Monday, December 5, 2011

How I failed at office skepticism.

This is a story that dates back to an earlier era. Internet 1.0 if you want to put it that way. Back in the days before Facebook where email was still the number one way to share weird links, jokes, worms, email chains and provide “status updates”. Except nobody knew they were called status updates yet. I’m just trying to use language the kids will understand. But I still think this story translates well to Facebook and other social mediums.

A popular type of email that was eagarly awaited in the office was the “Amazing” email. Amazing emails were full of incredible images or stories meant to shock, awe and warn of as-yet-unknown horrific dangers. Only about 5% of all amazing emails had any basis in fact whatsoever. If that. But people wanted to believe. Photoshopping was not so well known back then and an image spoke 1000 words. Usually rubbish words.

As the resident skeptic in my office I took these amazing emails as my opportunity to educate my colleagues about bogus facts. www.snopes.com was my best friend. Even today it is still one of the best possible sources of internet truth. Their front page has remained unchanged for years because they don’t have a minute to spare once all the internet hoaxes are debunked for the day. If nothing else, visit Snopes to learn a bit about the history of “Amazing stories”, snopes often reaches all the way back into the age of letter writing (that’s LETTERS not emails) when delving into the pedigree of a particular internet hoax. Rest assured, some hoaxes are older than you and the internet and snopes has been following them from the start.

Here’s what typically happened in my office (Full of engineers. Don’t even get me started on the gullability of engineers).

It would usually start with a series of unbelievably amazing photographs of a shark attacking a helicopter (or similar). These would get sent around the office followed by whistles of appreciation and exclamations of amazement that the helicopter pilot somehow managed to escape certain death. Virtually noone would question the veracity of the photographs. If it looked real it was. If it sounded real it was. Without fail, I would find said images or words on snopes.com (they also list items that turned out to be true) and send a “reply all” email explaining the truth of the images (or words). Most were hoaxes. A very small number were true. The original source of the email (within our office) would usually accept the truth good naturedly if slightly diminished in pride (if it was a hoax).

To be honest I had assumed that I was slowly pissing off everyone in my office. But I was young and arrogant and felt that they deserved their fate for being so stupid as to believe this crap. After spending 2 years there I left amicably to go and study my physics degree.

So where did I go wrong?

I didn’t even realise my mistake until almost a year later when I dropped back by the office to catch up with some people I had lost touch with. I got talking to the receptionist and it wasn’t long before she dragged me over to her computer to show me a succession of “Amazing emails”. She wanted to know if they were true or not. Apparently she had become accustomed to seeing my “Here’s the truth” email following the original and really genuinely enjoyed discovering what she could believe and what was rubbish. Once I had left the office those followup emails stopped and she was back in the dark again. She had no idea how to check for herself.

Duh.

I had gotten her hooked on discovering the truth but never showed her how. In fact, she wasn’t the only one. Others in the office missed my emails too and equally lacked the ability to look up this information for themselves. I never even sent them a link to www.snopes.com before I left. (Edit: Or any other urban legend debunking website.)

Fail.

That was my massive mistake. To quote the bible poorly, “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime”. To quote Terry Pratchett “give a man a fire and he is warm for a day, set a man on fire and he is warm for a lifetime”

I had taught people to enjoy skepticism and never gave them the tools to do it for themselves. You could call them stupid for not being able to work it out but that’s way too harsh. Most people back then were not accustomed to hoaxes like they are now. But there are still similarities today. Practised skeptics still tend to be better at spotting a hoax than your average person. So take every opportunity skeptics, to not only reveal the truth, but to teach people how to find it for themselves. Just being open to skepticism does not automatically mean someone can put it into pratice without help.

Never forget that.

Monika

Edit: I should also add in defence of my former colleagues that this was in a time where office internet access (by this I mean www access) was not a given. You had to fill in an application justifying your need for the internet. Most of my colleagues had no access to the world wide web at all. It was email or nothing and as you know, email is not exactly a font of knowledge.

  1. Roberta

    Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - 04:13:29

    Great story. Unfortunately for some people, pointing them to Snopes is still not enough. I have a dear friend (retired nurse) who is susceptible to all sorts of Dire Warning emails (viruses, attackers lurking under parked cars, etc.). I usually respond by emailing her a polite note with the link to the Snopes page. In the last one she sent to me, she had actually gone to Snopes to check. She did not, apparently, read the part of the article that said it was false. So her message pointed out that ‘it’s even on Snopes!’, implying that it was true. Sigh. So the retraining continues.

    BTW, I back-clicked to your ‘engineers + gullibility’ post and would now recommend nurses for a close second. Although I think it’s because they really want to help people and are often distressed by how little relief medical care can sometimes bring. Would be so nice if waving your hands over patients helped…

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Feasibility is an engineering based blog designed to reach other STEM people. Non-STEM people are also welcome! I try to give good advice and well-reasoned opinions but please don’t hesitate to disagree with me. This blog exists because I realised that I live in a metaphorical bubble and that simply wont do. Nup.

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