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Monday, 10 April 2017

A Cautionary Tale

If you’ve seen my articles from last week, you’ll know it’s been an interesting few days. You might also appreciate the remarkable example I managed to discover (or some might say stumble into) to illustrate the perils of relying on Internet information.
Two robots are looking at the moon and discussing the trustworthiness of sources.

In today’s world, it seems wise to be ever vigilant about whether information you obtain from the Internet is true. I suspect there are few Internet users who haven’t encountered fraudulent “facts”, although many might not have known it. Even so, my realization that last week’s article contained faulty information was a jolt. If you missed my original Monday article and its hastily revised Tuesday version1 followed by the warning I posted later on Tuesday,2 here’s a quick synopsis:

In last Monday’s article, I included a few examples to illustrate my point. I posed some questions:

  1. Did the Mississippi state legislature remove fractions and decimal points from the mathematics curriculum of public secondary schools?
  2. Was the horse in the Mister Ed 60’s TV show actually a horse?
  3. Do lemmings commit mass suicide, as originally shown in a 1958 Disney documentary?

I provided the answers by using information from, a fact-checking website I’ve used many times in the past and have come to rely on as a quick, convenient place for debunking rumours and misinformation. The jolt I received was that, in two of these cases, my reliance on them was a mistake. Here are the answers to the questions:

  1. The original article I used said the answer was “yes”—Mississippi removed fractions and decimal points from the curriculum.3 The real answer appears to be that this is false—the truth is that Mississippi DID NOT remove fractions and decimal points from the curriculum. I’ll explain later.
  2. Another article I used said “no”—that instead of a horse, a better-behaved zebra with disguised stripes had been used as Mr. Ed.4 The real answer appears to be that this is true—they DID use a horse for Mr. Ed and the zebra story was nonsense. More later.
  3. One more article said it was false that lemmings commit mass suicide as portrayed by Disney.5 That still appears to be correct and corresponds to information that I’ve believed to be true for years—the Disney story about lemming suicide was faked and false.

When I originally cited those articles to support my assertions, the information I was missing was one more article they had posted that debunked their own original claims.6 In it, declared that they wanted to teach people a lesson about relying on single sources for establishing what’s true. Their approach was to keep several articles on their site that intentionally provided wrong answers and to provide the real answer in a separate article that revealed the hoax. And I fell for it. [Insert three emoji faces here: one that has eyes downcast in embarrassment; another that’s glaring in anger; a third that’s looking thoughtful.]

So, I learned my lesson, although it wasn’t the one intended by It wasn’t that checking multiple sources for facts is better than relying only on one—I already knew that, and I try to apply it depending on the quality of the source I’m using and the risk of my being wrong. The lesson I really learned is that isn’t the trustworthy source I thought it to be. I’ve always accepted that its authors’ research could be occasionally wrong—anyone’s can be. What I didn’t know previously was that its authors might intentionally provide incorrect answers. Now I know.

Oh, and by the way, here are a few more references about last week’s questions:

1. Google searching seems to show that the Mississippi “fractions” hoax was widely distributed and accepted, sometimes with being given as support. It’s a tough assertion to disprove (because where do you find good evidence that something didn’t happen?), but here are a few interesting links:
2. Here are a couple supporting that Mr. Ed was actually a horse:
3. And here are a couple of reports about Disney’s faked lemming-suicide footage:

One of the goals of this blog is to discover or derive techniques that can help us find the truth in our daily lives. Here are a couple that clearly warrant inclusion:

  1. Check information against multiple sources. Any single source can be accidentally or intentionally wrong. Of course, given the volume of information we receive every day, it’s not possible or practical to do this all of the time. We’ll need to consider some enhancements to this technique at a later time.
  2. Consider the trustworthiness of your source. Trust is fundamental to the way we conduct our lives and gather information. It’s a complex and interesting subject worthy of later discussion. For now, remember to be very careful about whom or what you trust. Remember as well that trust tends to be very hard to earn, but very easy to lose.

More next time about distinguishing diamonds from droppings in our digital world.

© Calvin J. Brown 2017

1 “Digital Truth.” Tracking Truth Posted 3 April 2017. Revised 4 Apr 2017.
2 “Digital Deception.” Tracking Truth Posted 4 Apr 2017.
3 “Half Measures.” Snopes.com . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
4 “Horse of a Different Color.” Snopes.com . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
5 “Suicide Squad.” Snopes.com . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
6 “False Authority.” Snopes.com Accessed 4 Apr 2017.

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