back to article 'Tree Octopus' proves journos no smarter than 13-year-old Americans

During Saturday – at least to this writer, it may have started Friday in the lagging time-zones – a story started to take off on Twitter, news sites and blogs. Picking up – either marginally re-written or verbatim – a wire release, journalists were gratified to discover that the Internet makes kids stupid. Specifically, the …


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  1. Daniel Evans

    To be fair

    The first result in google for the PNTO looks much more credible than half the sites we were told to use in school at 13 - well laid out, somewhat legible, recently updated...

    1. CaptainHook


      True, the first result in google is the original hoax site and it was done very well.

      However, link #3 is Wikipedia page which in the summary you can see from the google search results (i.e. you don't even need to follow the link) includes the word Hoax.

      Link #4 is from a site called

      At the moment, link #2 is this Register article so when the kids were researching the species, those to links I mention above would have been Links 2 & 3.

  2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Only an internet problem

    Anything printed in books is true.

    Especially stories about how the world was created - those are so true you are allowed to kill anyone who doubts them.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Tree Octopus vs the Internet

      How this test was a test of the Internet is beyond me. Were half the students told to use a library and the other half the internet within a set period of time? At least that would provide some sort of baseline for the comparison. The implicit assumption is were there no internet the students would have done a better job researching the question. The test proved nothing about the internet and little about our children. It proved the researchers had an agenda.

      So how is it that pre-internet we have the Piltdown Man (which was a hoax, just like this was), the famous Jackalope, Unicorns and the whole menagerie of mythic creatures of which SOME people at some time believed existed. Don't get me started on talking snakes.

      The same test could have been performed 20 years ago by telling the students to use the phone instead of the then nascent internet - and the results would likely have been equally useless. I can imagine the stories then "the phone has made out children incapable of doing research!"

      Nothing like drawing a straight line from an erroneous assumption to a foregone conclusion!!

    2. foo_bar_baz

      That's right

      Everything in Internet forum postings is true, especially by those with an axe to grind and a ready supply of straw.

      I have an idea, maybe we should do something more to get people to think like us. Anonymous postings on Internet forums is clearly not enough. Start by going door to door with pamphlets. If things pick up maybe later we get to colonize a few countries and teach them the Right Way.

      1. CD001


        Nothing you read on Internet forum postings is true - everything you read here, for instance, is a lie...

  3. Squirrel

    Are you calling journalists stupid?


  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    And not least...

    ... what does this tell us about the researchers' own bias? Picked sample sets, anyone? Or maybe it's sheer... well, what do you call it if you expect kids with a modern edumacation to just understand proper research protocols "intuitively"? Naivety?

    Personally I'm getting the feeling that even scientists aren't very critical any longer, especially not of each others' work. Very small sample sets, meta studies, and a general lack of understanding of basic statistics make me wonder how they got their titles. No wonder the anti-science religious movements are gaining traction where they'll hurt our science- and therefore tech base the most, even if it's long-term for now.

    Several scientists, notably Chinese, got caught plaggiarizing under the extreme publish-or-perish pressure in the international scientific rat race, but some of the work I wouldn't want to be caught dead plaggiarizing with. It really is quite a shame that we're losing our science-y edge now that most of us are warm and comfy and are more interested in securing a paycheck than in pushing forward the boundaries of what we can do.

    1. Steven Knox Silver badge

      Go Back...

      and read Asimov's "Foundation" -- specifically Hari Seldon's criticism of what passed for research in the Empire. Personally I think it should be required reading for anyone entering into any science.

      Asimov saw this coming decades ago -- it's just happening sooner than he predicted..

      1. Chemist


        Wonderful description - I haven't a copy to hand at the moment but the Chancellor's (or what ever he was ) assertion that meta-analysis WAS the only scientific method was priceless.

        I also liked the mayor's conclusion that the Chancellor had seems a consumate donkey but was really rather a clever politician in that he's had talks for days with the scientists who were the governors of Terminus but all he'd said and promised when analysed by symbolic logic amounted to nothing - that everything he'd said had eventually been canceled out by other statements and NOBODY (except the mayor ) has noticed. I often think of this when listening to politicians.

  5. fatchap
    Black Helicopters


    Or of course this could be an even more elaborate hoax to point out that Journalists don't research very well.

    How sure are we that the author has not just made it up to see who bites

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I'll take a bite.

      I think that all this brouhaha is essentially because the tree octopus website is brilliant and deserved a wider audience.

  6. BorkedAgain


    I checked the outcome of this article on and it didn't exist, so it must be true. Yup.

  7. solarian

    Not quite

    The statement "the research [...] asked the children to research as real information a species, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus" appears, at first glance, to be incorrect. The PPT merely says that "96% of 7th graders" (11 years old?) recommended "to another classroom, studying endangered species".

    Although it *is* ambiguous, my reading is that the *other* classroom were the ones supposedly studying endangered species, and that the children who were asked to recommend that website did *not* have the opportunity to do any online research. That is, it seems they were shown that website and asked to make a judgment based on the information in front of them, on that single website.

    It does raise questions about 11-year olds and whether they know that octopodes are marine animals, but it says nothing about online research -- it might just as well have been a page from a (fake) textbook.

    Richard Chirgwin "could do better". B-

    1. frank ly Silver badge

      Important stuff...

      Never mind all that research stuff; where can I buy a tree octopus hat?

    2. peter 5 Silver badge


      "It does raise questions about 11-year olds and whether they know that octopodes are marine animals..."

      As any fule know: tree octopi are amphibious, start their life in water, and have a specially adapted skin which retains moisture in the damp, rain-forest environment in which they live.

      Seriously, if an 11-year old was shown *only* the zapatopi site, then I'd expect 25/25 to succumb. And I'd expect a good few adults to fall for it, too.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Chirgwin knew the story he wanted to write before he saw the evidence.

      Junk science? Yes, just ask Richard.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Laziness + Google

    I suspect that most 7th graders, when tasked with writing a paper about a subject, do not assume that the subject in question does not exist.

    In fact, I suspect that most people, when tasked with researching a subject, do not assume that the subject in question does not exist. This was demonstrated twice, by the students and the reporters.

    In fact, that the students did not catch the hoax -- we assume they were not simply playing along -- is a positive sign, because they must have ignored the Wikipedia article on the subject.

  9. Marketing Hack Silver badge

    Hey! Don't joke about this stuff!!

    Damn tree octopi are a real problem around here! Last week, I saw one of those things in the oak tree in my backyard--it had a German Shepherd in its mouth!!

    1. Brian Miller

      Sasquatch vs tree octopus

      Hey, that's nothing! You should be around when the sasquatch make a ruckus about the tree octopi. Why, one of those sasquatch threw a tree octopus so hard it knocked out my truck's back window and set off my shotgun and dropped a whitetail by the side of the road! I tried explaining that to the game warden, but the octopus had slithered underneath and I couldn't find it. Then after I got my stupid ticket, the octopus slithered into the engine compartment and got caught in the fan belt. So there I was with a dead truck, dead mush in the engine, and a ticket for a deer I didn't shoot.

      And then that sasquatch started laughing at me, and I didn't have no more shells.

    2. Rattus Rattus


      you don't get these dangerous animals here in Australia. When they tried to colonise our trees they were eaten by drop bears.

      1. OffBeatMammal

        damn Drop Bears....

        they were the reason I moved from Aus to the Pacific Northwest... only to discover a tree octopus in our back yard.

        packing up and buying a submarine to move to Loch Ness

    3. Ed Deckard

      My brother was killed by a tree octopus.

      True story.

    4. Mycho Silver badge

      When you say a German Shepherd

      ... you mean a dog, right?

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Octopus is from greek, ffs.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

    6. Apocalypse Later

      Not a laughing matter

      I got bitten by one of these while picking spaghetti.

  10. Fsck

    Holy Crap..

    Journalists in "Printing Possibly Biased Research Confirming Something It's Readership Already Kind-Of Believes To Chase Ratings" Shocker.

    Seriously, Reg Hacks and Editors, is this a shock to you? If so, how's that internship panning out for you? Did you find the stationary cupboard ok?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      They only found the stationary cupboard ...

      ... because it wasn't moving

  11. Anonymous Coward

    A title

    This is the internet! Take your well thought-out and well researched journalism elsewhere. We don't need your kind around here...

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton



    MORE AT 11

  13. Charles Manning


    Perhaps the study is flawed, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to support the claim that people readily believe any crap out there.

    An amazing number of people out there actually believe the youtube cell phone hoaxes about popping corn and cooking eggs and that anyone posting that it is a hoax is just a shill for the telcos. Then of course there are all the people that believe stuff about cars running on water.

    But is this a generational thing? Since forever people have believed all sorts of nonsense including religion and other mythologies.

    Just as many USians wanted schools to give creationism to be given equal status to evolution, here in NZ a Maori group wanted Maori mythology on the creation of NZ to be presented with equal status to tectonics in school geography. The latter was luckily thwarted.

    Stupidity surrounds us - it isn't just on the interwebs.

    1. MJI Silver badge

      Running on water

      I have seen trains running on it - they have large tanks for the stuff

  14. Pete 2 Silver badge

    All this tells us ...

    ... is that people are selective. They tend to read articles that support their views. They tend to remember (and quote) them, while dismissing, ignoring or twisting information that runs contrary either to their pet beliefs - or how they think things "ought to be".

    The difficulty with the internet is that you can't tell the difference between a journalist and a 13 y.o. american, They can bother write blogs. They can both create forums (and the level of debate in either's forum will probably be at much the same level). They can both claim to have researched their material - although I expect this research is mostly just plagiarising the work of others - with whom they agree. And you can't tell if they miss a deadline because their mum has revoked internet privileges or because they've just spent a week in rehab.

  15. Anonymous John

    Is this enough letters and/or digits?

    Think of all the spaghetti it could harvest.

    1. frank ly Silver badge

      Yes but....

      can they be trained easily?

    2. Marky W
      Black Helicopters

      But then... would have noodly appendages, becoming a terrifying Cthulu-FSM hybrid.

      Time to head for the hills, methinks.

      1. tony2heads


        R'lyeh is clearly in the pacific north west then. We just were looking in the wrong place

  16. Paul Renault

    C'mon, you're expecting a lot from journalists...

    ...most of whom pride themselves on not understanding science or math...

    Consider two examples:

    1) Journalists falling for these: Iraqi's 'close support of Al Quaeda, and their huge cache of Weapons of Mass Destruction

    2) Policy makers: At the time that the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, Condeleazza Rice admitted said (out loud! I heard her say it) that she didn't see it coming.

    (According to Wiki: Her dissertation centered on military policy and politics in what was then the communist state of Czechoslovakia. So, she was a export on the Soviet Systems.)

    Yet, when 12 year olds fall for an old hoax, THAT makes the news...

  17. Crellin

    Bad science and vandalism

    I'm guessing that the "researchers" (dare I call them this for their lapsidasical approach to science?) probably vandalised the wikipedia page about the hoax to increase its plausibility to the group. Without a vandalised page I'm fairly certain your average schoolchild of the internet generation would quickly discover that its a hoax (seen as its often a bugbear of teachers that pupils resort to wikipedia so readily).

    1. Iain 14

      Research? What research?

      As has been mentioned elsewhere, the children were not asked to research the Tree Octopus. They were just asked to review the Zapato website, without being told it was a hoax.

      There was therefore no need to nobble Wiki or anywhere-else, for the simple reason that the children were not expected to look at any other site.

  18. em onty

    Being economic with the truth

    I do not want to see any more statistic-based studies using percentages to represent less than a hundred subjects. It is lying by other means. Other, that is, than out and out lying.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Question 2 is actually pretty close. The big problem here is when told to actually do something, people rarely check to see if you've given them a trick question until it becomes obvious that the task can't be accomplished. Wikipedia has an interesting list of such pranks at "" And judging by the list, they seem to be pretty effective on all ages of people.

    A second point of contention would be that the children actually did accomplish what was asked of them. A quick look shows that "" actually does seem to be a reliable source of information on the Pacific Tree Octopus. This is irrespective of the fact that said octopus is a hoax. Alternatively, Wikipedia offers a substantial article on Klingons, despite also being fictitious. This article would be considered to be reasonably useful by most people, despite consisting of more than just the statement "Klingons do not exist."

    The researchers asked for reliable information on the Pacific Tree Octopus and they got it. The joke here is that the well-trained trick cyclists don't know how to do research. Perhaps I could get a paper out of that...

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Snipe hunt...

      ... shurely is a rhyming slang for ...

      Coat, as I'm not from the far side of the pond.

    2. Tom 35 Silver badge

      The big problem

      Exactly, if the "researchers were introduced to the kids as experts / people to be trusted then they would have started out with the assumption that the Tree Octopus exists. There are a lot of strange creatures in the world that are often featured on kids TV shows after all, and if you don't know a lot about Octopus it's not that much stranger then tree frogs.

      It would have been more interesting to also give them a strange but true creature and ask them to find out if they exist and show prof for their answer.

    3. Goat Jam

      The irony is

      that if the little tykes (gawd bless 'em) had have browsed on over to the dreaded wikipedia they would have figured out that it is a hoax from the get go.

      1. John F***ing Stepp

        I am taking a cynical point of view here.

        But Snipe Hunts, Santa, Easter Bunny et al; kids will go along with the joke for a while.

        The kid thinks.

        "Let them think you are gullible, it will lure them in range."

        Or sometimes.

        "Oh, this looks fun."

        Neither researchers or journalists seem to factor this in.

        But remembering my youth, I would say it probably still happens.

        A clever parent allows for it.

  20. Graham Marsden


    ... the Journalists could (without their knowledge) be set some research of their own.

    Send them out for a Long Stand or maybe some Striped Paint or perhaps a Bucket of Nail Holes or even a Long Weight or many of the other old tricks played on the unwary...

  21. Neoc

    Chalk it up alongside...

    (1) Drop Bears; ( )

    (2) Dihydrogenmonoxide, the silent killer. ( )

  22. TheOtherHobbbes

    Tree octopus?

    Be fair. Anyone - well, *anything* - could have predicted this.


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