Residents Warned of ‘Barbarians Inside the Gates’

Friday 17 September, 2010

The widespread use of the internet and Google searches to gather information may be changing the way we think and learn, according to the Head of Research in the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame, Professor George Mendz.

Professor Mendz, who delivered a wide-ranging address after Warrane’s Formal Dinner on Wednesday, August 25, pointed out that new ideas arose from people going deeply into a subject and reflecting on that knowledge over a period of time. But he said many people these days were in the habit of just “clicking, skimming and skipping” over the surface of knowledge by gathering information from internet searches. The phenomenon was spelt out in the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, who also wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Professor Mendz said that evidence was building up showing that we are “damaging the long-term consolidation” of knowledge “which is the basis of intelligence”.

“New ideas emerge from deep in our memories,” he said, “not from a magpie-like assemblage of ideas. Professor Mendz argued that the growing trend in which people fail to go deeply into subjects could lead to less capacity in society as a whole for creativity and originality, and the possibility of domination of society by a few.

One area where biased views had been spreading in recent times was in Paleoanthropology. Referring to the discovery of fossils of Ardipithecus ramidus (commonly known as “Ardi”), Professor Mendz noted that National Geographic magazine had referred to Ardi on its front page as a “woman”, a view that would not be accepted by anyone with a deeper knowledge of paleoanthropology. He also referred to the book Songs of the Gorilla Nation, which he argued used questionable arguments to try to break down the differences between humans (homo sapiens) and animals. The book’s author, who found she related well to gorillas, subtitled the book: “My Journey Through Autism”.

Professor Mendz said that another area where people could often be taken in because of a lack of knowledge was in “politically correct campaigns”. An example was the case of a woman from the United States who got hundreds of people at a state fair to sign a petition calling for the banning of dihydroxymonoxide. In her petition she said the chemical was “in our lakes and streams, and now in our sweat and urine and tears”. As anyone who has studied chemistry knows, “dihydroxymonoxide” is the chemical name for water.

Professor Mendz warned students that they needed to avoid “lazy habits” of hearing only one side of an issue. “We have to develop our mental skills...” he said. “We need to cultivate intelligence.”

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