Dangerous Apps: Mental Sound Bites

| Analysis

Our iOS apps span the spectrum from games to utilities to productivity tools. However, some apps fall into the category of a mental sound bite. That is, they try to encapsulate information, but often without context or rigorous research. They can be dangerous.

In the late 1990s, after having been on the private Internet at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, I told people new to the public Internet this: the tools that teach you how to use the Internet are not found on the Internet. By that, I mean that people with a very good education would be able to distinguish nonsense from sound research, distinguish demagoguery from seasoned opinion, distinguish half-baked goods from sound technical work. It goes to the quality of one’s education, not how well read one is on the Internet.

I’ll give you one example. I reviewed an app here at TMO that said Albert Einstein was “deeply involved” in the Manhattan Project — the U.S. secret program to build the first nuclear bomb in the 1940s. Einstein did no such thing. While he wrote an important letter[1] to president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 and did some minor consulting, shortly thereafter, his security clearance was revoked and he never played the key role[2] that the Los Alamos pioneers did: Bethe, Feynman, Oppenheimer, Szilard and many other nuclear hall of famers. Every physics student knows that, but perhaps it was a misplaced reverence of Einstein that led to this error making its way into the app as purported fact[3]. Or just poor research. Use of this app, at the time, for a research paper on Einstein would have been disastrous for the student.

A. Einstein

Albert Einstein in 1921

Another example is a recent calculator app I reviewed that has a function to calculate the factorial for non-integer values. The first version gave the wrong answer because, I suspect, the author didn’t do his homework on the Gamma function. I caught it, warned the readers, and after a few weeks, the author published an update. While fixing the problem was good, one has to feel sorry for any student who trusted the app and used it for homework during that initial period. Or imagine an aerospace engineer who used it as part of the design of an aircraft jet engine and never caught the error. Some of the tools we use are just too important not to get it right the first time.

There’s another class of apps where the developer encapsulates the data he finds at another source, say, “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft,” or some other similar source. One example is “FighterPedia.”  The developer is selling you his third-hand summary, but very little insight into the nuances of certain military systems. That leads to errors borne of lack of experience in the subject matter. For example, the 50 year old unclassified service ceiling listed for the F-104 jet fighter (from the 1960s) is always given as 57,000 ft. (FighterPedia even has a transcription error on that.]  Military pilots know that it was much, much higher and that F-104s routinely made U-2 intercepts in training.  But then they don’t need three dollar apps to tell them that. 

F-104s

Two F-104s converted by NASA for research in 1970

All of these apps were approved by Apple. They passed Apple’s test, but the standards there are more limited. Apple’s imprimatur shouldn’t lead to overconfidence, and there can be a price to be paid for inattention by the developer and the user. After all, that’s just a few examples where I happen to have some personal knowledge.  What about all the other apps out there that I don’t know about? Some inexpensive apps, cheap to grab quantity sales, can have traps and pitfalls for the unwary.

Frameworks

I believe in mental frameworks. They’re like a meat grinder. In goes a gooey mass and out comes hamburger fit for a BBQ. Mental frameworks do the same thing: they provide a processor for everything you hear and read. In goes raw data, and out comes something you and others can depend on[4]. In the app community, we’re confronted with 300,000 pieces of goo. Some are excellent: researched and peer reviewed. However, some are not, and knowing how to use some of these apps requires that the user be educated on some fundamentals before jumping into the convenience and glamor of what I call a sound bite app.

In many cases, you already have to know as much as the author did who developed that app. Then you can use it with confidence. Being well read on Internet fundamentals helps too. A good example is all the apps that are free, but have a hidden business model: the developer receives back end payments for reporting your location, habits and preferences.

I think that apps that provide a service that’s quantifiable or apps that are a gateway to a larger, respected product, such as The Wall Street Journal, and games are terrific. However, some apps are like miniature books. They carry hubris and second hand knowledge. Just because you paid for the app doesn’t mean that knowledge is accurate, seasoned and tested.

The framework you build to use and evaluate that app comes from your formal education, caring parents, teachers and professors, human discourse, guided tours through the good works of mankind, the fire and annealing of exams, teacher evaluation and feedback on your state of excellence. It’s painful to build robust neural pathways, but it’s necessary in order for people to estimate their own capability and that of others.

Some apps can be a lot of fun, and some are very informative. But when you let them do your thinking for you, when they become your only internal voice, a mental sound bite, you’re asking for trouble.

_____________

[1] I have a framed copy of that letter.

[2] The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes, Simon and Schuster, 1986. p 635.

[3] The error has since been corrected in the app.

[4] I’m making, of course, no claims for the health of hamburger. It’s a metaphor.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Join the TMO Express Daily Newsletter to get the latest Mac headlines in your e-mail every weekday.

Comments

John Mitchener

John,

Are you saying that everything on the internet isn’t true? Heresy!

God help us from the lack of critical thinking.

Jamie

Fantastic piece. This is something I’ve thought off and on about a lot since the digital age really began in earnest. In spite of the fears many of us have had as we’ve watched the world change at lightning speed, tech is only as good as its programming,  the human component is the one that will never be obsolete. Very cool. smile

mhikl

Agreed, Jamie. How fast our world doubles its knowledge!

John M has the skeptic gene. Not everyone does, sadly. This article applies to all sources of information. The internet is saturated with ‘half-baked goods’, as are newspapers and all media. Errors can be due to the author, the typesetter, from any hand in the stew that brings the information to final form.

I knew of Einstein’s security issue but also think he had ethical reservations to participating in the Manhattan Project. The point is: both what I am sure I know (security issue) and what I think I know (ethical reservations) could be completely right, partially correct or just a load of confused hooey. I do a lot of reading so have a lot of ‘facts’ and have caught myself attributing one fact to the wrong situation often enough that I usually preface information with “I think ...., or I believe I read ....”. (Except for points of humour.)

Any teacher reading this article will see “a teaching moment”; others will stop to ponder, while the know-it-all who lack the skeptic sense will think it doesn’t apply to him or her.

I like it that MacObserver is more than just Apple discussion.

Bryan Chaffin

Can I hear a w00t w00t?

Crap, did I just write that out loud? smile

Seriously, I loved this piece from John, and I’m already delighted with the comments from our awesome readers.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

John, you’ve zeroed in on the primary danger of actually centralizing approval and counting these apps, i.e. the total lack of meaning of “300,000 apps”. It’s also the best critical definition of Apple’s “appification” of the Internet that I’ve seen, though you probably didn’t intend that. By insisting on centralized control, how complicit is Apple in these errors? My answer is totally, but not at all. That’s why competing, open systems that are not susceptible to the same problems of central control are imperative, and why I’ll support them grin.

Bryan Chaffin

I say fi on that argument, Brad.  Open systems have zero controls over accuracy.  Indeed, John’s column indirectly points out how Apple’s walled garden offers infinitely higher levels of control over these issues, let alone the potential for privacy invasion, spyware, malware, and other forms of crapware that Android or the other so-called open systems.

Amongst all the impassioned arguments you have made against Apple’s walled garden, this one is very weak in comparison.

John Martellaro

Bryan is right.  The quality of the app’s source code—the knowledge content or technical accuracy—has nothing to do with Apple’s approval process and everything to do with the experience, education, and diligence of the developer.

mhikl

Now could there here be a case of confused hooey? My mum tells me it’s not nice to point fingers. Sometimes she just has no sense of fun; poke, poke, poke. Poke.

CudaBoy

I still say the Internet is like the Wild West. The net can be a very dangerous place, or it can be a valuable tool.
If Apple is going to promote dirt cheap “apps” I would think they should be held liable for the quality of the apps. There should be no rush to market these cheap apps if they are potentially useless and harmful.
The old saying “believe nothing of what you hear, and only half of what you see” should apply DOUBLE to the Web.
OTOH, if you are an engineer or a scholar and you are depending on $2 apps for your research, you kind of get what you deserve.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Ah, but I didn’t claim that open systems had any better control over accuracy. I do claim that they have better control over perceived complicity. Look at the recent broo-ha-ha Amazon went through over the instruction manual for pedophiles. Stocking certain titles, whether you endorse their message or not, can be taken by the buying public as an implied endorsement. More so when there are no legitimate competing channels.

mhikl

The obfuscation sorcerer continues to stir his mangled web of malicious lies and misdirection. Once again he attempts to hijack a topic of discussion and to destroy the intent of a great article in his ignoble pursuit of an agenda. Sadly there is complicity by honest brokers in these forums who, unintentionally, give pseudo credence to his seemingly inscrutable purpose. But in fact his purpose is blatantly obvious; the prime example being what he has done to this article. (Reread the statement in bold again.) Every time this bozo chooses to sabotage an article, his intent is to destroy the honourable efforts of the author who desires to enlighten his readers and encourage discussion. Every contributor and commenter who rises to the usurper?s bait, supports and invigorates his malicious intentions.

A good example of this kind of subterfuge is a riddle in the same childish vein: ?Have you stopped beating your wife?? There is no way to answer this question that doesn?t affirm the idea that you beat, have beaten, are beating and will continue to beat your wife. To respond to this false question, is to enter into twisted circular argument with no possibility of any satisfying answer that negates its intent or agenda. It is Alice down the rabbit hole of Kafkaesque nightmares, forever. It never stops; it never rests; it never completes its course. It just migrates to the next article to spin again, and again, and again. No amount of argument, no qualifying facts, no ingratiating efforts at logic can appease this beast.

Only by refusing to attend to the usurper?s arguments by any means, will his nasty and puerile intentions be thwarted.

Any internet search that suggests this clown is a professor at any reputable university should be viewed with skepticism.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Every time this bozo chooses to sabotage an article, his intent is to destroy the honourable efforts of the author who desires to enlighten his readers and encourage discussion.

@mhikl: It’s a Division I discussion board. It ain’t intramurals! If you don’t want your beliefs challenged, go play intramurals, brother.

wab95

John:

Excellent piece. This mirrors a discussion we recently had around the broader issue of internet etiquette at my son’s school, of which I view this topic to be a core element.

In the absence of material that goes through an internal vetting/editorial or, better yet, peer review process, the content or product consumer has to be vigilant and cross-check the facts. Even then, peer review can still fail to spot errors and fraud, and is no substitute for critical thinking. That peer review and editorial review may on occasion fail is no indictment against their value but evidence of their being manmade, and like all human institutions and people, they are imperfect.

To suggest that this argues against Apple’s app screening process, or makes an argument for one without those constraints, demonstrates ignorance of common industry standards and the division and limits of responsibilities among institutions that publish content; specifically the distinctions between the roles of publisher, editor and peer review which act in concert to publish content of the highest calibre.

One might just as well argue that if an article in a peer-reviewed journal is found to be inaccurate, or even fraudulent, the fault lies with the publishing house, and that somehow this proves the fallacy of its publishing standards. Rather, insuring accuracy is the responsibility of the editor. There are various methods by which the editor may do so, but in science the editor relies on peer review. To ensure that the final product meets the standards of the journal, it is vetted through an editorial staff. Neither editors nor their support staff can be experts on every subject, nor can they guarantee flawless output; thus peer review is a potent adjunct.

If anything, Apple’s attempts to create standards is laudable, even if its methods are imperfect and incomplete. Ensuring accuracy is not applicable to all of its apps. However, for apps that do convey information, perhaps that extra step of peer review or its equivalent, overseen by an editorial staff, may be necessary. If Apple did so, while it would surely further slow the rate of clearing of at least some apps, it would put Apple even further ahead of the field in its efforts to provide the highest quality products and best user experience.

Still, nothing can surpass the value of an alert, dispassionate and questioning mind in separating fact from fiction.

Log-in to comment