Thursday, April 2, 2009

April 1st Post Mortem: Why We Need Better BS Detectors

In case you missed one of the more amusing April 1st pranks yesterday, Car and Driver posted a story that Obama was ordering Chevy and Dodge out of NASCAR at the end of 2009. The story was taken down due to the outrage but Car and Drive is linking to other media coverage of it.

Needless to say, there are people out there who are not fond of Obama and like NASCAR that decided to take this as an opportunity to pile on, including some well known conservative commentators and bloggers who forgot to look at the calendar yesterday (some people claim that it was clearly labeled as a prank...sources I have found said the disclaimer was added later in the day as the furor grew).

There were a lot of pranks up yesterday (including my link to the Universe Today article about NASA and the bat). The Car and Driver one seems to have fooled a good number of people based on the reaction. Part of this is due to a logical fallacy called confirmation bias. In this case, people have a certain opinion of Obama and are easily fooled by information that fits their particular world view. There were people that took the bat story as true for similar reasons.

Confirmation bias is not just an issue in politics. We remember odd things that happen on the night of a full Moon but not other times (and I have even heard people remark that there must be a full Moon due to odd events when, well, the Moon wasn't even close to full!)

I cannot say I have never been burned by this myself, but I sure have gotten a lot better at asking the right questions over the years to ferret out BS. Being aware of the tendency helps a lot. I am careful what I post and always check a couple of reliable sources and then ask more questions before I start accepting what I read online (or in print, or television or radio news or Uncle Joe's forwarded email...Uncle Joe isn't too discerning).

Now April 1st is behind us and people who were looking at the web with skepticism yesterday are letting their guards down again. Silly stories will freely roam the web without the skeptical eye we cast on them once a year. Trust me, I will be hearing that Mars will appear as big as the full Moon come August yet again, that Microsoft will pay me for forwarding an email, and (insert politician of the day here) is an evil embezzler/socialist/war criminal/child molester, etc.

It's okay to question information that does not fit your world view...but it is even more important to question information that does since that is what is more likely to fool you.

Reprinted with permission from the Half-Astrophysicist Blog.


kkdither said...

So are you trying to tell me that my Nigerian relative didn't pass away leaving large sums of money in my name? Killjoy...

hale-bopp said...

I prefer to be called a buzzkill!

OrbsCorbs said...

But the former mayor WAS an evil embezzler/socialist/war criminal/child molester.

There will always be a market for the Star and the National Enquirer. The internet just makes it easier to reach. I would argue that many of the initiatives aimed at making society more "equal" over the past few decades have resulted in dumbing down the public's mean IQ to the level of a Jerry Springer Show audience, but that's a whole 'nother rant.

hale-bopp said...

Oh please, rant on Orbs!

Anonymous said...

Anything thing that is on the news or is running around on the net on April First I take with a grain of salt.

coffee maker said...

i think the PR manager of Car and Driver might have been on vacation when that Nascar April Fool's article was published