April 23, 2021

FTV: Say What?


     First the disclaimer:  I use a cell phone, the internet, email, and frequently do online research.  I also read books, magazines, and newspapers (real, paper based, non-electronically delivered books, magazines, and newspapers).  I also watch and/or listen to the broadcast news.  By choice, I do not have a personal social media account, therefore, I do not follow what others post on Facebook, Twitter, or the like.  Do not even get me started on Tik Tok.  I grew up admiring the professionalism of both print and broadcast news journalists.  With that said, it alarms me greatly that people are currently bombarded with so much information (much of it of a highly trivial nature) that our ability to absorb news accurately is being seriously eroded.  Take the following item that ran in the Marquette Mining Journal

Marquette’s new UFO landing strip is a good idea – (A Marquette Mining Journal editorial)

     “Just checking.  There is, of course, no UFO landing strip , and possibly no UFOs –  but that is fodder for another editorial.  What we really wanted to see is if anyone intended on reading past the headline.

     In 2014, a study by the Media Insight Project found that 41 percent of Americans had watched, read, or heard any in-depth news stories – beyond the headlines – in the past week.  So, in other words, the majority of Americans don’t read past the headline.  We get it.  You’re busy.  Spending 10 or more minutes with an article is asking a lot.   But, how much information can you get from a headline?  A candidate’s name?  That city council has decided to do something?

     And, oh boy, let’s not get into the really complicated issues, like the U.P.’s complex energy challenges.  I mean, as long as we know the U.P. has elaborate power issues, is it important also to know what they are?  Perhaps only if we want to find a workable solution.  Knowing – and understanding – what’s happening in our community and the world around us is important because it impacts our way of life.  How can we go about solving problems if we don’t know what they are?  How can we affect change if we don’t understand the issue?  How can we responsibly elect officials we know nothing about?

     The alarming aspect of headline-only readers is this appears to carry over to social media as well, where people continue to share stories that are not factual.  Users might see something interesting in their newsfeed and simply click ‘share’ without ever reading the story they’ve just played a part in disseminating to others.  Suddenly, otherwise false information is factual and hundreds, thousands, or even millions now believe it to be true.  Just like you can’t judge a book by its cover, you also can not make a snap conclusion from a headline.

     But of course, you know this – you finished reading this editorial.  Please, spread the word – and share that on social media.”

     In his book Everything All At Once (2017 – Rodale Books – edited by Corey S. Powell), Bill Nye (yes, the same Bill Nye of the Bill Nye the Science Guy series) tackles a host of issues that humans need to come to grips with.  While Bill Nye is a tad younger than I am, there are many similarities in the historical and cultural references that we share.  The subtitle of this book is How to unleash your inner nerd, tap into radical curiosity, and solve any problem, but I can assure anyone who picks it up, it is not just a bunch of ‘nerd-speak’.  Bill Nye should throw his hat into the ring for the 2024 presidential elections because what he says makes a lot of sense.  Certainly he has a vested interest in people reading his books (namely, selling more books), but Nye has a loftier purpose he is not shy about sharing his thoughts on:  the survival of the human species.  

     One of the many topics he covers in Everything All at Once is found in a chapter entitled ‘Critical Thinking, Critical Filtering’.  He tells readers about a Web site he found about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus:  “This remarkable creature lives in just one small section of the temperate rainforests of Washington State.  The Tree Octopus pounces on frogs or rodents from tree limbs and then crawls back up to safety.  It has a mucus coating that protects its body from drying out.  It is a true evolutionary oddity:  its aquatic ancestors were isolated on land when the oceans receded in this area, and one isolated population adapted by developing a unique tree climbing ability.  Truly a biological marvel.  The site even encourages Web visitors to become a ‘friend’ of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus because the poor creature is endangered – what with all those mean-spirited, forest-denuding loggers, and all,  The site issues a call to arms:  ‘Together, we have the power to build a grass-roots campaign to save the Tree Octopus.’.  The site adds this additional emotional element to the story, and it is very effective.  What?  You’ve never heard of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus?  Good, because it doesn’t exist.  It is a hoax created by someone who calls himself ‘Lyle Zapato’, a devious prankster who has created a marvelously detailed and convincing Web site dedicated to this imaginary creature.”

    Like the Marquette UFO Landing site editorial we opened with, one could smile and say, “Tsk, it is just a harmless prank.  Some people will believe anything,” but that is exactly the point.  In the case of the NW Tree Octopus, educators in Connecticut did a little hands on research about the effects of this prank site.  Nye continues:  “In one test, educators in Connecticut asked a group of 25 seventh graders to look at the Tree Octopus Website.  Every single one of them accepted it as real.  At the time of the test, the students all went to the same fake Website, found the same fake information, and compared fake notes with one another.  Then they all concluded that the fake ‘facts’ were real.  They didn’t pursue multiple reference sources.  They did not filter the low-quality information, because they had no training in how to do it.  Today if you Google “tree octopus,”, this site is (naturally) the first that comes up.  Now, at least there is a debunking Snopes page that shows up as well, but even so, it is easy to get sucked into the seductive falsehood of the Zapato site.  The story makes for a wonderful science-class lesson – thank you for that, Lyle Zapato (if in fact that is your real name!).  But for me there’s a much bigger message here.“

     When the Ontonagon Area Schools installed the technology needed for us to integrate the World Wide Web into our classrooms, one of the first things I noticed was the sheer volume of material that popped up anytime a student did a Web search.  For example, a simple topic heading like ‘Moons in the Solar System’ found 845,600 entries in .46 seconds.  I would remind my students that even if you opened and closed that many sites for only one second each, it would take 234.9 hours or 9.8 days, and that is without bothering to read any of the content.  The lesson we learned was all about filtering – identify a few credible sources and ignore the rest.  When we can access such a huge volume of material in such a short time, learning to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, becomes the most important task at hand.

     Nye offers five specific ways to filter suspicious claims sure to pop up when one is doing Web searches.  They can be applied before you look for further supporting data and references about a topic:  “1) Is it part of an ad or ‘sponsored content’?  2) Does it clearly benefit a specific person or company?  3) Does it have no obvious source at all? 4) Does it contradict things you’ve heard before?  (That doesn’t make it wrong, just suspicious), and finally 5) Is it something you really want to be true?  If so, you need to be extra careful.”  Nye’s suggested plan for filtering suspicious information reminds me a lot of the old adage, “Nothing ruins a good argument than some dang fool with the facts.”   I co-opted this saying a bit by reminding my students, “Any fool with an internet connection can post anything they want to on the internet but it takes another fool to believe everything they find posted there.”  It will be a tough act to rid the internet of bogus postings, so it is doubly important that we educate people how to spot posts that manipulate the truth or just plain lie.  

     Remember that other sage advice?  “Never trust any one who says, ‘Trust me’, would I lie to you?’”  During the early days of the Cold War, President Eisenhower proposed a policy called ‘Open Skies’  that would allow the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to make surveillance flights over each other’s territory (a plan that was ultimately rejected).  In the 1980s, American scholar Suzanne Massie advised President Regan to learn a few Russian proverbs to use when discussing U.S./U.S.S.R. relations because, “The Russians like to talk in proverbs.”  One of them (“Trust, but verify”) became one of Regan’s frequently used catch phrases.  Maybe we can update again for use in the digital world. 

     When my daughter Elizabeth was in graduate school at the University of Colorado, she worked in their tutoring center.  She advised her students that certain sites like Wikipedia were not acceptable sources for research.   Wikipedia, as an ‘open source’,  meant things that  people posted there could be revised without much oversite.  I advised my own students that if you use Wiki to look up an event, make sure you also use another source to corroborate the information.  In those days, even simple things like ‘the First Moon Landing’ were posted on Wiki containing incorrect facts.  The last time I updated the WOAS-FM section that pops up when someone searches for us on Wikipedia, the fact checkers asked for some specific sources for the information that I wanted to add to the section that tells our history.  I can’t say if some institutions of higher learning have relaxed their policies about using Wiki these days, but it was nice to see that my original entries could not be changed without some proof of their authenticity.

     Nye provides a little more advice on how to avoid the most noxious materials that arrive in one form or another:  “Some sources are so untrustworthy, they can’t be saved.  Especially for those of you who read a lot of news online, I have a simple piece of advice:  ‘Don’t bother with the comments section.’  The places where anyone can spout off about an article or a blog post have become notorious information cesspools, where emotions run high and data quality is low or nonexistent.  A journalist friend of mine contacted me recently about my criticism of climate-change deniers.  She said, ‘Did you see the comments?  You have to respond right away.’  I explained, calmly, that no, I really did not.  It is consistent with the modern expression ‘Haters gonna hate.’  As a rule, I do not respond to the anonymous combatants who are passionately hovering over their keyboards 24 hours a day, ready to pounce on an odd point that really, really bothers them;  sometimes they pounce even when there’s nothing in the original article that’s related to the vitriol they decide to post in the comment section below.”  

     People fixating on a few negative points spread by angry or malicious Tweets is not a new phenomenon.  Nye points out that this sort of ‘selection bias’ or ‘selection effect’ is built in to how humans process information.  When we are bombarded with this sort of misinformation and lies, the effect is amplified.  This causes mountains become mole hills, untruths to become ‘facts’, and a minority of haters to spread their vile doctrines misrepresented as majority opinions.  Toss in a few ‘bots’ that can spread one lie tens of thousands of times and the need for us all to step back and critically filter this avalanche of false multimedia misinformation becomes even more critical if we are to function as a civilized society.  As we saw with the last presidential election cycle, we all needed to set our filters on ‘high’ and remember our borrowed Russian proverb; “Trust, but verify.”   

     I add a hearty ‘Amen’ to Brother Bill’s sentiments.  A student once asked me why I don’t have a social media account:  “Doesn’t it bother you that some people post bad things about you?” she asked.  My answer was consistent with what Nye said about ‘Haters gonna hate’:  “Nope, if someone has a problem with me and can’t tell me face to face, then they are the one with the problem, not me.  I can’t control what someone else says about me behind my back so I won’t waste my time with it.”  With that said, let me add that I still believe the internet, the various branches of mass and social media that it has spawned, and the consumers who use them have the potential to do useful – even great – things.   

     In the aftermath of the last election (no, I will not rehash the whole thing here), I heard someone call into a local talk show with one of those internet based conspiracy theories about something they professed to be yet another ‘evil government plot’.  It was so ludicrous it made me actually laugh out loud.  As the hosts discussed it, one of them kind of took the caller’s side saying, “Well, it sounded like he knew what he was talking about.”  Thankfully someone else pointed out that it sounded more like an internet spread ‘theory’ advanced without any facts to back it up.  !  I hope we all will be smart enough to filter out the nonsense from the facts so these powerful tools at our fingertips will be used for more than muckraking, name calling, and advocating behavior that does not advance a doctrine of ‘good for all people’.  It is the only civilized way to proceed to a happier, more productive future both here and abroad. 

Top Piece Video:  Sir Paul gets down with the news in A DAY IN THE LIFE – live!