Every year the British Medical Journal publishes an issue of joke science. But years later, those papers are cited as real.
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23 August 2014
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Here's one for the Informational Reading folks. And, it's actually quite informative despite its reliance upon references to intentional "Joke Science" articles as its starting point.
"Joke Science" in such satirical venues as The Onion, IS FICTION of course. And, only the densest of readers would miss The Onion's clear signals that nothing it publishes is true. The stories are ludicrous and surrounded by stories that are also ludicrous. And, it would be hard to even imagine that someone would wind up on The Onion site without knowing that it's a modern day Mad Magazine.
"In context" the signs are hard to miss that it's just funny stuff intended to amuse us without intention to misinform us.
But, what happens when those amusing stories or stories like them published in any number of "April Fools-type" issues of otherwise serious publications are taken "out of context" and redistributed via social media or gossip or via conspiracy-adamant sharing venues by those who like to share funny things, or those who like to share ill-informed/misinformed/disinformed "information" they've read with the rest of the world?
The signals that The Onion or "April Fools issues surround their articles with are gone and it becomes more likely that if not read carefully, the reader might easily assume with unquestioned trust that the article originally was published by a reliable source.
No this does not ONLY FOOL THE FOOLS. This article notes that much of this amusing fiction winds up being cited in very serious scholarly work.
Truthfully, I was shocked that I hadn't considered the obviousness of this finding prior to reading this article. Social networking for all of its benefits does also raise the likelihood that information is often quite divorced from its source. and probably more often than not, divorced from an assumption that the information will be read with the same level of intellectual scrutiny as the original article in its original context would be read. And, unlike Wikipedia, where we have come to be cautious about the validity of any article at any time, we also can recognize that Wikipedia itself has instituted practices intended to reduce its content's margin of error. We know enough to warn our students that Wikipedia is NOT original source information and that it should never be relied upon as a sole source of information. Wikipedia continually warns us of this possibility.
Wikipedia also is pro-active in warning us. Anyone who had used Wikipedia enough has seen header banners on articles warning that the article lacks reliable citation or expresses a bias.
Many people have learned that one quick way to use Wikipedia as a starting point is to search for a subject and then immediately scroll to the bottom of the page to see a list of links to the article's referenced sources. In this mode, the Wikipedia article might serve as a useful starting point and possible overview of a subject AND a quick way to find sources that might be likely "go to" sources for more reliable places to dig deeper.
But what happens when the bridge between information and all references to its reliability are severed?
This is not to say that information received through redistribution severed from its original context is to be assumed unreliable. But, it is safe to say that information received through redistribution severed from its original context ought to be read with caution.
It's quite a bit like that old classroom game called telephone where a story is shared from one student to another who shares what he or she believes he or she heard to another student who... well, you've probably played the game. The last student when asked to share the story aloud to the class generally shares a story with very little, if any, resemblance to the original story.
And, this is what happens when the story was only shared among a group that knows the rest of the group.
An interesting question might be to brainstorm all of the many possible explanations for why the original story inevitably fails be to be accurately reflected once it goes through the multiple incarnations of its redistribution.
I would suggest that poor memory or poor hearing/listening are only the most obvious explanations. It is the less obvious causes that reveal the essential elements of a sophisticated informational literacy skill set.
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