The importance of being skeptical

Internet Explorer users have lower IQs than other browser users. It’s true. It must be: it was in all the papers, and on the BBC news website too, so it must be true. Except that it was a hoax.

For many people however, that first ‘fact’ about ‘stupid IE users’ will remain long in the memory, regardless of the subsequent debunking. Get ready to correct ill-informed know-it-all’s at parties for years to come.

The story ran that research had demonstrated that Internet Explorer users who completed an online IQ test were less intelligent than other browser users who completed the test. Internet Explorer users were claimed to have an average IQ of 80, compared with 110 for most other browsers, and in some cases 120 for Camino and Opera users.

Warning signs

The story was extensively reported, including on the BBC news website and in most UK national newspapers, despite a number of ‘red-lights’ in the study, suggesting that this story was too outrageous to be true. But because it was a good story, which reinforced people’s expectations, it ran, without the fact checking that (in my opinion) would be expected of professional journalists. For shame as well that it took readers, not journalists to highlight this, as quoted here from the BBC:

Questions about the authenticity of the story were raised by readers of the BBC website who established that the company which put out the research – ApTiquant – appeared to have only set up its website in the past month

The warning signs include the how large the variation in the different IQs are, and just how low the Internet Explorer average IQ is. This latter point was picked up in the original reporting, accompanied by a comment from Professor David Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University’s Statistical Laboratory:

They’ve got IE6 users with an IQ of around eighty. That’s borderline deficient, marginally able to cope with the adult world… I believe these figures are implausibly low – and an insult to IE users.

This does beg the question of why the story ran without further question.

A lie is as good as the truth?

This story and people’s willingness to believe it illustrates two points:

  1. Especially in this interconnected internet age, the Mark Twain quote applies that “A lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on”.
  2. If a story ‘rings true’ and reinforces our opinions or prejudices about something, it will be remembered, regardless of the truth. It’s for this reason that mud often sticks and that software company FUD tactics (fear, uncertainty & doubt) can be so effective.

I came across many more examples of cases where a good story trumps the truth, there are hundreds more out there, but here’s a couple to be going on.

Peter Mandelson’s Guacamole

Quoted from the Daily Mail article debunking several political stories:

The story goes that he was buying supper at a chippie in his former Hartlepool constituency. He asked for haddock, chips and “some of that guacamole” – mistaking the mushy peas for avocado dip.

It’s a perfect Mandelson story, involving his metropolitan tastes and ignorance of working-class life. But he never said it. The mistake seems to have been made by a young American woman student who was helping Labour at a by-election. She, of course, had never seen mushy peas.

Neil Kinnock claims to have attributed the story to Mandelson, as a tease.

Van Halen and no brown M&Ms

Quotes from jimcofer.com via the wayback machine.

In case you weren’t around during the 80s, the rock supergroup Van Halen had a clause in their concert contracts that stipulated that the band would “be provided with one large bowl of M&M candies, with all brown candies removed”. Once the “M&Ms” story leaked to the press, social commentators jumped all over it as an egregious example of the pampered and spoiled behavior that rock artists demanded.

However, Van Halen apparently had a very good reason for the no brown M&Ms rule. The band had a hugely complex stage setup, compared with many bands at the time, with large amounts of equipment and the very real risk of people being hurt if things weren’t setup correctly. The contract for the show would include many statements on the lines of:

“Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, spaced evenly, providing nineteen amperes total, on beams suspended from the ceiling of the venue, which shall be able to support a total gross weight of 5,600 pounds each, and be suspended no less than 30 feet, but no more than 37.5 feet, above the stage surface”.

There are hundreds of these things that are needed. And venues kept getting things wrong. Potentially dangerous things, wrong. So the band added the M&M clause:

Article 126: There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation

That way the band had a simple warning signal. If there were no brown M&M’s, the contract had been read and implemented, down to the last stupid detail. On the other hand, brown M&Ms, or no M&Ms at all, indicates that other more significant parts of the contract may also have been overlooked and everything needs to be checked. Pretty clever (if indeed this retelling is true!) and a neat idea to take away: consider adding a warning indicator for other similar situations where all details have to be implemented correctly.

Be Skeptical

In summary, just like the old adage if something looks to good to be true it probably is, the same applies to news stories and marketing claims – if something sounds too ridiculous to be true, it probably is. Be skeptical out there…

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