27 Jan 2017

Of Truth and Lies and Getting It Right

By Claire Eamer

In June 2016, a Scottish Facebook site posted a couple of photographs of the gory remains of some strange animal sprawled on a beach. The post text read: "A dog walker out on the shores of Loch Ness has just stumbled across this. Has Nessy been found? Or someone playing a fascinating prank?"

That original post was shared 1,468 times, spreading it far across the Internet. A thousand or more comments piled up below the post. Some people thought it was proof that the Loch Ness monster existed, some spent time and energy pointing out why it wasn't the Loch Ness monster, some got into arguments about the photographs, and lots of people came away from the discussion frustrated and even angry. Some doubtless still believe that the corpse of a mythical monster washed up on that Scottish beach.
A model of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, gets a scrub.
This Nessie floats in a pond beside a Loch Ness hotel.
Claire Eamer photo

It didn't. The tireless fact checkers at Snopes.com (a great place for hoax-busting) investigated and reported that the monster on the beach was created for a television program. In fact, the original poster admitted as much in the comment thread, but too late. Bad information - essentially, a lie - had already been spread.

The Nessy-on-the-beach post wasn't made maliciously - but this kind of misinformation has consequences. People who want to believe in Nessy won't be deterred by the Snopes explanation or the decades of scientific research that have failed to find any evidence of monsters in Loch Ness. In fact, they're likely to think the photos and text are reasons not to trust science.

And most of those people were almost certainly adults. Plenty of grown-ups have trouble separating fact from fancy, so imagine how hard it is for kids. They don't have years of experience and accumulated knowledge to help them sort it out.

We at Sci/Why are very aware of how important it is to tell kids the truth, to give them facts, to provide information as accurate and understandable as we can make it. That's the information that will help them figure out, now and in the future, what is true and what is not.

We not only think about getting it right. We write about it too - especially now, when the news is full of people debating issues of truth and lies. Here are links to some of our thoughts.

Lindsey Carmichael, Sci/Why's favourite fox-fancier, is both a scientist and a science writer. Recently, on her own blog, she wrote a post - Where Do Facts Come From? - describing the lengthy process scientists go through to discover new information and tell the world about it. Several years earlier, Lindsey wrote another post - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Does Not Apply to Research - this time on how science writers (rather than scientists) tackle getting the information right.

Our resident fungus-enthusiast, award-winning author Jan Thornhill wrote a post about how easy it is to absorb wrong information and how you can go about finding the truth - The Truth, the Internet, and the Number of Bacteria on Your Body.

That bit of wrong information almost made it into my own book on the human microbiome - Inside Your Insides: A Guide to the Microbes That Call You Home. Fortunately, the article Jan refers to was published just as my book reached the final design stage, and I was able to sneak in a correction. Publishers don't like making changes that late in the process, but Kids Can Press didn't even quibble. Children's publishers care just as much as we do about getting it right for the kids.

Finally, the alarmingly prolific Helaine Becker wrote a post - On Books - and "Real Books" - about how the "facts" you know might not be facts at all. And what to do about it.

If you want to know whether a fact is truly a fact, just follow Helaine's example. And Lindsey's. And Jan's. Then we can all get it right, for the kids and for ourselves.

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