Posts from This Journal by “youtube” Tag

  • Waterscape

    Guaranteed to drop your blood pressure a couple of points...

  • Fun with outer space

    (One of my nieces is currently very interested in the planets and outer space.)

  • Moving through an instant

    I compiled this back when I was toying with a sequel/expansion to Wade in the Water, where the premise is that the main character can basically…

I really, really, REALLY wanted to like this video. The critical analysis of information presented online, through social media, and through news outlets is an incredibly crucial skill that we need to teach our students and the general public. Her opening example is even a really important one - for-profit pharmaceutical companies really do use those tactics she listed, especially the astroturfing she describes very accurately.

However, I have several issues with her talk, which frustrates me because when talking about portraying the truth, she seems to do a lot to obfuscate it. It's like plagiarizing on an academic honesty lecture. I'm going to go through them in the order that they appear (since I'm relistening now). (Also, if you don't feel like having a giant rant about the battle between accuracy and rhetoric on your LJ, please feel free to delete.)

#1: Her Washington Redskins example. She doesn't cite her source, even in a casual way, so I have no way to look up the statistic for myself and judge its accuracy. This goes back to the old adage about "lies, damn lies, and statistics". You can make statistics say anything you want to - it's one of the techniques of the special interest groups that she is targeting.

#2: Her remarks about how these special interests "Intentionally shove in confusing and conflicting information, so that you throw up your hands and disregard all of it, even the truth". The fact that she uses vaccines and autism as her example almost makes my point for me, but I'll digress anyway: Sometimes confusing and conflicting information is ALL THAT WE HAVE. Science isn't a straight line from question to answer. Just because it is hard to decide what to believe about something, doesn't mean that there is an easy answer just around the corner being hidden by nefarious forces. Sometimes nobody knows the right answer. In her particular example about vaccines and autism, the fact is that according to our current mechanisms of knowledge in medicine (clinical trials), we haven't found a link between the two - the one study that did was retracted because it falsified its data. Now, this is not the same as saying that we've proven that they aren't connected. However, in this particular instance, the harm of not vaccinating (which has been proven, through history and clinical trials) is much greater than the harm of vaccinating (which is still only a potential threat). Oversimplifying (as she is doing, and encouraging others to do) is just as dangerous as false information or astroturfing.

#3: Wikipedia. I'm right there with her on the fact that there are some pages that are deliberately misrepresenting the facts (here's an example: However, I also know that wikipedia has mechanisms in place to prevent this - note the "neutrality" marker at the top of the article I link to. In fact, for especially contentious articles, sometimes wikipedia admins will lock down the article from editing by anyone, in order to prevent the co-opting that Sharyl speaks of. Particularly unfortunate is her example of Philip Roth trying to edit his own page - it demonstrates that she doesn't understand Wikipedia's core principles. Wikipedia doesn't care who you are (even the person who's page is being edited), because those kinds of credentials are easily faked - it's not like Twitter, with the "verified" checkmark that can prove identity. Wikipedia's only metric for truth is citations; anybody can claim to be Philip Roth and know the inspiration for his characters, but publicly available articles or books are the only way others can check your work - that is the founding principle of Wikipedia's editorial policy. No, Wikipedia shouldn't be your only stop for information, or even your first stop, particularly on evolving, controversial topics like medicine and politics. But if you want to know the land mass of Virginia or what the difference between vinyasa and hot yoga is, it's a handy resource - those kinds of things are what encyclopedias in general are good at, and what wikipedia was made for.
Part 2, because of character limits
#4: The press release written by the drug company subsidizing a study that other news outlets just pushed out, but she took the time to back check. The example is excellent - those press releases are a large source of information - but her bragging about how CBS News is the only source that bothered to look deeper goes against her point about being cynical about what you read. "Don't trust anyone but CBS" is what this story says, and that's a problem.

Again, I'm not discounting her actual point - that we should be cynical of what we read, and increase our metaphorical sodium intake. There's another article ( that explains the astroturfing concept in the context of "viral" videos, and how they really aren't. Her good point is nearly obscured, though, by her presentation: this is a much more complex topic than the black-and-white portrayal she gave, nearly every example she uses is problematic, and the "everyone except me" story near the end paints her as a white knight of truth in a sea of lies.

So that's my rant for the day. :P Back to work.
Re: Part 2, because of character limits
In other words, it's a typical TED talk. :P

In other words--rant away! If you have a better video intro to astroturfing, I'd be happy to swap it in. But this is the first I've come across, and I do think it's something that should be brought to peoples' attention.