Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Truth, Lies and the Internet

Last year I had the dubious pleasure of serving on the board of directors of a Home Owner’s Association (HOA). Normally the administrative functions of the board are rather mundane but occasionally there is that one unique person who likes to keep things interesting.

After having conducted exhaustive research on the internet, this individual felt confident leveling charges against the board of directors that his children’s “asthma-like” symptoms could be squarely blamed on the chemicals applied to the lawns by the association’s landscape contractor. Apparently his children were immune to the dander of their three cats and two dogs in the household.

Gaining no traction in his effort to go “organic” and have the landscape crew pull weeds by hand, he conducted a daring propaganda blitz, skittering around the neighborhood in the dead of night leaving fliers under the door mats of his neighbors in an attempt to warn them of the conspiracy being perpetrated by the nefarious board of directors and their gardening storm troopers.

In public view, he became stoic and civil member of the Landscape Committee, lobbying his evidence to the committee chair – a man whose profession is as a water quality scientist. However, Landscape Poison Crusader, a computer technician by trade, was undeterred; armed with “facts” gleaned from web sites, the noble activist assailed the committee studies of how these chemicals caused cancer, allergies, birth defects and any number of horrible health risks.

But the committee chair politely responded with his own Internet research explaining that the landscape products were all approved by federal, state and municipal authorities for application by professional state-licensed technicians in accordance with manufacturer recommendations. And it was pointed out as well that the intrepid health crusader didn’t seem to mind his children swimming in the community pool… sanitized with equally deadly chemicals.

More recently a member of our local Secular Society became the focus of a rant who is convinced that that the 19 hijackers who struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th are alive and well and living abroad and that these acts of terrorism were the work of the CIA to instigate a Bush-lead “Gulf of Tonkin” style pretext for war on Islam. Their source: “credible” Internet web sites.

Today it is possible to instantly retrieve information on any topic imaginable. But sometimes lost in this information cloud is; how much of this information is truthful and useful? I usually try to cite sources when I offer information and opinions; but I am not immune to falling into my own positional bias. We all tend to look for information sources which support our view and discard those which do not.

I the case of the 9/11 conspiracy theorist, this person sought sites which supported their view; dismissing the “official” information as tainted, propaganda, lies. So then how is one to sort out and choose which information to trust and which not? The most direct way is to “consider the source”.

I have sometimes sought health information on the Internet. To my annoyance, often the sites bearing information about, let’s say a vitamin supplement; also provide the opportunity to purchase the item as well. That immediately sets off my credibility alarm. Likewise the sites themselves can provide clues of inherent bias. I’m not sure but a URL with “poisonplanet.com” just might be lacking what one could consider an objective stance. Nancy often restricts her search of health information to known sources such as the CDC or the Mayo Clinic, for example.

But as with 9/11 conspiracy “truth” sites, one can find substantiation that the Holocaust was a hoax, as was the moon landing. One can Googled up evidence that Big Foot stalks the woods of the Pacific Northwest and people are routinely abducted in their sleep by alien spacecraft which perpetrate any manner of probing of their bodies. Who would have known that, remarkably, aliens from millions of light years away are fascinated with our anuses.

Still one cannot be too complacent; dangerous risks all around us. Each of you reading this post may not be aware that the compound Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) is being used heavily in YOUR community every day. DHMO is used in fire retardant and as a coolant in nuclear reactors yet it is found in large quantities in our drinking water, rivers; it is even found in acid rain! Be safe – be informed – visit the non-profit Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division www.dhmo.org before it’s too late!


Gorilla Bananas said...

The moon landings conspiracy can be refuted by scientists who do experiments in which lasers are reflected off mirrors placed on the lunar surface by the astronauts. Here's a clip of Buzz Aldrin punching one of these idiots on the nose.

Infidel753 said...

Unfortunately, the medical field (including questions like "is this chemical safe or not") is more awash in quackery than any other, and it's the field where quackery is most dangerous, and it's the field where the average person is least able to distinguish quackery from solid information.

The best option for the average person is to look at the consensus of experts. Even an individual doctor might just have a bee in his bonnet about something, but something like the AMA or NCI website, while not infallible, is more likely to be right than most other sources.

I'm not even 100% trusting of regulatory agencies -- I think they're at some risk of being swayed by political pressure. An organization of doctors is, again, not perfectly trustworthy -- just more trustworthy.

Then, too, worthwhile information is that which talks about degrees of risk rather than just "safe" vs. "not safe". Everything in the world has at least a slight risk associated with it. The point is to distinguish negligible risks from those which are actually worth worrying about and taking action on.

DJan said...

You're right, Robert, about the need to consider the source. Everything imaginable can be dredged up on the Internet, and if I find some information of interest to me, I go looking for substantiation from a credible source.

The Mother said...

As a doc, I am appalled at the level of credulity about health information (EVEN by DOCS--Dr. Oz comes to mind).

I recommend, regularly, "Here be Dragons." http://herebedragonsmovie.com/

Go forth, minions, and watch.

Mary Witzl said...

What Infidel753 said -- I could not say it better.

I'm one of those people who pulls dandelions out by hand (my very own way of tilting at windmills) and I'll never put glyphosate on my ground elder. But if your kids have asthma and you've got cats and a dog, well DUH. And fear-mongering conspiracy theorists who believe everything they read do their cause no favors.

Stinkypaw said...

I've learned to look at who supports (or sponsor) the research and then try to use my judgement (that's the really tough part!)... The internet is a dangerous place, no doubt.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Bananas Ah but have you actually seen the lazer beam bounce off the moon for yourself?? How do you know the government isn't just "telling" you about supposed mirrors on the moon? *evil laugh*. Yes I saw that video of Buzz punch the guy - he sure as hell asked for it!

Infidel Regulatory agencies were indeed putting up "spun" versions of scientific information on government web sites during the Bush administration, that was for sure. Wikipedia is also subject to business interests "sanitizing" information about their companies. Even members of congress were restricted to creating Wikis as they were using it to proffer biased versions of their "facts" for partisan purposes. Indeed, one needs to do a bit of comparison shopping when using the Internet for research.

DJan It does take conscious effort, you have to dig to get credible information.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dr. Mom Dr. Oz, yuck. You know his wife is a Reiki teacher! There used to be a great site called supplementwatch.com then they got hacked and lost all their information. They had great objective studies examining the claims of supplements, it was a good source at the time. Quackwatch.com is another good one.

Mary The guy in the story was told that if he wanted to pull his on lawn weeds, then there would be nothing for the contractor to spray in his yard. But no, he wanted 349 other people to conform to HIS vision for the community. Nut.

Stinkypaw Precisely, who benefits from offering the information? Absolutely anything you want to find/confirm is out there if you look.

Robert the Skeptic said...

So has anyone visited the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division web site yet? Be afraid - be very afraid.

Kay Dennison said...

I know people who think that if they read it in the newspaper or on the Internet, it's so. Most of them also believe that G.W. Bush was a good president. Sigh.

I subscribe to Sturgeon's Law:
"Nothing is always absolutely so".

and Sturgeon's Revelation:
"Ninety percent of everything is crud"

I think Theodore Sturgeon underestimated by about 9.9%.

PeterDeMan said...

Yes, Robert, upon your recommendation I visited the site, but dammit, this stuff is keeping me broke. I ended up activating my PayPal account and donating $100. Sure looks like a worthy cause to me.

I do use the internet for probably 100% of my research into tons of subjects and I personally believe everything I read there; after all it's on the internet so it must be right. Then I read your post and you're trying to destroy my cherished beliefs.

Just before seeing you had a new post I just spent an hour or more researching a topic. As with Charlie, I often (but not to his degree) have to rely on prednisone to help my lungs function. While I was in the hospital the past three days they kept injecting me with Salumeterol, a steroid.

When I was discharged I was directed to take 20mg of Prednisone (a steroid) for the next five days, being told it's the same thing as Salumeterol, which was injected with a HUGE syringe, vs. the small tablet of Prednisone. So, I've researched it and after an hour of looking can find no reference of relationship of one to the other. The magic box has failed me! Makes me want to curl up into the fetal position and suck my thumb.

Entre Nous said...

I love reading the conspiracy theories and trying to find the less obvious holes in them.

Neither do I believe everything I read, unless it contains 'slow the aging...' "firms and lifts...' 'look younger in weeks...'

just sayn' : }

Kay Dennison said...

@entrenous: I'd love to believe those ads, too!!!!! Unfortunately after I bought the ocean front property in Iowa, I decided not to believe everything I read! LOL

Anonymous said...

My husband works at a university. They do research studies in agriculture. He has become more and more disgusted over the past few years as almost allof the research is being funded by corporations in order to have the university "stamp of approval" on their product. He sees it as the prostitutioning of the universtiy system. Be sure to take the source of the research funding into account when possible, too.

Nance said...

Many thanks to The Mother for the download link to Here Be Dragons. At last...the perfect Christmas gift for the looser cannons in my life.

And thanks to you, Robert. Great topic.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kay Sturgeon was a wise man - I disagree with those who call him a "bottom feeder".

Peter I think one can only do so much "research" and then you need to talk to an expert. I look up a lot of medical information, but then I talk to my doctor aboutit and get his experienced opinion. Prednisone is a powerful steroid, I've taken it before for bad chest infections; but not for long and I am attenuated off the drug after short while.

Entre Nois I'm that way about all the magazines in the grocery check-out that always have blurbs about how to have "greater sex"... like they just discovered something we haven't already known for three million years?

Robert the Skeptic said...

BackRow That is a big red flag, when interests with a stake in the outcome want to "guide" the research. Particularly when the funding comes from non-governmental sources. Fortunately my father-in-law retired from Oregon State University before that kind of influence became pervasive.

Nance I just went to the "There Be Dragons" site, downloaded the press kit to see who is behind it. Looks good.

Entre Nous said...

OK I am checking out the site, so far I am really into the conspiracy section... THAT apple fell directly under the tree, onto the root outcroppings... : }

secret agent woman said...

Putting aside the particulars of the chemicals, are people not allowed to opt out of having any chemicals used on their lawns? I would never consent to chemical treatment of my yard - why even take the risk?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Entre Nous A municipality in Southern California was about to pass an ordinance to ban DHMO in their community... until they realized the consequences of doing so.

SecretAgent Opt out? This is a “managed community”, an HOA - people move here agreeing to the conditions in order to live in a place where everyone’s yard is maintained uniformly and not a checkerboard of dead/weedy lawns.

What are the risks? Are they like the risk you expose your kids to when you put them in your car? Auto deaths consistently run 40,000/year. We were unable to find a single person killed or made ill by normal use of landscape treatments. Life-saving pharmaceuticals are “chemicals”. People die every day due to exposure to misuse of Dihydrogen Monoxide.

My father-in-law was working with some of his PhD Ag buddies who volunteer to do the landscaping at their church. One day Mel was spread fertilizer. Some guy walking by assailed him for not using “natural” fertilizers. “It’s urea”, he said, “… there’s nothing more ‘natural’ than urea”! A little knowledge can be dangerous.

kara said...

bigfoot is real.

that is all.

Robert the Skeptic said...

No, "Bigfoot" is not, but "Paddle Foot" is... I've seen her!!

Jerry said...

...and I didn't know that water was so dangerous.

Yep -- the internet is a scary place.

You know, in some of the old Robert Heinlein books there were people who were essentially 'truth validators' -- he called them something else. These people were raised from infancy to acknowledge nothing but the truth. The main character would always turn to them for validation. That's what we need now.

Now I'm going to absorb some Dyhydrogen Monoxide -- and the consequences be damned.

secret agent woman said...

Exposure to one risk does not mean you should abandon all caution. I'm going with no chemicals in my little piece of the world. I welcome the clover.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent Am I saying abandon caution? Risks need to be evaluated an put into perspective. Your blog indicates you eat at a lot of restaurants. Do you check their kitchens for sanitary conditions? Are the foods they prepare all organic and pesticide/herbicide free?

I took up skydiving in my mid 40's - there is more risk to doing it than not doing it. I weighed those risks and chose to take the calculated ones.

In the case of the guy in our HOA; it was HIS CHOICE to move into a community where the association where landscaping was provided by a contractor.

I choose to risk having my kids vaccinated, drink treated water... in general, accept some risks to avoid greater ones. You have to make the choices which are right for you, which you have.

MartyrMom said...

AWW LAWDY... I want to read about DHMO but the pictures scared me in the FAQ section....

Besides that...If you know too much the aliens will look for you more.

PS they don't probe your anus...it's the ear..a direct passage to the brain