I used to think the Internet made you smarter. It seemed obvious. All the world's information at your fingertips, a treasure trove of endless knowledge on any topic you could dream of. Now I think differently. Today, if you're not careful about how you use the Internet, it doesn't make you smarter. It makes you dumber.

That's because the Internet has a thick surface layer of biased news, emotionally charged tweets, fake statistics, and other types of misinformation and opinions masquerading as facts. Here's an example: Have you ever read about humans having the attention span of a goldfish? Apparently, we can't concentrate for longer than nine seconds. It's a widely circulated fact online quoted in many articles.

It's also a complete lie.

If you dig into the sources of this particular "fact", you'll notice that no article actually points to the study that proves it. That's because the study doesn't exist. But the goldfish lie is catchy and it feeds into the narrative that our attention span is worsening, so writers use it anyway and readers believe the writers.

A goldfish
Tell a goldfish a fact and it'll forget it in less than ten seconds. Apparently.

Here's a subtler example: In September 2020, a group of scientists found some evidence of phosphine, a flammable gas, in Venus' atmosphere. Because some anaerobic bacteria on Earth naturally emit phosphine, the scientists reasoned that this could be evidence of a living organism in the clouds of Venus.

The news made global headlines. Here's the one from CBS: Astronomers find possible sign of life on Venus. Based on that headline alone, someone could easily believe we found life on Venus. But we didn't. In fact, a more recent study showed that it probably wasn't phosphine in Venus' clouds after all, but ordinary sulfur dioxide.

The latter news didn't make headlines because it's not nearly as exciting. It doesn't drive enough clicks. People care about life on other planets; they don't care about a study that shows it wasn't this gas, but that gas. And so the cycle of misinformation rolls further down the hill.

It's come to the point where you need to be incredibly wary about anything you read online. Some nuance will have been stripped from whatever it is you're reading. Combine that with our cognitive biases, and the odds of really understanding a topic aren't in your favor.

That's why books still have an advantage. They hammer home a select few points over hundreds of pages. Also, if you're reading a book about something, it's probably because you're interested in it and want to understand it. We're not really interested in most of the articles we see online, but we love to have opinions, so we form unsubtle but strong opinions on the basis of almost no information at all.

If you don't want to fall into this trap of misinformation, you need to be very careful about the content you consume online. A good rule of thumb is to stop the Internet from deciding what you should read. Don't read whatever happens to be on the websites you regularly visit.

Instead, understand what you want to learn more about and search for that. Then consult multiple sources and dig deep. Think Google Scholar and obscure PDFs. It's harder work, for sure, but at least you'll be using the Internet to make you smarter instead of the other way around.