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

      Google

      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 museumofhoaxes.com.

      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
      FAIL

      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

        Alternatively

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

  3. Squirrel
    Pint

    Are you calling journalists stupid?

    :D

  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
      Alert

      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

        Great

        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

    Research

    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
    Coat

    snopes

    I checked the outcome of this article on snopes.com 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 http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/ "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

      Important stuff...

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

    2. peter 5 Silver badge
      Grenade

      @solarian

      "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

      Correct

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

      Junk science? Yes, just ask Richard.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    FAIL

    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
    Grenade

    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
      Joke

      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

      Fortunately,

      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
      Unhappy

      My brother was killed by a tree octopus.

      True story.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      When you say a German Shepherd

      ... you mean a dog, right?

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Octopi?

      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
    FAIL

    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
      Headmaster

      They only found the stationary cupboard ...

      ... because it wasn't moving

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Joke

    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

    BREAKING NEWS

    KIDS ARE EASILY TRICKED

    MORE AT 11

  13. Charles Manning

    Well...

    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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V94shlqPlSI 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
      Boffin

      Running on water

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

  14. Pete 2

    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

      Yes but....

      can they be trained easily?

    2. Marky W
      Black Helicopters

      But then...

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

      Time to head for the hills, methinks.

      1. tony2heads
        Alien

        place

        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
      FAIL

      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
    Stop

    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

    Close

    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 "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snipe_hunt." 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 "http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/" 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
      Coat

      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
      Heart

      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
    Boffin

    Perhaps...

    ... 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
    Happy

    Chalk it up alongside...

    (1) Drop Bears; ( http://www.google.com/images?q=%22drop%20bears%22 )

    (2) Dihydrogenmonoxide, the silent killer. ( http://www.dhmo.org/ )

  22. TheOtherHobbbes
    Happy

    Tree octopus?

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

  23. Winkypop Silver badge
    Joke

    SAVE the North West Pacific Tree Octopus!!

    www.greenpeace.org

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Snipe Hunt

    Yeah, a text book snipe hunt. Not very meaningful.

    I think most seventh graders know that a lot of crap is on the internet, they create a lot of it themselves!

  25. Mike S

    Its the kids' sense of humor that's suffering

    But its also pretty clear that journalists are a bunch of hacks that don't bother to fact check the material they report!

    (Wait, did I just comment on an article without following the links it contains? Is it possible el Reg is pulling one over on me to demonstrate something about its readers?)

  26. Gwaptiva
    Thumb Down

    Is this a test of gullible reg readers?

    The study by Professor Lau is old. Inkling magazine published a report on it in March 2007 according to its website

    http://www.inklingmagazine.com/articles/tentacled-tree-hugger-gets-legs-up-on-twelve-year-olds/

    Obviously it's a web site, so its timestamping has probably been doctored...

  27. Chemist

    Think this needs rephrasing

    I know what you means but there really is something very wrong with :

    "used to prove the link between vaccination and autism."

  28. Parax
    Boffin

    Internet not required...

    Homeopathy, Astrology, Chinese Medicine, Loch Ness Monster, UFO's, Fake Moon Landings, etc...

    The Internet really does not make people bad researchers.. that comes naturally.

  29. MJI Silver badge

    Tree octopus

    We all know they live on a Pacific island and don't let them think you are a coconut!

  30. Anonymous Coward
    WTF?

    Next..

    You'll be telling me that Drop Bears don't exist!

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Joke

    Kids these days cant even use Wikipedia

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Northwest_tree_octopus

    so much for being unreliable...

  32. Tigra 07 Silver badge
    Coat

    Found a flaw in your research mr scientist...

    These kids believe a massive fat man brings them presents once a year all in one night, doesn't claim benefits, isn't bogged down by health and safetly laws, exploits a garden gnome population in a place of the world they can't escape, and does all of this for FREE.

    And this scientist is surprised they believed there's a species of octopus that can climb TREES!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      No worries there mate...

      http://australianmuseum.net.au/Drop-Bear

      Pay particular attention to the habitat map.. and remember to smear Vegemite behind your ears..

  33. Stanislaw
    Boffin

    Depends on how the question was asked

    Looking at the ppt, it appears mostly to be statements of the bleeding obvious - which leads me to think that there is still a species of academic extant that thinks this stuff is interesting and clever research, and not merely modern life skill that people acquire anyway. That, however, is beside the point.

    It would be interesting to know exactly what the students were actually asked to do. The mere fact that 24 out of 25 students recommended the cited web site as a source of information tells us very little. They might have been very well aware that it is a hoax, but if they had been told to produce a report on this tree octopus then the natural thing to do would be to write one, regardless of whether or not they believed that the thing actually exists. The site then becomes a useful tool.

    The crucial info we are not given, at least in this ppt, is whether or not the students believed the data on the web site to be true or not. It is entirely consistent that the students would recommend the site without believing a word of it.

  34. Aldous
    FAIL

    or is it

    that most schools in my day ( 10 years ago) rammed facts down your throat and asking a question was seen as dissent? if this trend continues no wonder the kiddies cant tell the difference after all if someone says it, it must be true!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Boffin

      yes..

      It was often frowned upon to ask how planes could fly upsidedown, whilst the physics teacher was explaining that aerofoils provided the lift...

  35. Floot

    The proper context

    "To put this in context: a sample of 25 students is almost double the sample size that Andrew Wakefield used to prove the link between vaccination and autism."

    I'm sure you are aware of the actual context, but unfortunately there are still a lot of people who genuinely believe that Andrew Wakefield's proof is valid : I guess that is the point of writing this the way you did, but the fact remains that the consequences for the children of the believers is often quite appalling and I would suggest that a more plain and straightforward statement of the context would do these children a favor.

  36. Kevin Johnston

    Plausibility

    Anyone remember reports about the original War of the Worlds broadcast causing panic amongst supposedly adult members of the population?

    What would you rather believe, a beautiful theory or an ugly fact?

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I know

    I've been a research fellow for 10 years. Here is how it works:

    1 - Find a bullshit subject (anything whatsoever goes, so don't think too much)

    2 - Bullshit a public organisation (that's easy) and/or private company (easy if the public organisation brings most of the cash, but less stupid if it's their money) to obtain funds. If you have a long history in bullshitting, you should be prof, thus increasing considerably your chances to obtain new funds for more bullshit research.

    3 - Spend the money.

    4 - VERY IMPORTANT: disseminate your bullshit through conference and journal papers and a couple of thesis. Remember that what matters is not what you say, it's the way you say it, so use words that sound big and clever. Never say "I was wrong" but say "the empirical results do not seems to support the original hypothesis", and say "further research is required to refine our results and reach a conclusion" rather than "I don't know" so that you sound smart AND you hint that you need more money (always a bonus).

    5 - Repeat from step 1 until retirement.

    Once upon a time, in a distant past, research involved genuinely smart people doing some incredible work that changed the way we view the word. Unfortunately, this is now very rare, and any idiot can get a PhD in something (and I know what I'm talking about). I'm actually glad the gov chopped research funds, hopefully that will help focusing on genuinely good work (I'm not holding my breath though), and let us see it shine within the overwhelming pile of crap.

  38. Matthew 3

    Panorama...

    Anonymous John has already alluded to this but, for the benefit of those not from the UK, way back in 1957 the BBC documentary Panorama ran an elaborate spoof for 1st April.

    (http://tinyurl.com/3f5gq)

    Does this perhaps mean that all televised research of the last half-century has also affected children's abilities? Or perhaps that, once they've been shown this valuable lesson, they won't be caught out again?

    I'd say that the conclusions drawn here should only apply if these children are still believing everything they read the third time they've been asked to research something online.

  39. deshepherd

    Double bluff

    > 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.

    ... but then my son's schools have started to teach children to employ a degree of scepticism over Wikipedia articles (due to the number of well known hoaxes there) and as a result the fact that Wikipedia says this is a hoax might actually make them believe the story to be true!

  40. Tom 38 Silver badge

    The hardest thing you learn in school

    is that your teachers are often full of shit. Most kids take a long time to understand this, and don't question. If a teacher told them to research an animal, they would trust the teacher that the animal exists, particularly if they are only 12 (grade 7 == 12, right?)

    Anyone who studies chemistry or physics sufficiently will get there; it's hard not to when each year your teacher explains that they were lying about what they taught you last year.

  41. Peter Galbavy
    FAIL

    sponsored by a well known global brand...

    I assume that the study was actualy a confidential one sponsored by a leading (insert name here) global brand company that wanted to make sure that 11 years olds were just as wide eyed and gullible as before the internet - to make sure their marketing will continue working.

  42. Anonymous Coward
    Happy

    Republic of Cascadia

    But it must be true, it lives in a real country!

  43. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Main Point

    The main point here is not that the internet makes people credulous, it's that people need to be trained on how to use the internet as a research tool.

    BITD kids were taught how to use the library as a research tool. Generally speaking you could trust the school library a lot more than the internet. For a start the books in the school library had presumably been selected by the school, which should make it less likely that false (particularly what might be termed malicously false) information would find it's way in there. Secondly we were taught not to rely on a single source of information, cross checking with other sources was drummed into us. If two sources disagreed then we should find more sources. And we were always taught to check bibliographies where available, if one source cited one of our other sources or two of our sources cited the same source then we knew we weren't cross checking, but repeating the same information.

    Some exampled of where research can fall down pm the internet: Information is repeated many times by people who don't bother to check - hoaxes and genuine errors are therefore compounded. Sources are often not cited, making it hard to check. Cited sources are often false in the case of hoaxes. Kids should be taught to be wary of any information that doesn't cite a source. They should also be told to follow up on any cited sources, if the trail goes cold it could well be a hoax. There are also circular references where two or more sources cite each other.

    That kids fall for this is a sign of bad teaching, not a sign that there is anything wrong with the internet as a research tool. That adults fall for this is more understandable as they were never taught how to use the internet as a research tool.

  44. Harry

    Mummy, can I have Octopus for dinner ?

    No you can't. Do you think octopus grows on trees ?

  45. Max_Normal

    Interesting

    I wonder whether this was inspired by the "Squibbon" from the 2005 "The Future Is Wild" documentary? Or will squid and octupi follow different aboreal evolutionary pathways.

  46. rciafardone
    Thumb Up

    Congratulations to El Reg.

    If only the simple analysis that spears at the end of the article was somehow also done by people who report on homeopathy and similar stupid stuff...

    Yes i am looking at you Deepack Chopra fanbois reporters...

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