A couple of days ago, a story made the rounds that a company called AptiQuant had conducted a study that found a correlation between intelligence of Web surfers and their browser of choice. Respectable news sources like The Telegraph reported on the findings. According to the report, people who rely on Internet Explorer possess below-average intelligence. Those who use Chrome and Firefox are slightly more intelligent than average. The real eggheads use Camino, Opera or Internet Explorer with Chrome Frame. Numerous jokes, insults and flame wars soon followed the report. But there’s just one problem — the whole thing is a sham.
I read on BBC News that some enterprising Web surfers took it upon themselves to take a closer look at AptiQuant. They discovered that the Web site for this company is only about a month old and that some of the content — such as the pictures of the supposed staff of the company — come from other, legitimate businesses. The BBC also interviewed experts who expressed doubts about the story, saying that such a strong correlation suggests a hoax more than a real study.
I think there are two lessons to take away from this story. One is that investigative journalism is still very important and mustn’t be set aside. It’s common to see news agencies regurgitate press releases as news without looking deeper to make sure there’s actually a story there. I know I’ve been guilty of doing that in the past (though to be fair I’m not a journalist in the classic sense). The second lesson is that we should all maintain a skeptical point of view and practice critical thinking. That doesn’t mean we should disbelieve everything we read but it does mean that we should look into stories that sound particularly sensational or unusual.
This story should have set off a few alarm bells but I think many of us — myself included — hold certain prejudices toward people who use particular kinds of technology. It’s easy to believe that someone who relies on an outdated version of Internet Explorer isn’t as bright as someone using an obscure but robust Web browser. But those sorts of assumptions aren’t based in fact.