbert S. Terrace, “Transfer of Metacognitive Skills and Hint Seeking in Monkeys,” Psychological Science, January 2007, p. 64, .
[14] Ibid.
[15] For background, see Daniel J. Povinelli and Jennifer Vonk, “Chimpanzee Minds: Suspiciously Human?” TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, April 2003, p. 157,.

Water Risk: A New Issue for Investors

By Jennifer Weeks

For decades investors saw utilities – local companies that delivered water and electric power -- as ultra-safe places to put their money. (Think of Water Works and Electric Company on the Monopoly board: you buy them, and then collect money every time someone lands on either one.)

But for many reasons, the utility business is more complicated today. Here’s one example: According to a new report from Ceres (a U.S. nonprofit that works with businesses to address sustainability challenges) and the UK-based accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), water scarcity is a hidden risk for many U.S. water and electric utilities – especially in water-stressed areas like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas.

As I wrote in my CQ Researcher report on “Water Shortages” (June 18, 2010), many experts think the U.S. is facing unprecedented shortages of clean water, which we need not just for drinking but also for farming, manufacturing and generating electric power. Meanwhile, drought and climate change are altering weather patterns, and water pipes and treatment plants are aging nationwide.

The Ceres/PwC report compared water-demand projections for eight utilities to their available supplies under different scenarios, including wet weather, drought, tighter water-use regulations and legal fights with other states or regions over water. It found that the utilities’ high bond ratings didn’t reflect their water risk scores. If these utilities have trouble delivering water to customers, their bonds could lose value. In extreme cases, the utilities might even default.

Ceres and PwC think utilities, investors and credit rating agencies should all be thinking about water risk. As we’ve learned from the subprime mortgage crisis, hidden risks in one sector of the economy can have far-reaching impacts. Water scarcity, the authors argue, is a hidden risk in municipal bond markets that could lead to a similar financial meltdown -- or in this case, drought may be a better metaphor.

Jennifer Weeks, Contributing Writer, CQ Researcher

U.S. Politics on Facebook: Fail

By Kenneth Jost
Associate editor, CQ Researcher
      It’s not enough that Facebook is monetizing everyone’s personal information by turning it over to advertisers for them to use in targeted sales pitches that pop up, unbidden and unwanted, on our Facebook pages. Now the aggressive social network wants to “cover” U.S. politics — with a non-coincidental benefit to the company’s continuing growth.
      Go to “U.S. Politics on Facebook” for the latest reports and “data” on major races in the Nov. 2 elections. The reports, such as the Oct. 20 entry on the Barbara Boxer-Carly Fiorina Senate contest in California, are humdrum digests of previous coverage available from any of those antiquated mainstream media.
      The numbers, however, are new … and available only on Facebook. That’s because the data consist of the numbers of Facebook supporters for each candidate: 39,000 for Boxer, the Democratic incumbent, versus 18,000 for Fiorina, her Republican challenger.
      Keep going, and you’ll find more Facebook data on candidates, such as the biggest increase in Facebook supporters during the past week (“Gaining momentum”), the biggest “fan gap” between opponents (“Top landslides”) and the most campaign wall postings during the past week (“Top posters”). The labels necessarily imply some relevance to the state of the respective campaigns. Thus, a reader/user would think that “landslides” are coming for Tea Party Republican Sharron Angle in Nevada (81,798 more fans than incumbent Democratic Sen. Harry Reid) and for GOP Senate hopeful Rand Paul in Kentucky (73,311 more fans than Democrat Jack Conway).
      This information is at best close to worthless and at worst totally misleading. Any mainstream publication would append a cautionary note about the value of unscientific polls — to wit, not much. No caveats from Facebook. Nor any mention of scientific polling information about these races — which show Conway with a narrow lead over Paul in Kentucky and a dead heat in the Reid-Angle race in Nevada. So much for “top landslides.”
      Misinformation or not, Facebook stands to gain from treating FB support as important. If FB fan support is a new measure of a campaign’s strength, a candidate has no recourse but to drive supporters to Facebook. Indeed, Fiorina “has a set goal of boosting her supporter total on Facebook to 20,000.” Some of those added supporters may be new to Facebook: new eyeballs to sell to Facebook’s growing and increasingly lucrative advertiser base.
      The “Facebook political team” — their identities and credentials not provided, their ages easy to guess — promise more updates over the next two weeks: House races on Tuesdays, Senate contests on Wednesdays and gubernatorial elections on Thursdays. The “team” want us to know that candidates across the country “are using Facebook to campaign and engage authentically [emphasis added] with voters as well as organize supporters in ways unimaginable a decade ago.” So much for greeting voters at the factory gate or subway station.
      This low-intensity Facebook user (431 friends) appreciates the social network benefits of staying in touch with friends, nearby or distant, and making new acquaintanceships and connections. In the real world, these benefits apparently come with the loss of privacy inherent in Facebook’s operations, the company’s apologies and defenses notwithstanding.
      For political information and campaign coverage, however, excuuuuse me if I continue to look to mainstream media for real news and analysis. Facebook’s effort to make itself the gauge of voter sentiment and campaign strength may make Mark Zuckerberg and other investors that much richer, but the gains for the political system are harder to discern.

Weekly Roundup 10/18/2010

In this recovery, Washington has less power over the economy than you think
Allan Sloan, Tory Newmyer and Doris Burke, The Washington Post, Oct. 17, 2010

Synopsis: Sloan, the award-winning senior editor at large for Fortune, and colleagues Newmyer and Burke relate "an Ugly Truth" about the economy: "There is nothing that the U.S. government or the Federal Reserve or tax cutters can do to make our economic pain vanish overnight." Why? The Great Recession was caused by a financial meltdown the consequences of which cannot be cured by the traditional economic tools of low interest rates, tax cuts or government spending. And the busting of the housing bubble will leave Americans less wealthy for years. Applying a traditional rule for "bubbles" (seven years down, seven years up), housing prices may not start to rise again until 2013, seven years after they peaked in 2006.

Takeaway: There's "no fast fix" for the economy.

Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor, CQ Researcher


National Poetry Day: Unlock the Mathematical Secrets of Verse
Steve Jones, Telegraph [United Kingdom], Oct. 5, 2010

Synopsis: Human beings are pattern-loving animals, and not only mathematics but also poetry provide the evidence. And back in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment periods, plenty of poets were juiced about the mathematically patterned underpinnings scientists were discovering in our world -- and also excited about the patterns poets could make from words and ideas as well.

Takeaway: Being a Romantic didn't stop Byron, for example, from having an eye for pattern and even science. Famous for this quip -- " I know that two and two make four - and should be glad to prove it too if I could - though I must say if...I could convert 2 and 2 into five it would give me much greater pleasure -- his verse was nevertheless a festival of interlocking rhythmic and rhyming patterns that could make a mathematician swoon. And in his epic and humorous masterpiece Don Juan, Byron wrote this of Isaac Newton: "This is the sole mortal who could grapple/ Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple."

Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer, CQ Researcher


“Who Was Annie?”
Dan Barry

Synopsis: In one of his patented profiles of real people – fascinating, sensitive and compulsively readable -- the prolific New York Times feature writer tells the story behind the story of “Shopping Cart Annie.” For seven decades at Manhattan’s legendary Fulton Fish Market, the spunky, mysterious woman hustled cigarettes and told dirty jokes. “But a mysterious pinup hinted at a life her friends there knew nothing about.”

Takeaway: Watch a sublimely talented journalist prove, once again, that there are indeed 7 million stories in the naked city.

Tom Colin, Managing Editor, CQ Researcher


Education of a President
Peter Baker, The New York Times, Oct. 12, 2010

Synopsis: Nearly two years into his term, and facing a backlash from those on the right as well as some in his own Democratic Party, President Obama expresses pride in his policies but concedes his administration “probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right.” Obama tells Baker, a prolific and respected Washington correspondent, that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects” and says he has allowed himself to look too much like “the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.”

Takeaway: In a fractured America riven by uncompromising partisanship, suspicion, disillusionment and legitimate worries about the direction of the economy and foreign policy, failing at politics—including its media-driven theater—is a recipe for failure. Obama faces an uphill struggle to get an agenda of substance accomplished after the November midterm elections and to convince the electorate to give him four more years in the White House.

Thomas J. Billitteri, Staff Writer, CQ Researcher


Tea and Crackers
Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, Oct. 14, 2010

One of the most memorable of the countless stories about the Tea Party movement published over the past year. Taibbi spent considerable time with tea partiers in Kentucky, one of their hot spots, and makes an effort to understand and explain a movement that he makes no secret of loathing. In one passage, he points out to ardent Tea Partiers riding motorized scooters for the disabled, that despite their cries against government spending, government funds paid for their vehicles. They were unabashed. “The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending – with the exception of the money spent on them,” Taibbi concludes.

Peter Katel, Staff Writer,
CQ Researcher

Weekly Roundup 10/11/2010

Cable news chatter is changing the electoral landscape
Howard Kurtz and Karen Tumulty, Washington Post, Oct. 11, 2010

Synopsis: Republican politicians and commentators use the Fox News Channel, Democrats and liberals MSNBC. So Republicans watch Fox and have their views reinforced; Democrats watch MSNBC to the same effect.

Takeaway: As media-watcher Kurtz and politics-watcher Tumulty observe, “The increasing polarization of cable news is transforming, and in some ways shrinking, the electoral landscape.”

Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor, CQ Researcher


California Teachers Paying for Their Own Supplies and More
Kristin Kloberdanz, Time, Oct. 8, 2010

Synopsis: Teachers in cash-strapped California buy and scrounge and beg for supplies, from paper to clarinets to window coverings, and clean their own classrooms in the evening.

Takeaways: Dirty little secret #1: Teachers have been doing this forever, so in this economic downturn, with states and localities excruciatingly low on cash, it's probably hard to overestimate how many teachers are contributing large amounts out of their own time and pockets. Dirty little secret #2: Even though it apparently takes multimillion-dollar bonuses to hold onto the best and the brightest in the financial industry, schools, which, last time I looked, don't pay so much, have always attracted many people who truly care. (Full disclosure: former teacher here, who switched to journalism in part because teaching was just too danged hard, and demanded far too much, intellectually, physically, and emotionally, to contemplate doing for a lifetime. Unlike any other job I can imagine, teaching gets harder every year, because every year you see more of what's needed and what you might be able to accomplish if you could work just that much more effectively and give just that much more.)

Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer, CQ Researcher


Whistle. Then Worry and Wait: The Odyssey of a Trader Who Went Undercover to Stop a Ponzi Scheme
Edward Wyatt

It was a $160 million investment swindle, and as soon as the Minneapolis investment manager heard the pitch being delivered to a roomful of people, many his neighbors, he knew it was a Ponzi scheme. Wearing a wire for the FBI, he helped the authorities shut it down, but not before millions of dollars more were invested, and lost.

Takeaway: Two old adages immediately came to mind: The wheels of justice grind slow; and if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Thomas J. Colin, Managing Editor, CQ Researcher


In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W.W. Norton & Co. 2010).
Daniyal Mueenuddin

A Pakistani-American author, raised and educated in both countries, now living in Pakistan, writes of people trying to navigate the intricacies of a society caught between feudalism and modernity. His book, a series of short stories that all involve a declining land-owning dynasty, spares no one. The book doesn’t take up directly the issues that are putting Pakistan in the headlines every day. Those issues, complicated as they are, are only part of the story of an even more complicated country, Mueeenuddin shows.

Venezuela Community in Eye of Storm as Chavez Assails Israel
Ilan Stavans, Jewish Daily Forward, Oct. 6, 2010

Latin Americans who paid attention to Fidel Castro’s recent defense of Jews and Israel recognized his tacit criticism of one of his most devoted acolytes, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. His semi-authoritarian regime has subjected Israel to a barrage of attacks that have verged on antisemitism, and some of Chávez’ followers have gone over that line. Stavans, a Mexican-born Jew who is professor of Latin American literature at Amherst College, portrays a Venezuelan Jewish community that is shrinking as members leave an increasingly hostile environment.

Peter Katel, Staff Writer, CQ Researcher

Does the Internet make us smarter?

To follow is an excerpt from the September 24, 2010 CQ Researcher report on "Impact of the Internet on Thinking" by Alan Greenblatt.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project put a variation of Nicholas Carr's question — “Does Google make us stupid?” — to hundreds of technology experts. [Footnote 14] A majority disagreed with Carr's premise, but their ideas about how intelligence had been reshaped by the Internet ranged widely.

Some felt that people were freed up from rote tasks such as memorization of facts. That could end up meaning that we have to redefine what we mean by intelligence, as machines take up a greater share of the tasks once left to the human mind. Some stated their belief that the Internet had helped create a “hive brain” that allows people to share thoughts and come to collective solutions to complex problems together.

“There's a pretty broad feeling among lots of technology users that these tools can serve their needs in new ways,” says Lee Rainie, who directs the Pew project.

“You can gather up information quickly and easily, which might have taken you enormous amounts of time in an earlier age,” he says. “At the same time, people will moan and groan about the distractions that these devices bring into their lives.”

No one disputes that the Internet has made much more information readily available to just about anyone. “It's been a boon in that it gives access to all kinds of stuff that a crummy high-school library wouldn't have even come close to having,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

But Thompson worries that the way Google filters information makes it potentially less useful, in certain respects. He jokes that good students will cite material from the third page of links that a Google search calls up, while bad students will not look past the first page.

“The problem is that so much of the stuff that would really be a boon is not used, because it's not on the first page of a Google search,” he says.

The narrowing of information — necessary given the glut that's now available — can cause problems even among serious researchers. Lehrer, the author of How We Decide, cites a study indicating that since scientific papers have been widely available online, fewer of them are being cited.

“Even though we have access to all sorts of information, we seem to be citing the same texts,” Lehrer says. “The Internet allows us to filter our world, to cherry-pick our facts. It's just human nature writ large.”

David Levy, a professor at the University of Washington's Information School, says that the rapid transmission and accumulation of knowledge made possible by technology is helpful, but he worries that information overload can have some ill effects.

Namely, he's concerned that the flood of information leaves people with no time to think. “There's another piece of the process of learning and growing and getting information further assimilated, and that's the time for contemplation,” he says. “We're just not allowing ourselves sufficiently the time to do deeper reflection.”

Paul Saffo, managing director for Discern Analytics, a Silicon Valley forecasting firm, says there's a case to be made that the Internet is helping to make individuals smarter. There have been studies showing that not just Web searches but also video games are good at stimulating and strengthening parts of the brain.

“Video games turn out to be amazing for the brain,” Lehrer says. “They're like doing pushups for the brain.”

But Saffo worries, too, that the Internet ethos of instant and ever-changing information can have its deleterious effects on society as a whole. “The collective impact of this technology causes more people to look at and concentrate on the immediate at the expense of the long-term,” he says.

This effect of everyone concentrating solely on the moment can lead to catastrophic mistakes and have an ill effect on democracy, Saffo suggests. “This is the dark side of the eternal present,” he says. “There's no capacity to step back and frame things in different ways. Anyone who dares think long-term will be taken down.”

In his Atlantic article and follow-up book The Shallows, Carr is careful to state that the Internet has been enormously beneficial in a number of ways. Critics of his book nevertheless contend that he has overstated the extent of the problems of concentration and deep thought created or exacerbated by technology.
Proportion of Recreational Computer Time Spent on Various Activities

To the extent that people skim, get distracted or fail to think deeply about the words and images flitting across their screens — well, people have always found ways to avoid thinking too deeply. Long before Twitter, there were television sitcoms, Lehrer points out. And long before people could waste time playing Minesweeper and Scrabble online, there were plenty of games made out of cardboard and plastic.

But Carr argues that the Internet is not simply a tool for distraction and time wasting. He says it affects how the brain processes information.

In his book, Carr cites studies showing that people reading short stories with hyperlinks embedded in them retain a good deal less of the content than people who read them on the printed page, because the need to make decisions about whether to click on the links keeps them from concentrating on the text at hand. [Footnote 15]

“Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning,” Carr writes in The Shallows.

“It's possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it's possible to think shallowly while reading a book,” Carr continues, “but that's not the type of thinking that technology encourages and rewards.” [Footnote 16]

Getting used to technological distraction can cause problems in social settings, suggests Small, the UCLA psychiatrist.

“We have a generation of digital natives with very strong techno-skills and very strong neuro pathways for multitasking and experiencing partial continuous attention and other wonderful adaptive skills,” Small says. “But they're not developing the face-to-face human contact skills.”

There isn't strong data about this, Small says, but the idea that young people, especially, have more difficulty interacting with people in person when they are texting other people with near-constancy is evident all around us, he suggests.

“The Internet's not making us stupid or smarter — it's changing the way we're processing information,” Small says.

“You cannot stop the technology train,” he adds. “It's way out of the station, coming down the tracks. You have to adapt.”

The Issues:
*Is the Web changing the way we think?
*Does the Web shorten attention spans?
*Are people addicted to the Internet?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Impact of the Internet on Thinking" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF

[14] Janna Quitney Anderson and Lee Rainie, “Does Google Make Us Stupid?” Pew Internet & American Life Project, Feb. 19, 2010.
[15] Carr, op. cit., p. 127.
[16] Ibid., p. 115.

Weekend Roundup 10/4/2010

Why Johnny Can't Program: A New Media Requires a New Literacy
Douglas Rushkoff, Huffington Post, 9/30/10

  • Synopsis: Unlike in the 80s, when computers were the new thing, U.S. students don't learn how to program, they learn to use pre-existing programs. Silly -- or worse -- because it's understanding how the ubiquitous machines work that allows you to invent and reinvent the future. If you don't understand the basics of digital power, someone will have digital power over you. Many other countries continue to educate kids to understand code, and it's hard to imagine that these countries won't enjoy competitive advantages from it, too.
  • Takeaway: Do American schools and American culture increasingly groom U.S. kids to be consumers of everything, creators of nothing?

Three Words for Gay Teens: It Gets Better
Trey Graham, NPR.org, 10/1/10

  • Synopsis: The recent string of gay teen suicides has prompted the creation of a YouTube campaign, “It Gets Better,” featuring gay adults talking directly to kids who may be dealing with bullying or harassment by their peers. Trey Graham, arts editor at NPR, wrote a video script telling of the course of his life from a harassed gay teenager with few friends to a nationally prominent journalist with a partner accepted by his once disapproving family.
  • Takeaway: “It gets better. You just have to be there when it does.”
Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor, CQ Researcher


Déjà Vu All Over Again: Are We Repeating Vietnam?
Rufus Phillips, World Affairs, Sept.-Oct. 2010

The Vietnam-Afghanistan analogy isn’t new. But the person drawing it in this piece speaks from far deeper experience than most people. He served in Vietnam from 1954 to 1968 as Army officer, CIA operative, State Department functionary and USAID staffer. And he spent part of a recent summer in Afghanistan. As a result, he opposes the administration’s plan to start withdrawing next summer. It reflects the same flaw that doomed the U.S. war in Vietnam, he argues – failure to take into account the needs and wants of ordinary people.

The Secret World of Extreme Militias
Barton Gellman,
Time, 9/30/10

A veteran investigative reporter reports back after spending months with heavily armed American civilians who are preparing for various sinister scenarios, including a national takeover by a “pro-Muslim” administration. Not all militia members are animated by racist or conspiratorial doctrines, but enough of them are to worry some veteran law-enforcement officials.

Peter Katel, Staff Writer, CQ Researcher