Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Octopus Problem :: Information Literacy & You

Yesterday, the Daily Mail ran a story about an American Study of information literacy where a bunch of researchers asked a bunch of middle schoolers from across the state of Connecticut to evaluate a website advocating that they help save the endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus from extinction.

Photos of this curious arboreal cephalopod are shown as well as a light treatment of this strange creature's life in the tree-strewn slopes of the Olympic Peninsula along Washington's Hood Canal waterway.  Apparently the Tree Octopus lives on bird eggs that it steals from nests and its primary predator is the Sasquatch.  If you insist upon donating to its survival, the site suggests you walk out into the forest and hold up paper money, stock certificates or other soft currency and the octopus will descend from the tree and take them from your hand and scuttle away to use the money to feather its nest.

I am sincerely hoping that by now you've sussed out that the whole thing is a hoax, or perhaps more charitably something of a prank that's been knocking around the internet for quite some time.  If you've never heard of it, then hie thee to that website, netizen!  It's a hoot.  We'll wait for you.

The reason the Daily Mail thought the story newsworthy (and so did I) was that the kids -- every last one of them -- fell for it.

Hook. Line. Sinker.

Here's the U Conn Study study if you want to check out the summary.

Naturally, this led to quite a bit of academic head scratching, followed by the usual finger pointing.  After all, these are kids who are so-called "Digital Natives" the kids who have never known a world without an internet.  Who look at you funny if you try to describe listening to a Walkman or tell them that MTV used to play music videos. Kids who ostensibly know that not everything you see on the internet is real.

Which is to say that people are people, even if they did grow up with an iPod and not an eight-track.

But this begs a lot of questions about something called "Information Literacy", which is the ability to evaluate a source of information to see whether or not someone might be pulling your leg.  It's one of the most important skills you can have in a society where you are expected to be informed about issues before you vote them into law.

If you can't see how this relates to writing, then you don't do the kind of writing that I usually do.  At the very least, I hope you see how this relates to thinking.  It certainly relates to how our society tends to grab something and run with it instead of taking a moment to be sure we're right before you go ahead.

There's a project underway at the University of Washington (where we know a tree octopus when we see one) that has been evaluating Information Literacy in college students and adults to see how we evaluate and weigh data from different sources.  It's simultaneously troubling and comforting to know that those of us who are out of high school aren't as gullible as the kids in the U Conn study, but are nevertheless susceptible to more subtle sorts of information biases.

Unfortunately, the subject is too big for one blog post, but it's something all of us should be thinking about.

Oh, and one more thing...  The article in the Daily Mail made merry with how bad the kids were at evaluating online sources all the while miss-attributing the website, its images and content to the University researchers rather than to the actual originator, Internet humorist Lyle Zapato.

Irony, thou art an octopus.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).