Wednesday, July 30, 2008
I'm usually not on the receiving end of a Search Challenge sting. So when it happens, I want to understand what I did wrong or didn't do right. Snopes.com got me recently. Got me when I least expected it.
If you're familiar with snopes.com you know that it's kind of a clearing house for urban legends and Internet frauds. The folks there devote their time--I thought--to checking out the validity of claims that show up as chain messages in email. You've probably had such well-intended yet unfounded messages forwarded to you: Obama sides with terrorists, cell numbers about to be released to marketers. Snopes is a pretty good source for separating fact from fiction.
But they do more. Buried in the site are reports that are intentionally falsified. I happened to stumble on two of these while preparing one of the Web Site Investigator (WSI) tutorials. One I dismissed as rather odd and didn't think much about it. The other I included in the tutorials as an example of the accuracy of information. Using the technique of triangulation, several sites, including snopes.com, claimed the following information to be true: the nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence" was originally a tale about Blackbeard the pirate and used to attract recruits to new missions. The explanation is actually quite cogent. I believed it.
Fortunately, I caught my mistake about a week later when I shared information about the other story with my family. The account goes that Mr. Ed, the talking horse of TV fame, was actually a zebra. Snopes backs this up with an explanation about how black and white TV sets couldn't transmit patterns of black and white stripes adequately. So the zebra looked like a horse. We had a good laugh about the plausibility of this and some of the images used on the snopes site to back up the argument. Then I noticed an innocuous link at the bottom of the page: more information about this page. That led to an article about 'False Authority:' you should never fully rely on someone else to do fact-checking for you. Reading on, the truth about Mr. Ed and several other articles in snopes, including "Sing a Song of Sixpence" was revealed. These false accounts are there to make a point: use your head.
So I revised the WSI tutorial accordingly and created the Blackbeard Internet Search Challenge that can be used to encourage searchers to check facts for themselves. Do you know someone who is always going to Snopes for information? This one is for them.