Herd Immunity: The Internet vs. Education

COE SquareRather than amplifying intelligence, I think the Internet and TV are taking the place of intelligence. Because information is available in instants, you don’t have to actually learn things, to commit them to memory and have them become a part of your own thinking processes. A great deal of the time, for too many of us, we don’t even have to THINK. We become less practiced at it. We become lazy data-tourists rather than farmers of knowledge.

Of course we don’t ALL become less practiced at thinking, at working to understand the world around us. But a significant number do. This is bad because, socially, the thing is a lot like vaccinations and herd immunity: The more kids who are vaccinated in any population, the less chance of the target disease catching on in that population.

If you have a population of 100 kids in a school, but only 10 of them are vaccinated, the chance of whooping cough sailing in and hitting every kid — except the few vaccinated — is very high. If 90 of those kids are vaccinated, you have a much lower chance of any kid — even the unvaccinated — catching it.

Just so, the more people in a group who are educated and thoughtful and rational — the more who learn to THINK — the greater the herd immunity against stupidity.

A conspiratorial idea might flow out of Fox News and catch on with one person, but other people in the same family, or school, or neighborhood, will shut it down with educated arguments. Rather than stupidity or paranoia catching on and raging out of control, the intellectual herd immunity will protect even those who are NOT educated and thoughtful.

The Internet makes it easy, not only to not think, but to become exposed to mind-pathogens — the wild ideas, conspiracy theories, hate memes and violent sectarian rants — that infect us with damaging craziness. And in this case, the epidemic is panic, unthinking followership, mob action.

I like the idea of education as a vaccination against stupidity, and even more that widely-available education, training in reason and thinking, provides herd immunity against craziness and stupidity.

But I worry that our intellectual herd immunity — likely due to the bullshit commonality of so much of the Internet — is dangerously low.

Rather than intelligence and thoughtfulness, we seem to be amplifying pugnacity, stupidity and rage.

  • Tobias 27772

    There is some early research that indicates that some of this diet of immediate emotion stimulation (I am including twitter & texting here) is actually having some impact on the structures in our brains – and not in a good way.

    • Hank Fox

      I can see it. I’ve often thought that the difficulty of getting religious people to hear rational arguments is because the part of the brain that understands rational argument has atrophied through disuse.

  • The biggest problem with the anti-vaxxers is that they tend to be clustered. If they were scattered evenly throughout the country, they wouldn’t pose much of a threat. As it is there are some who can’t be vaccinated for health reasons and others for whom the vaccine won’t work. But those are not clustered in a single community where maybe a quarter of students in a school have not been vaccinated at all. We’ve already had measles outbreaks in such communities. It’s only going to get worse.

  • c2t2

    My thoughts tend toward the polar opposite. I tend to think rote memory is of limited use. Knowing multiplication tables is much less useful than knowing the concept and methods of how to multiply. Memorizing words and spellings is less important than learning to read thoughtfully, use a dictionary, and infer meaning from context. As long as you have the minimal basics of math/reading, you have the tools to build on it as much or as little as you care to.

    As for the internet? Regressives, control freaks, and cults of all kinds depend on strict thought control and limiting access to information. Just look at how they hate higher education and mingling with Others. In the past, people weren’t taught to think critically and well. (For evidence, see: All Of History) Those systems saturate their victims’ brains with concentrated doses of one single kind of crazy while isolating them from everything else, essentially giving its members a kind of mind-disease.

    I think access to small doses of every different kind of crazy in the world, like on the web, has its own sort of vaccination effect. “Wait a minute, how are these ways superior to those ways? Why are WE inherently superior to THEM? How is it that I am 100% right and literally billions of other people are 100% wrong?” Most people come up with some half-assed justification and spend the rest of their lives trying not to think about it too much. But those doubts are always niggling in the back of their minds. Others break free and think critically, which was close to impossible in the past.

    Wow, that turned into a manifesto/screed. Yikes.

    PS: mandatory XKCD
    http://xkcd.com/1289/

  • Aaron Ames

    I often joke that “my smartphone is smart so I don’t have to be.” At any rate, as a loyal Cracked reader, I found one of today’s articles appropriate:

    http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-debates-that-will-outlast-human-society_p2/

    (Item #1: “Is This New Technology Going To Ruin Our Brains?”)

    Not trying to argue one way or the other, just thought it was interesting.

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