I found it somewhat ironic when I read a National Post article
titled “Rare flesh-eating bacteria invades Florida beaches and kills two people. Swimming puts you at risk”. Since this headline came just a day after headlines revealing that two teenage swimmers lost limbs to sharks in waters off the eastern coast of the United States, I tweeted
“Not just sharks, rare flesh-eating bacteria kill two Florida swimmers” with a link to the article. Within about 3 minutes I had a reply to the tweet
from the Florida Health Department
telling me that “#VibrioVulnificus is not a flesh-eating bacteria. For accurate information, please visit:” and they linked to their website
Florida is one of the top travel destinations in the world. In 2011, the tourism industry
had an economic impact of $67 billion on Florida’s economy. They do not want headlines that make people afraid to visit Florida beaches. I understood their frustration upon reading that
“several media outlets published stories that contained inaccuracies about the safety of Florida's beach water related to cases of Vibrio vulnificus
infections.” They pointed out that V. vulnificus
is not the same as the most commonly known flesh-eating bacteria, Necrotizing fasciitis
However, V. vulnificus
, which grows in brackish water, is known to cause some symptoms similar to flesh-eating disease when entering the body through open wounds.
This experience made me question how we can possibly check all the information we find on the Internet. These days, especially with the proliferation of social media, we probably see far more information than ever before. Sure, we are told that we must have ‘digital literacy’ and use a ‘critical eye’ when analysing what we see. But it seems there is just too much new information to check on everything we come across. We have to assume that when we look at authoritative news sites, the news is reliable, and when we look at spoof sites, the news is not. The Chinese Communist Party made this mistake
in 2012, when they produced a 55-page photo spread of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after he was declared The Onion's Sexiest Man Alive. Apparently they failed to recognize that the Onion is a satirical newspaper.
The internet is not the only place where one needs to apply some healthy skepticism. The New York Times recently published an analysis of ‘crimes and misdemeanors in science’
by Benedict Carey. In the article, Carey notes that scientific publishing is under increasing scrutiny. In some cases, the process of science that required reproducibility has become too costly and time-consuming so that it just isn’t attempted. There have been some serious questions about how retractions have been handled over the years. There has been a move towards exposing problem papers by groups like Retraction Watch
. The most common reason for retraction of a paper is the manipulation of the diagrams and deliberate data massaging such as excluding data points on the high and low end of the range. Other causes for retraction include outright plagiarism and faked data. Carey makes it clear that there is a growing number of serious fact-checking organisations now in place to specifically monitor science publications.
In 1993 Peter Steiner drew a cartoon for the New Yorker which proclaimed "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog
." This has become the standard line for anonymity online. In my view, a related issue is attributed quote images: pictures of recognizable politicians, famous scientists and celebrities, along with a quote. These get passed around so much that they are believed to be true. The problem is trying to verify the authenticity of the quote. Once it is published, true or not, it comes up in internet searches, thus apparently verifying the quote. I was pleased to find a site called Quote Fail
which investigates and reports on the validity of famous quotes.
Educators call for digital literacy
as one of the new skills for the #FutureReady. This may be the best way to combat an internet full of both accurate and potentially misleading information.
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