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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gullibility and the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus: perhaps you've heard about it. Does it live in the water? Does it live in a tree? Does it even exist?

Apparently this 'endangered species' is extinct - because it's not even real.

A study was recently published by the Pearson Publishing Company that suggested kids were being dumbed down because of the Internet, and weren't able to discern if what they were reading was real or not. The group set up a fake website and asked seventh grade students to research the octopus, and no one realized the website was a hoax. Some students apparently refused to believe it was fake even after the study's leaders revealed the truth about it.

In the comments section for this article, people were quick to jump all over our legendarily poorer performing students and essentially blame them for not having enough critical thinking skills. I disagree. Perhaps the people who conducted this study aren't familiar with the Snopes website?

I feel badly for these kids, because many at that age level are often brainwashed with ideas about environmentalism and politics by their teachers. Parents are one thing - you are entitled to raise your kids with whatever ideology you want. But it is not the teacher's job to tell the student what to think, merely how to think. There is a big difference. Nor should the teacher be injecting his or her personal feelings into the argument. (I know some teachers who do this, and can't believe they still have jobs.)

One mom piped up and said her child's school was repeatedly showing Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth in class. If environmental issues are your thing, that's fine; but skeptics are quick to point out that Gore's movie is not all "truth." Separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, doesn't appear to be a problem only among kids. And if it's coming from the mouth of a teacher or other school official, they're probably more bound to believe it, simply because that person is "trusted."

I think the kids' hesitation in realizing the whole thing was a hoax comes from two different things: one, kids are taught that most adults are to be respected, and that they have authority; that they are right. What kid wants to believe that an adult would intentionally lie to them about something so serious an issue as this? Secondly, animal endangerment and environmentalist issues are currently hot-button topics that evoke a lot of emotion and passion from both sides, and kids want to feel - like anyone else - that they can make a difference in such a popular concept. My personal take, as a parent, is that no one is telling us we shouldn't be good stewards of the Earth; but sometimes I think it's taken to an unbelievably ridiculous level at times: like in the case of the parents who killed both themselves and their child (the second child survived a gunshot wound to the chest) because they were concerned over their "environmental impact." Crazy, or just extremely gullible?

Perhaps you've heard about Orson Welles' famous science fiction hoax War of the Worlds, a radio production that convinced thousands of people that Martians were invading the planet. Sure, we couldn't Google it to look it up - and with no TV, you certainly wouldn't see reporters on the scene, giving updates every twenty minutes. But while this broadcast was being aired, millions of people were literally freaking out. And for what?

I've also read that TV viewers would often approach actors who played doctors on television and ask them medical questions. Or that when the popular Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air and Mary Tyler Moore starred in her own self-titled series, that they purposely made her character single, because the writers were afraid viewers would think she had divorced Dick Van Dyke. Seriously? Can we not separate fact from fiction at all here?

Or how about commercials that feature medical "products" that come with a disclaimer that "the doctor portrayed in this broadcast is a paid actor." Because you're more inclined to believe what they're telling you if it comes from a doctor (or at least someone who dresses like one) - someone who is usually esteemed and upheld as a paragon of trust and knowledge. Yeah, right.

We see the same kind of behavior among many pregnant patients and their obstetricians. Because that guy has a white lab coat on and a degree hanging on the wall of his office, it means he's right - even if what he's saying doesn't quite add up or is completely false, unbeknownst to us, it sounds better, more right, if it comes from him. So some crazed madwoman with a passion for natural birth has no medical degree - but can shove reams of paper under your nose that directly contradict what your doctor is saying - and she's the one who's wrong?

The words "just talk to your doctor" make me cringe. Because often when we do, we hear things like:
• "20 to 25 percent of women can't dilate to 10 centimeters."
• "[If you eat and drink while in labor], your poop could be sucked into the vaginal canal..."
• "Come in for a vaginoplasty...we'll make you tight as a teenager again."
• "The vagina is a very dirty place for a baby!"
• "It's illegal everywhere but maybe New York," to a mother interested in a VBAC.

No word on whether these OB's were that gullible (or just dumb), or were just hoping their patients were.

More reading:
Mythbusters - the only guys (and a girl, too) with enough guts to prove how adults are sucked into thinking nonsensical crap is true, too.