Why you can’t just Google it

Posted on 07-01-2012

In my post here, I talked about the pervasive modern idea that Google renders memory irrelevant, and explained why this idea is false. I want to return to this point here with some further explanations.

The best explanation of why you can’t ‘Just Google It’ is by E.D. Hirsch here. Essentially, his point is that:

There is a consensus in cognitive psychology that it takes knowledge to gain knowledge. Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasizing factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively. To stress process at the expense of factual knowledge actually hinders children from learning to learn. Yes, the Internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information—to absorb it, to add to our knowledge—we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge. That is the paradox disclosed by cognitive research.

What I want to focus on here is one wonderful example he gives which proves this point. It is a summary of research done by George Miller, a cognitive psychologist. Miller asked pupils to use dictionaries to look up word meanings and then to use those words in sentences. He got sentences like this:

“Mrs.Morrow stimulated the soup.” (That is she stirred it up.)

“Our family erodes a lot.” (That is they eat out.)

“Me and my parents correlate, because without them I wouldn’t be here.”

“I was meticulous about falling off the cliff.”

“I relegated my pen pal’s letter to her house.”

I instantly recognized this phenomenon. I have read lots and lots of sentences like this, far too many to remember. Two I do remember are:

The weather outside was ingratiating. (after looking up ‘nice’ in a thesaurus.)

He was congenial at football. (after looking up ‘good’.)

What Miller and his fellow researchers did, however, was to extrapolate from this very common occurrence a profound and seemingly counter-intuitive insight, which is that in order to use reference works such as dictionaries, thesauri and encyclopedias, you already need to know quite a lot about the thing you are looking up. As Hirsch says:

Of course, Professor Miller is in favor of dictionaries and encyclopedias in appropriate contexts where they can be used effectively by children and adults. But those contexts turn out to be the somewhat rare occasions when nuances of meaning can be confidently understood. Reference works including the Internet are immensely valuable in those constrained circumstances. But Miller has shown very well why, outside those circumstances, adults use reference resources so infrequently. His observations are well supported by other areas of cognitive psychology.

The whole article by Hirsch, and the article by Miller where he explains these and other ideas, are fascinating and well worth reading.

This is what I love about modern research into cognition. Reading it is like the moment when you read the end of a well-constructed detective story and go ‘Ah! Of course! That’s how it all fits together.’ Modern research in cognitive psychology offers a convincing theoretical framework that seems to me to make sense of so many of the apparently baffling things my students do.