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Who needs to know?

Is learning under threat from the morass of information masquerading as fact?

In the ivory tower, warning bells are ringing. Sweeping changes in the way we absorb and process information hint that the way our brains work - the way we think - may be changing, and not necessarily for the better.

James Flynn, an internationally respected IQ expert and emeritus professor at Otago University, says he's noticed a "depressing" trend during his more than three decades teaching postgraduate students.

"I find amongst my advanced students, when I ask them their favourite novelist, fewer and fewer of them read," Flynn says from New York, where he is a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation.

"Maybe 20 years ago they would say Aldous Huxley. But today either they have no favourite novelist, or they say Wilbur Smith or other airport trash."

Flynn's academic colleague at Otago, Professor Cliff Abrahams, has noticed something similar. Straightforward lectures that would once have demanded the attention of students for a whole 50 minutes now need to be spruced up with video and audio content.

"Attention spans, anecdotally, seem to be getting shorter," says Abrahams, director of the university's Brain Health and Repair Research Centre.

And Nicholas Carr, an author and former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, writes that he finds his own concentration waning when he tries reading anything dense.

"I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

Over in Europe, Oxford Brookes University teaching fellow Jude Carroll has chronicled an alarming rise in reported plagiarism in the past 10 years - mirroring figures in New Zealand.

Speaking from Stockholm, where she is helping Swedish universities deal with corner-cutting students, Carroll says today's university generation has developed a magpie mentality. Many writing assignments are constructed through "cutting and pasting" - often verbatim and without any scepticism - from online sources.

"They see research as just harvesting stuff. Going out and finding stuff and putting it together. One of my hobbies is patchwork quilting, and I see the process as very similar."

Carroll says, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, that "plagiarism began in 1998". This is the year the internet search engine cited by Carr as the cause of his brain-pain began. Carr's cover story in the August issue of the Atlantic magazine asks the question: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

Carr's thesis is simple. The growing dominance of the internet - for many people replacing their postbox, tele-phone, fountain pen, library, clock and calendar - is fundamentally changing our way of thinking by sidelining memory and encouraging bite-sized information consumption.

"My mind now expects to take in information the way the net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy in a jet ski," he writes.

As Carroll puts it, the rise of Google has meant remembering facts can seem less efficient than outsourcing memory to an internet search. "I asked someone in Stockholm 'What's the capital of Lithuania?' About a minute later he said,

'Vilnius. But it would have been quicker if I used Google.' Which proves my point."

The way in which learning is being changed by these new, internet-derived, research behaviours is starkly illustrated by a recent study by the University College London that examined millions of search logs held at several large library sites.

The study concluded: "In general terms, this new form of information-seeking behaviour can be characterised as being horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature. Users are promiscuous, diverse and volatile."

Little time is spent evaluating sources for relevance or authority, the amount of time spent reading articles averages around five minutes and most articles aren't read in their entirety: "Observational studies have shown that young people scan online pages very rapidly, boys especially, and click extensively on hyperlinks, rather than reading sequentially."

Flynn and Abrahams both say this behaviour could well be changing the way our brains work. Not that our grey matter is evolving. Rather, its plasticity allows for constant adaptation. "Our brains haven't changed much in the last thousand years or so, but the way we use them has," says Abrahams.

Despite the physiology of brains remaining unchanged, Flynn has quantified a shift in the way we think. He has shown that our ability to process abstract information has improved dramatically in the last hundred years - a phenomenon now known as the "Flynn Effect".

Flynn puts this improvement - chronicled after a detailed analysis of IQ test results - mostly down to a widening of education and the related spread of the scientific method. But he worries that more recent changes in mental activity may see a decline in critical thinking and understanding.

A deficit in basic knowledge leads to a catch-22, Flynn says. Despite the wealth of eye-opening information on the internet, people simply won't know where to look.

"To know the facts about the Jewish situation in Poland in the 17th century from Wikipedia is very different from reading Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Slave. That novel gives you an intimate understanding of the Christian beliefs of the time, the real plight of the Jewish community - it gives you a feel for the time you're not going to get from Google," he says.

"The consequence is that, oddly enough, despite the internet, highly educated people are more insular."

Abrahams' concerns are more concrete. Far from being more efficient, trading in memory for the ability to summon data from the internet can be counterproductive. "If you have to check the internet each time to find a commonly used equation, that doesn't strike me as very efficient," he says.

"I guess I'm old-school in this regard."

Google, the $150 billion internet giant, is hardly the sole cause of this shift in behaviour. But because its results are so fast and seemingly authoritative - it handles 91 million searches per day, half of all internet searches - it has become the standard-bearer for a new way of -thinking.

Greg Lastowka, a law professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, put this dominance in stark terms in a recent journal article: "Google's control over results constitutes an awesome ability to set the course of human knowledge."

The heart of the Google search engine is a closely guarded process called

PageRank, which sorts the billions of websites and orders them.

The speed at which information now spreads can disseminate rumour as fast as fact. Outrageous lies, by virtue of their eye-popping claims, spread like wildfire via email and blogs. More references online make it more likely PageRank will display the rumour in a prominent location after a search. Given that most people do not progress past the first page of 10 results, high placement matters.

According to myth-busting website Snopes, the tenth most common false internet rumour is an emailed warning to parents that drug dealers are giving strawberry-flavoured crystal methamphetamine to children in their area.

The spread of myths is most clearly illustrated by searches around contentious topics. Search for either of the US presidential candidates, add the word "truth", and the top two results returned by Google are opposition-run attack vehicles.

One such site promotes a book that "exposes the dark side of presidential candidate John McCain"; another deals with Snopes' number one subject of online rumour: "An exhaustive list of Barack Obama's lies and misdirections."

Gideon Haigh, writing in 2006 in Australian magazine the Monthly, noted that a search for "Martin Luther King" has a prominent result authored by a former Ku Klux Klan member who smears the civil rights leader as a communist and philanderer.

And after a search on "global warming", two of the top three search results are diametrically opposed advocacy sites that seek to categorically prove that the Earth is - or isn't - heating up. The third is a reference to Wikipedia, an online, user-written encyclopedia with its own problems.

Because of its anarchic framework - anyone can write about anything - Wikipedia is in a constant state of flux and can include misleading material or downright offensive vandalism.

Helen Clark and John Key's pages have both been subjected to vandalism in the past three months. Although the most gratuitous internet graffiti was removed within minutes, Key's page for a while included the statement: "Don't vote for him, were you happy with Jenny Shipley? No you were not. So you won't be happy with him," while elsewhere Helen Clark was named as Prime Minister of Germany who "may have had connections with Adolf Hitler".

And then there is Sarah Palin, whose public image doesn't need internet graffiti to inspire ridicule, and prompts a jaw-dropping response from people wondering if she's knowledgeable enough to be the US Vice-President. In an interview with CBS news anchor Katie Couric, Palin managed to inject her own lack of knowledge - and a difficulty with sentence structure - into her answers.

One classic:

Couric: Well, explain to me why that enhances your foreign-policy credentials.

Palin: Well, it certainly does, because our next-door neighbours are foreign countries, there in the State that I am the executive of.

And on-line, gaffes and accusations of bias at the write-it-yourself Wikipedia have spawned offshoots. Conservapedia, established in 2006, bills itself as a "clean and concise resource for those seeking the truth. We do not allow liberal bias to deceive and distort here."

Stephen Colbert, a celebrated US comedian who trades on the persona of an outraged faux right-wing pundit, called on viewers of his self-titled television show to rewrite Wikipedia to make facts fit his blowhard opinions.

The end result of this crusade was the establishment of Wikiality, a satirical online encyclopedia written in the voice of Colbert's uninformed pundit. New Zealand, for example, is described in Wikiality as being "discovered in 1642 by American explorer Abel Tasman, who later went on to play the character 'Taz' in Looney Tunes".

Our most famous native fauna is, apparently, "the Maori - a small, adorable, flightless bird with a taste for

human flesh. Especially Australians and French Secret Service agents."

So what would prevent a student citing the British Medical Journal in the same breath as Wikiality? Jude Carroll says teachers have to change how they set coursework, as well as get across the importance of assessing sources.

"One study in 2006 found that for 80% of students, research meant 'I Googled'. Yet only a tiny percentage of those hits are peer-reviewed or vetted in any way. While this seems an easy 'fact' to get across to students, getting them to act on it when the current methods are so fast and wondrously productive, is another thing altogether."

She says this can be addressed by teaching new skills and forcing students to think for themselves. Questions for writing assignments should be original and not rely on easily plagiarised answers: "If you ask a question that can be answered on Wikipedia, you're asking for trouble," she says.

And despite chronicling an alarming rise in plagiarism, Carroll reckons the future shouldn't see a return to the rote learning of facts.

"A study of engineering students in the United States showed that half of the 'facts' they learned during the course of their studies were out of date by the time they graduated. And you notice it, too, with surveys of employers. They are seeking skills, not knowledge - they don't want someone who knows all the theories of economics."

Similarly, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, doesn't find the current shift in thinking alarming - rather he suspects Luddites are behind Carr's question "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

Schmidt told Ad Age that: "This is exactly what people said when colour television arrived in my home in Virginia 30 years ago. This is what people said 25 years ago when the MTV phenomenon occurred - short attention spans and so forth. And I've observed that we're smarter than ever."

As Carr notes, scepticism of new forms of knowledge has deep roots. No less a personage than Socrates, in Plato's Phaedrus, reckoned the harbinger of stupidity was the written word.

Separating knowledge from a dialogue with teachers would, Socrates said, lead to flawed learning, because books meant people could "receive a quantity of information without the proper instruction".

Further, written language could cause a familiar complaint: people would "cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful".