Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Fact v Fiction: Segregation of the positive kind

Someone think the Internet should get it's facts straight

Perhaps it's interesting that I should be drawn to this story, being someone who blogs about Science stories and attempts to put a positive 'spin' on things, can I really be trusted to be an accurate source of information? Not 100% obviously, but I've always stuck to the facts, proposing only crazy theories that follow on by some logical step, however unlikely, from the facts available. It's why I do this, to attempt to prove that the facts don't have to be dull, you don't need to put a slant on everything in order to make it interesting. I probably prove the opposite quite often, but then I don't get paid for this, so quality control is minimal.
But in this age where information is available at the touch of a button, there really should be systems in place to ensure the information we use really can be trusted. When I tutor and mark student essays (Oh yes, I do have that level of responsibility), we are instructed to discourage them from referencing websites, because unlike scientific journals or textbooks, websites are often completely unchecked or unedited, and when you're discussing a scientific issue, you can't make crazy claims unless you have the evidence to back them up. So if you want to make statements in an essay, "Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology" is a valid reference, whereas "www.pub-quiz.com/answers" is not. And yes, that has actually been used in one of the pieces of work I've marked.

(My favourite faux-pas to date was when a 1st year student did the standard attempt to sound clever in order to convince the reader they understood the subject but ending up proving the opposite, and ended an essay on visual processes with the phrase 'It is often believed, quite wrongly, that the eye that is open is the one we see with'. Instead of a mark, I wrote the number of the job centre. And Specsavers)

But the Internet is indeed a fantastic tool for the spread of information, and is very democratic and that regard. But like with all democracies, certain groups with a certain viewpoint or belief abuse the system to get their own way, like the zealots at conservapedia, who push rambling bullying dogmatic nonsense disguised as 'information', the owners of which were just given the most brilliant scientific bitch-slap I've seen to date. I'm all for the free spread of information, but if the information is flawed, it can cause panic, fear, distrust and a variety of other emotions which aren't too desirable in large groups of people. Here's some 'information' I've encountered on the Internet.
  • The LHC will destroy the world as soon as it's switched on: No! No no no no no! See last blog, and listen to Stephen Hawking. In the local primary school back home, some malicious old lady told all the kids that the world was definitely going to end, and they were all too scared and upset to eat! What are the odds that Jamie Oliver will be trying that strategy next?
  • The MMR jab causes Autism: One doctor once mentioned in passing that there was a chance that a link was possible. One sweep of hysteria later, and measles is on the increase, potentially killing thousands of children in the long run. Still, it's better they die young than get Autism, right?
  • Fluoride is put in the water by the government as a means of keeping the populace under control and sedate: This is a facebook group I saw. Given that fluoride has been in the water supply for decades, during which times we saw such things as the poll tax riots and miners strikes, this seems unlikely. granted, there is much opposition to water fluoridation due to the various side effects too much fluoride can have, but by saying 'it's the government, playing with our minds', you detract from the valid arguments. And let's be honest, collective mind-control of the population would require more effort than dumping a few chemicals in the water supply and hoping for the best. And could several successive governments keep such a thing secret? The current lot constantly leave top secret records on trains, I think this sort of scheme is beyond them to be honest.
  • Vernon Kay denies his death: I really wanted this to be an attempt at irony, but I don't think it is. And that scares me more than any universe swallowing black-hole.
What worries me the most is the way nonsense, if repeated often enough with a straight face, becomes accepted as fact. My most hated example is 'we only use 10% of our brain', which is always reeled off by people attempting to illustrate that there are many things Science doesn't know. That's true, but the 10% of the brain thing is utter bullshit. It's based on an experiment from long long ago when someone stuck electrodes into the brain of an unconscious person. 10% of the time, it caused a physical reaction from the patient. The actual fact is, '10% of the surface of the brain will cause physical movement if stimulated electronically'. Which isn't the same. The brain is the most demanding organ we have, over 25% of all our bodies sugar goes on brain function, and it won't consume anything else. It's a jet engine, not a furnace, it takes only the best fuel. And using only 10% of the brain would be like taking a Jet and filling it with rocks, just using so much fuel for no reason. We use all the brain. We're not sure what for, but it's all useful.
But people rely on scientific ignorance to flog stuff, as in 'The new moisturiser contains pentapeptides'. I'm a bit rusty on my biochemical terminology, but 'pentapeptide' either means a string of 5 amino acids, or a protein made up of 5 amino acid chains. Either way, that's massively unimpressive. They might as well say "our new gloop is made up of atoms, whoooooo! Atoms, yeah, that's all sciency isn't it, you're impressed right? We clearly know what we're on about, so buy our overpriced shite, otherwise you'll be ugly forever, you will, we know these things because we're cleverer than you, we must be, remember the atoms? Yeah, that's right, go out and buy it you stupid prole!"
This kind of thing clearly makes me angry, which isn't like me. I'd hate for people to read this and get the wrong information about me. That would be ironic, but not in a funny way.


1 comment:

Peter C said...

Vernon Kay IS DEAD. I believe. The Truth is out there! Oh noes.

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