What would you say if I told you that 25 percent of the population was the mental equivalent to an elementary school dropout? Right on the cusp of being medically diagnosable as exhibiting mild mental retardation? Being the sensible individual that you are, you would never believe it. I asked several people that question this week and none of them believed it. Why, then, did so many of the world’s tech news outlets believe this sort of news?
A week ago today, a study was released by a research group known as AptiQuant, which found that the average Internet Explorer 6 user scored just over 80 on an IQ test, while Opera and Camino users scored well above 120. That puts Camino and Opera users on the verge of genius - pretty flattering, right? Well it would be if the report was real. It turns out the whole thing was a sham, and we had plenty of warning signs along the way.
For starters, the AptiQuant website was registered less than two weeks before the report went live. Any reporter worth his salt would have known to check for that. The website was also full of false information. The address listed for the company doesn’t exist. The staff pictures were pulled from a company in France. The site was made in Wordpress. Perhaps the most alarming tell - aside from the ridiculous nature of the study and results - was that the method used for supposedly gathering the results was a free online IQ test delivered via search engine ads.
Still, everyone from the BBC to the Silicon Alley Insider were quick to jump on the news and proclaim the story as fact. The IT world’s fascination with the story points to some very ugly truths about the nature of news and the transparency of our beliefs.
Imagine the story was flipped. Imagine that the report had been issued that said Internet Explorer users averaged a 120 IQ while Camino and Opera users were down in the low-80s. It never would have gotten off the ground. Browser nerds would have gone to whatever extremes were necessary to disprove the study and reinforce their superiority complexes. But dumb Camino users aren’t the popular opinion. Dumb IE users? That’s something we’re all comfortable with. People love to bash Microsoft for just about anything, and since the rise of Firefox and Google Chrome, Microsoft’s web browser has become a calling card for internet newbies. This story was doing nothing more than framing the beliefs we hold to be evident, and we ate it up.
That’s really nothing new, though. People have been trying to reinforce belief systems with fact for thousands of years. The more frustrating part, to me anyway, is that supposedly reputable news houses are willing to fall for a two-week-old Wordpress site because it might get them more pageviews. A sensational headline like we saw from Silicon Alley Insider - STUDY: Internet Explorer Users Are Dumber - will rack up pageviews with very little work. Statistics stories are even less work, which made this hoax by AptiQuant perfect bait.
We can’t indict the news sources without also looking at ourselves, though. We’re the ones who have been clicking the sensational headlines, pumping up the pageviews, conditioning writers to churn out sensational headlines. We’re the ones reading the news for the most interesting tidbit to share over a few drinks. We’re the ones who have been proving thousands of times each day across every browser and operating system that we don’t want news, we don’t want careful analysis, we don’t want to read. We want anecdotes, and as long as people want anecdotes, our news sources will be happy to provide them.