What to believe

September 11, 2006

You know the familiar look of the email – WARNING shampoo causes cancer; WARNING a virus has just been released that will destroy all the files on your hard disk; WARNING the government has wasted $12 million developing a pen that writes in space while the Russians manage by using pencils.

I am often the recipient of such emails. Not usually directly, but often sent to me by members of my family wanting to know if they are true or not. There is really only one answer to that question. They are not.

The two most recent ones to come my way were something purporting to be a speech by Bill Gates to some high school students giving his 11 Rules For Life; and a supposed letter from Steven Spielberg to Mel Gibson attacking him for being an anti-Semite. The Spielberg letter was easy. The intemperate language was most unlikely to have been Spielberg’s – he’s too experienced a Hollywood hand to put such thoughts into writing and besides, I was pretty sure that he would live in California not New Rochelle, New York! The 11 Rules For Life we not so obvious. They could have been said by Bill Gates and perhaps the only reason for doubting it was that it was being sent in a circulated email.

I assume that everything that is sent in a forwarded email is False unless proven otherwise. But how to prove it? I have got into the habit of checking everything with one or more of the sceptics websites. Truth or Fiction is a good stating place for rumours and hoaxes. Urban Legends Reference Pages are a useful source of exactly that. Medical and scientific claims are easily checked on various sites such as Csicop , Quackwatch, and The Pathology Guy (who has a good section on alternative medicine).

And yet … What am I saying here? Don’t believe stuff on the Internet unless you have checked it on the Internet? Seems like a bit of a contradiction. And it is. Perhaps the only way to act is to go with what seems sensible, especially if it can be verified from several independent sources (noting if they are simply cross-referencing each other; if it is important act on it otherwise ponder on the advice but DON’T SEND IT ON.

So here are my two simple rules for dealing with circulated information.

Rule 1. Nothing you read on the Internet is true.

Rule 2. Some things you read on the Internet might be true but even then it doesn’t matter unless they are asking for money, so don’t send it to anyone else. See Rule 1

At least when you read it on a Blog, you know it’s opinion. Don’t you?


4 Responses to “What to believe”

  1. david tiley Says:

    The truth value of a blog is determined by checkable cross reference which is consistent.

    That is why a huge amount of work is put into countering the opinion of dingbats and lying turds, in the hope that readers of said shite will google to check further.

    cf Tim Lambert at Deltoid, who is mah hero.

  2. cyberslacker Says:

    Thanks David
    I will certainly add Deltoid to my list.
    Hmm that reminds me, I must put some of these sites on my ‘blogroll’

  3. […] Following my own rules (see September 11th post), I presumed everything stated was false, but in order to satisfy the sender that I was not simply rejecting it out of hand I decided to research a few of the statements. […]

  4. […] I was thinking about what sort of world it would be if my rules for the Internet were wrong and everything you read online was in fact true. I could use my Nigerian petrodollars to […]

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