September 18th, 2008
Wow! Today’s research news is the average UK citizen learns 13 new facts every day – in fact some gifted folk may even take in up to 20 new things. During the course of our lifetime that’s 275000 pieces of information. And it all comes from the news we see and hear every day.
Where did this amazing new scientific fact come from? Was it through painstaking neurological research, or from psychological experiments? Did researchers think about how we understand, process or remember information?
Here’s a fact that may surprise you, this didn’t come from a scientific study at all. No, this astonishing new research came from a survey commissioned by telecommunications company Talk Talk. Which, handily, you can summarise as 20 new pieces of information.
1. Even the most rubbish PR survey usually mentions the number of people who took part in their research. This survey doesn’t even achieve this.
2. We’ve no idea how the survey was completed, so although the company is keen on multimedia approaches they forget to tell us whether the survey was done online, over the phone or through some other format.
3. We’ve no clue about who the people were in this research and no clue how representative they are of the rest of us.
4. It isn’t clear whether the survey measured memory, recall, or information processing.
5. Probably because the research isn’t based on any real assessment of how we understand, process and recall information in the world around us.
6. The research claims the ‘mind filters out the information down to the most important bits’. But what does important information mean? Can it be quantified and generalised to everyone?
8. You can’t measure ‘mind filtering’ with a survey.
9. And anyway the survey didn’t really measure cognitive activity.
10. It probably asked participants to say whether they agreed they learn a particular number of new things from the news media each day.
11. But we don’t know what participants were asked in the survey because the media coverage of the survey doesn’t explain this.
12. My hunch is the ‘average Brit absorbs 13 new pieces of information a day’ line was written well before the survey.
13. I’m more than happy to be proved wrong on this if the company wants to share access to their data.
14. Why are ‘facts’ that we learn in this case all based on news and entertainment items?
15. Might other facts we learn also play a part – why weren’t these included in the 13 items?
16. If you are processing 13-20 items from television, radio, internet and so on might other information from other sources be ignored? Might your brain fall out or something else bad happen if you only process 13 new items from the world of news or entertainment?
17. What about people who don’t have access to these sources – do they still process 13 items and if so, what are the facts they learn each day?
18. Why did Talk Talk commission a piece of research about absorbing lots of facts from a variety of media sources?
19. Because they want you to buy their products.
20. But don’t worry, from now on you can expect this to become part of folklore and eventually we’ll all believe it’s true.