One More Peril of the Internet

In the 1990s it was very common to refer to the internet as the “information superhighway.” The expectation was that the internet, which allows information to flow from one place to another in a way which was never thought to be possible before, would create a better-educated and better-informed populace. Many people believe that it has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations in this regard.

But a recent study by a group of researchers at Yale University seems to indicate that this perceived benefit is somewhat overstated.

In this study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, researchers conducted a total of nine experiments and came up with an astonishing result. Use of the internet — particularly, utilizing search engines as a method of getting information — leads people to overestimate … well … how smart they are.

For example, in one experiment, two groups were given a question and asked to come up with the correct answer. One of the groups was allowed to use the internet to search for the answer to the question; the other was not. Both groups were then given a different, unrelated question to answer, and neither was allowed to use the internet for research. They were then both asked how confident they were that their answers were the correct ones. The group members who had previously used the internet for unrelated research were more confident that their answers were correct.

These findings were borne out through all nine experiments. Apparently, people get this sense that since they can access all sorts of information on the internet, they automatically become experts at everything — even things they know nothing about. To say that is troublesome is an understatement.

Who doesn’t remember all the voices from our misguided brothers and sisters who, when the Gedolim warned us about the dangers the internet presents, cried out (among other things) that “they just want to restrict your access to all the information that is out there. With the internet in your homes, you can become just like us, self-made kup mentchen, and experts in everything.” But now, thanks to these three Yale researchers, we can see that the opposite is really the case. And it seems that these same people, who are under the impression that they don’t need guidance because they know how to use Google, are, like the subjects of the study, vastly overestimating their knowledge and expertise in everything — precisely because they have the use of Google.

There is, however, another reason to be wary of this, another deleterious effect the use of the internet has on people, besides the dangers of false confidence.

The Gemara (Bava Kamma 20b) tells us that Rav Chisda asked Rami bar Chama a question. Rami bar Chama replied, “L’chi teshamesh li,” which Rashi explains to mean that he would only answer him after he served him in some way. The obvious question is, why would Rami bar Chama demand this before giving Rav Chisda an answer to his question?

In the introduction to Shaarei Yosher, Harav Shimon Shkop quotes his brother-in-law as explaining that Rami bar Chama wasn’t, chas v’shalom, demanding this for personal reasons. Rather, he says, when something requires deep thought to come to a new understanding, the main thing that is needed is that the student’s approach to the teacher be that of a lesser, and not that of an equal. Because, using the case of a rebbi and a talmid, if a rebbi tells the talmid a sevarah or halachah which the talmid does not understand, the talmid may just tell himself that the reason he doesn’t understand is because the rebbi made a mistake.

But if the talmid understands that the rebbi is on a higher level than he is — both spiritually and intellectually — he will work harder to understand what the rebbi is teaching him — until he does understand it. Without this first step, however, he will never reach that level of understanding. Rami bar Chama wasn’t asking for a favor; rather, he was explaining to Rav Chisda that he needed to accept him first as a rebbi before he would be able to understand the answer to his question.

Anyone who ever learned under a rebbi can attest to this being true. It is also the case with directives from Gedolei Yisrael as to how we must live our lives. And, as is the case with the issue of unfettered internet use, there are more than enough reasons to follow the directive of the Gedolim and take the necessary precautions. But we now know, from this Yale study, that becoming reliant on the internet, and overestimating our abilities to understand everything, can undercut the most important ability of them all: the ability to follow daas Torah, even when we don’t understand.