impact of wired world – multitasking

One of the observations about the impact of digital world on human behavior is that it is forcing us into doing more multitasking. Some alarm is raised about multitasking in the PBS program digital_nation; for example, college students typically are using laptops and other mobile devices in classrooms and they’re not limiting that use to just dealing with the class, but also texting and twittering and facebooking at the same time, and thus possibly not learning. Or, somewhat more annoyingly people are using their devices while engaged F2F with real people but claim that they can multitask and pay enough attention to each task. Or as a recent news story indicates texting and driving is probably not something people can multitask and a teen was involved in a horrible crash right after texting that he should NOT be texting and driving at the same time.

In the PBS digital_nation program several subjects who claimed to be good at multitasking were actually tested by researchers and Stanford and exactly the opposite was established. The self-proclaimed multitasking “experts” were, in fact, not that good at it, yet they continued to believe they were.

In any of these issues that arise about the impact of digital technology on our lives it is rare that there is actual science to affirm the anecdotal claims. Multitasking is certainly one of these claims. So it’s interesting to see reports of a new study comparing men and women at multitasking. Now while this study is not directly related to digital technology and behavior it is interesting to see an actual study, of any type, that addresses multitasking. And while any research on people based on any difference, i.e. gender, is fraught with all sorts of controversy, nonetheless in appropriately controlled studies these issues can be explored. The article says:

The problem with this popular image [that women handle multitasking better than men] is that there is not a shred of evidence to back it up. It may be true that working mothers must try to juggle a lot more than men do day to day, but there is no proof that they do it successfully. Indeed, nobody has rigorously examined the real question, which is: How skilled are we — men and women — at carrying out several mental tasks at once, without making a lot of mistakes?

Without access to all the literature or the time/knowledge to study it I will accept the assertion of “not a shred of evidence“. I agree with Dr. Tracy Dennis that this is a major problem with all the various claims about the effect of technology on human behavior and that is that most claims are speculation and actual research, esp. peer-reviewed, is scarce and thus any conclusions are speculative. Yet the subject is important and the effects may exist so the only way we’re going to get any substantial understanding is research.

You can (and I recommend you do) read this report (the actual paper would be best to read but this are difficult to obtain) so I won’t comment directly on the study. What is interesting to me is how a simple question “are men or women better at multitasking” must be converted into specific methodology and then experiments to attempt to answer the question. In this study I think the approach used is completely non-obvious to the laity and thus demonstrates how professional researchers do their work and how the question is turned into an experiment and its results into conclusions.

This provokes me to make a comment on this process. Science is a rigorous methodology to arrive at truth. Unlike non-scientific pondering of question, esp. religion, science is based on an old and well established process for seeking truth. First, the investigator must pose some question, with relatively precise problem statement. Second, from that question the investigator forms a hypothesis, which is the informed guess that the public usually associates with the word ‘theory’ (which in common usage does mean guess, but in science ‘theory‘ has a much stronger and rigorous meaning). Third, after considering what is already known about the question and hypothesis the researcher devises an experiment or study to get facts about the question and hypothesis. Once the facts have been obtained (often a challenging process) the results are analyzed and conclusions are produced.

But now the really interesting process starts. Instead of rushing to publish these conclusions on the net for a credulous public (as was recently done with some climate studies), real scientists face a daunting threshold which is publication. Now publication is the lifeblood for researchers (the old ‘publish-or-perish’) so naturally investigators want to publish as much as they can. So they submit their paper (usually already carefully reviewed by colleagues and the research team) to various journals. Naturally any researcher would prefer to be published in the most prestigious journals but all the journals [legitimate scientific journals, not fake ones like creationists use] follow the same process, ‘peer-review‘. There is a lot of misunderstanding of this process, esp. among the junk science promoters, but basically the journal has experts in various fields that carefully scrutinize any proposed paper and fastidiously look for any flaws they can find. Only after these reviews is the paper published. A peer-review is not a popularity contest but is instead a critical test of whether the paper meets the standards of the scientific method.

But again this is still just the beginning. One good characteristic of science is there is not unlimited funding. And getting papers, esp. significant ones, published aids in the endless pursuit of funding. So, guess what, other scientists will be quick to tear down any published paper, through their process of analysis and fact-checking, but also (frequently) reproducing the results or possibly doing a different experiment to disprove the results. This competitive nature creates a certain amount of adversarial process but does as well as humanly possible a checking process to discard unfounded conclusions. IOW there a considerable incentive to prove some other investigator wrong and thus rather than a chummy club of like-minded groupies, scientists subject each other to close scrutiny. Possibly the second best feather in their cap, than having their own theory, is disproving someone else’s theory. So this process is anything but groupthink and dogma. Even the most respected scientist is open to scrutiny by even the most junior grad student, so this adversarial process is good at finding flawed ideas.

After all this rigorous process is completed (often years later) the findings of a particular investigator are “accepted” because no flaw or contradiction has been found and/or the findings have been independently confirmed. Thus it can be reasonably stated that the results of an investigation have been “proved” and can now be incorporated in the total knowledge about the particular question. And after this process has been performed countless times the conclusions then exceed the threshold to be considered a theory.

A single study can be a substantial finding but it is also this continuous and ongoing process that truly establishes theories. For instance, despite a hundred years since Einstein proposed his theory of relatively investigators to this day continue to do experiments and studies to confirm or (very unlikely) deny this well-established theory. This is the reason why scientists consider bold ideas such as evolution and global climate change to be “facts” and proven. When attacked by uninformed people who simply don’t like these theories the alternative and unfounded POV is not a “controversy”, at least at the scientific level.

Now many things are being said about social media and digital technology impacting human behavior but very few of these sound pieces of research have been done. So one can reasonably state this is not yet a scientific consensus on this issue. As a matter of public policy the issue is important so it vitally important that this proven science method be applied to these questions as well.


About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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2 Responses to impact of wired world – multitasking

  1. Pingback: What is the point of blogging? | dailydouq

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