Friday, July 18, 2008

Network Centrality: Making us Lazy Conformists, Says NSF

[Ed note: This is the last tangent before we really finally close the network centrality thread with a positive note, coming soon.]

The NSF reports today: "The Internet gives scientists and researchers instant access to an astonishing number of academic journals. So what is the impact of having such a wealth of information at their fingertips? The answer, according to new research released today in the journal Science, is surprising--scholars are actually citing fewer papers in their own work, and the papers they do cite tend to be more recent publications. This trend may be limiting the creation of new ideas and theories."

This is an argument for Google-induced stupidity that I can agree with (unlike last week's).

My only beef with the NSF blurb is the notion that anything "surprising" is happening here. There is plenty of evidence of our lemming-like ways in other contexts; we should expect a human tendency to dive over the cliff of the web's dark side. Here's a first-person demonstration. By doing a bit of Googling I can share the first decent link that pops up to support the claim that humans are lemmings: Conversation, Information, and Herd Behavior, in the American Economic Review, 1995. Using Google in this way, I can feel myself regressing into a rodent even now.

One of the first, most famous and shocking demonstrations of human lemmingness was devised by Solomon Asch in the 1950's. Most people after reading this story find it hard to believe that it could happen to them. I had the "good fortune" to be tricked by my college psychology professor into Asch's trap, exposing my irrational lemmingness for all my 200 classmates to see. I have no doubt that I am a weak-willed conformist.

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