The Great Forgetting

To The Atlantic Editors,

While overall I agree with the thesis of Carr’s November 2013 piece, The Great Forgetting, I am disappointed with at least one item of proffered evidence that suffers from multiple substantial flaws. In particular, he cites “one recent study, conducted by Australian researchers, [that] examined the effects of [software] systems used by three international accounting firms”. From the limited presentation of the study, it would seem quite likely to conflate causation and correlation, rendering it largely useless. Furthermore, the attribution of the study merely to unnamed “Australian researchers”, with no mention of a study name, institution, publication, or date, makes it impractical to find the source.

We are told that “two of the firms employed highly advanced software” while a third firm “used simpler software”, the former providing a large degree of decision support functionality compared to the latter. Subjected to “a test measuring their expertise”, we’re told that individuals using the simpler software “displayed a significantly stronger understanding of different forms of risk”. And… What are we to believe about this?

The study’s presentation seems to imply that the overly helpful software atrophied the brains of the workers in the two firms using it. Maybe that is true, but we don’t actually know that such a causal relationship exists. As an alternate explanation, perhaps the two firms that use the (purportedly) more sophisticated software generally hire lower caliber accountants and have decided that more intrusive software is the only way to get acceptable results from them. Furthermore… Was proficiency of individuals measured both before and after exposure to the firms’ software? How long did the individuals use the software? Were the sample sizes large enough to avoid statistical noise? Were there any meaningful controls in place for this study?

Carr has apparently interpreted this study in a way that makes it convenient to weave into the larger narrative of the piece, but as it was presented it fails to support his thesis. Such careless cherry picking undermines a very real and otherwise well articulated issue.

— AWG

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