Thursday, 4 March 2010

Science Hoaxes

Cross-posted from The Science Project.

A week or so ago I asked my students and the wonderful world of twitter for examples of websites showing some sort of science-themed hoax, or at least a bit of artistic play with credulity and/ or realism in talk about science. I promised I'd compile a short blogpost with some of the best ones, so here it is.

Several people mentioned Dihydrogen Monoxide, a hoax which played with public fear over "chemicals" by using the unfamiliar name for water (see more background on the wikipedia entry). There were sites developed by artists interested in issues of belief and attitudes to new technologies:, now slightly dated perhaps, and the rather spooky GenPets. It was especially interesting to see a spoof sites set up as publicity for health information campaigns. For example, the site advertising a downloadable tan (see also Nursing Times article about it). Also, the Sense About Science/ Office for Fair Trading "miracle cure" sites for Fat Melting Pads and an "all-natural" diabetes breakthrough (see also SAS press release).

There is arguably a big difference between these sites and satire done for a more straightforward laugh, although there are also overlaps. A lot of the humour on satirical sites such as the Onion stem from the fact they are a mix of the believable and the unbelievable: they depend on an ability to reproduce and twist the real. Projects like or the Sense About Science spoofs are also different from sites which we might happen to simply disagree with, have accidentally got things wrong, haven't bothered to check their sources, or even deliberately aim to deceive in order to, for example, dupe people into buying things. Although, again, if such sites didn't exist, many of the spoof ones wouldn't either. In some respects, the diversity of wikipedia-alikes is illustrative of this. Uncyclopedia, Scholarpedia, CreationWiki, Conservapedia, Wikipedia itself, and Britannica for that matter: all very different entities, and yet also (self-consiously) similar.

To give a little background as to why I was looking for such sites: it was for a class on realism, science and the web. An awful lot of traffic on the web, especially science-themed traffic, is a matter of shifting information around, often shifting it quite far from its material points of origin. What's more, we use visualisations and mashups and embedded media and metaphors to communicate. This can make the information easier to understand, but sometimes decontextualises it too. It can be easy to loose a sense of where, who and how it came about, which in turn can make its validity hard to assess. Arguably, lot of modern life is about (a) symbols (b) trust and (c) shifting quite immaterial information along giant production lines. Social theoriests have been banging on about these issues for years. People seem to get especially worried about it online though, perhaps because there is so much information there, or simply because of fears of the immaterial 'virtuality' of the web. People can get especially worried when it comes to science-themed information too, again perhaps because there is a lot of it, perhaps because it's seen as especially important, or perhaps because of the history of associations between science and truth, openness and honesty (or perhaps all these reasons).

To boil bookloads of social theory into something simple: We do not have time to learn how to build a computer, programme it and do brain surgery. Instead, we do one of these skills (or another entirely), trading our own specialisation for the products of other people’s. In some respects this is very efficient; we get to utilise a lot of very specialist knowledge and skills this way. Many of the key advantages of modern life are built on such a model. However, it does mean we end up spending the bulk of our lives in ignorance. We are all very stupid most of the time. Personally, I think we should accept, even embrace, this. Ask questions: wear our ignorance and curiosity on our sleeves. This means we shouldn't be put off by other people's questioning either and, in accepting ignorance, hold off from too much pointing and laughing when people get something wrong and/ or are quicker to trust than they necessarily should.

If you are interested, but would rather avoid too much pomo theory, I can recommend Howard Rheingold's short essay on online 'crap' detection, and this week's Guardian Science podcast includes some thoughtful chat about trust and incredulity around scientific expertise. If you are really keen on science-themed fake sites, you might like this compendium, and, just to underline that crisis over public trust of the promises of science and technology isn't exactly a new issue, one of my students sensibly added this story of an 18th century chess-playing machine to the mix.


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