Chasing The Tree Octopus
Beware the rare tree octopus, for he/she is in reality possessed of a frightening power. For this animal can show us how the internet has rendered us gullible.
This was an internet hoax, apparently created by Lyle Zapato in 1998. It not only persists, but grows.
I had suspected that people believed anything if it appeared on a television screen, but this way far beyond adolescents believing Hannah Montana lives and has a double life as a plain, ordinary high school girl. This research seems to have been picked up by — would you believe — the British Daily Mail, people who speak the same language we do although with quite a bit of “panache.”
To their credit, there is an admission at the end of the article that they thought the website for the tree octopus had been put up by the good professor Leu of the University of Connecticut, before discovering that Mr. Zapato had put it up a few years earlier.
Good crediting, what with British fair play and all, but what have we learned from this study?
Some people who use the internet, at least not above the college level, may have trouble discerning what is real and what is not. Perhaps part of the problem is discerning what is humorous and what is not. People take things too literally for humor to be applicable in everyday life.
I have evidence of this every time I roll my eyes heaven-ward while my husband makes a serious attempt to joke with some confused young lady at a checkout stand.
His favorite quip: No matter how much change the cashier gives him, he exclaims “That was the year I was born!” But I believe there to be a more basic question. What is authority and who does somebody believe? Adolescents at search engines are probably accustomed to typing in the name of what they want with a dot com right after it and taking that as the gospel (the gospel, friendly reminder, was reported by at least four people in different ways. St. Luke was the most terse verbally and was a doctor, so if you only have time to read one of them…)
The more direct application of this problem, at least as far as my own personal life and times, is what may or may not be true on health sites, and where I can send my trusting patients. Conversely, what can I believe when a patient tells me she found something on the web with which I don’t agree?
I have heard the figure but recently, and cannot cite from where, that 75% of all health sites on the internet are funded by drug companies. How can I tell people who to trust? I remember with all too much intense emotion when I first discovered the internet, and told all of my patients, every single patient, to go look on the internet.
I had always told patients to go to one of those old-fashioned things (what do you call them? Oh yeah – libraries) and bring me articles from medical journals. I got many, several of which I copied to both my own files and to the patients’ charts, and which proved to be as much gems as anything printed in such august repositories.
The first person who brought me something printed out from the internet was a schizophrenic — a gentle soul who had started struggling with his illness long before he had known me. He brought me an advertisement for a liquid puree of shark cartilage that was supposed to treat schizophrenia effectively. The poor doe-eyed little young man of nearly twenty at least had trusted me enough to ask before spending his life savings on this thing.
Now I have heard that sharks do not get cancer and actually did a quicky sort of literature review but I give it no great credence as a cancer curing (or even cancer preventive) drug. But I am willing to bet the contents of my purse there is no evidence at all that it is good for any kind of psychosis let alone chronic schizophrenia and yes I am open minded enough that I actually looked, although just once.
Few disclaimers and denials are as gentle as the one I gave him that day, as I renewed his customary neuroleptic — side-effect medications and all. I told him that maybe he could look for internet sites that had been put up by a university medical school.
I would not counsel him in that way now. Drug companies seem to be funding medical schools at least psychiatric departments of them. He would now probably be going onto a drug company site, and come in, as many maybe most of the patients on anti-anxiety drug or anti-depressive drugs do, asking for a specific drug by name, maybe even logo.
How could somebody know there was no tree octopus, let alone guess that seemingly-impartial health information was actually coming at them courtesy of drug companies?
How about something called “critical thinking skills?” When I was starting to learn these, somewhere in the sixties, I saw bumper stickers that said “Question authority,” something I had not seen before and surely have not seen since. I know my mother of blessed memory thought that I — a previously “Nice Girl” — was turning into a monster, but I did not regret a moment.
I remember learning at least some of this skill-set in gifted children’s school. Now, I do not particularly think most people learn it in ANY school. A couple MAYBE decent places to start — although everything is sponsored by somebody – would be the American Scientific Affiliation and the Study Guides and Strategies web sites.
It is a good idea when looking at any website to try to chase back to where the heck the information comes from and who is sponsoring it. I will admit to having become fairly obsessive about this one, down to the point that I can’t remember the last time I actually believed anything anyone said in a scientific study without checking it out.
Oh, I check out statistics to make sure the people who did it have a handle on science, but I really don’t expect anyone who has not been subject to the amount of eye-crossing training I have to even look at that one.
Anybody and everybody can figure out who funded research, since some kind of listing and disclaimer is pretty much always necessary. And come on, mostly everyone is at least a little bit biased to the person who pays his or her paycheck, dontcha think?
The most important, perhaps, is just to be suspicious. Look at or even think of what it takes to get a website on the air? Nobody asks for a veracity check. You are smarter than you think. After all, you are reading what I write.
I am a lot of things that keep me honest.
I don’t lie.
There is no tree octopus.