I was caught out by the recency illusion today. A friend posted a video of a spide weaving its web. I add a comment about research I’d read about when I was writing for the New Scientist in the early 1990s where the scientists showed that plying a spider with different stimulants, such as caffeine and cocaine, or other drugs such as cannabis, led them to produce weird and wonderful alternative web patterns. I revised my comment because I then remembered reading about that research when I was at university in the 1980s.
I commented that in my 30+ years as a science writer I reckon I’d seen a lot of research reinvented, not for the sake of reproducibility tests, but simply where the researchers hadn’t realised that the work had been done before. It’s happened several times over the last couple of years and makes me seriously think it’s time I retired, hah!
Anyway, I looked on PubMed to find that distorted spider’s web research and found a paper from 2004, yes, well that proved my point. But, then I found a paper from 1969 and a review of the area from 1971…so it had already been done before I even started school let alone reached university. I went to the 1971 review’s reference section and it cites papers from the 1950s long before I was born and my parents hadn’t even met!
The term “recency illusion” was coined by Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky, to refer to one’s perception that words, meanings, phrases, and grammatical constructions are new at the time you first hear them. They generally aren’t. There are many examples of what lots of people think of as modern phrases that can be found in Shakespeare, for instance. Zwicky later defined the illusion as “the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent.” As in wondrous webs made by spiders on crack…