Tree Octopus Interview

The elusive tree octopus, image taken from here.

Reading the news this morning, I came across an interesting video interview with one of the authors of a recent study on how gullible kids are when reading the internet. In particular, the study evaluates how many students believed the parody tree octopus website. According to news releases about the study, a large number of kids in the study believed the tree octopus website was real. Furthermore, even after learning that the website was fake, many kids still advocated that it was real.

I find this study intriguing and would like to know more– does anyone know if there’s a published paper detailing the methods? Some quick google work didn’t turn up an obvious reference. If the paper is in an academic journal with restricted access, I can download it with my MIT library ninja skills.

I find this study intriguing, but like PZ Meyers I’m skeptical of the results of the study, at least the way the results are being interpreted as clear evidence of “the internet making kids dumber.” Perhaps it’s true that teachers need to refine their teaching techniques to help kids critically evaluate the sources of internet information, but I seriously doubt the internet is making kids dumber. Also, I’d like to see how the kids results would compare with adult results. From my experience (yeah, yeah… anecdotal, I know), kids are natural skeptics. For instance, it’s often more difficult to fool a kid with a magic trick than an adult.

Although, considering how many people believed in Paul the Psychic Octopus, perhaps it’s not surprising that people also believe in the tree octopus. They are cute little buggers, these imaginary tree octopuses.


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. By the way, I apologize if you have to suffer through the “pajama gram” ad before watching the interview. Ugh.

    Personally, I’d like to say that I would NOT like a pajama gram for Valentine’s Day and that these pajamas are not “a Valentine’s Day hug she can wear.” They’re just pajamas, probably overpriced ones.

  2. @weirdbuglady: Seems that’s just an abstract.

    Is there a full study published somewhere?

    Back to making mineral separates while Skepchick readers help me do skeptical research :-).

  3. The same thing happened to me! I was on the team that sequenced the strawberry genome, so I thought it would be funny to make a parody– the sequencing of the Maraschino cherry. I wrote it here

    I received emails from at least ten people wanting to know more, and they contacted me because the (fake) people in the (bogus) university that did (not do) the study were unavailable.

    I guess what is more surprising is that people are not bright enough to get a joke. I guess it is the Andrew Dice Clay-ing of America.

    … and imagine their world view from believing everything in The Onion.

  4. Now that wasn’t hard to find.
    Here’s the good doctor:

    And here’s the study:

    “Furthermore, even after learning that the website was fake, many kids still advocated that it was real.” is a bit stronger than the actual quote:
    – “Most struggled when asked to produce proof – or even clues – that the web site was false, even after the UConn researchers told them it was; and
    – “Some of the students still insisted vehemently that the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus really exists.”
    Come on folks! “Some” does not equal “many!”

  5. We reward students in school for believing everything they’re told. And then we’re surprised that they’re not skeptical. Maybe we should rethink our approach.

  6. The Internet is a medium just like television. You can watch Nickelodeon or you can watch the Science channel. The existence of one does not invalidate the other.

    Instead of trying to manipulate the trusting minds of children to prove how smart they are, why don’t they climb down from their ivory tower and put some good educational material up on the Internet? Make the Internet more like the Science channel.

    They could be a positive force for change instead of just another smug, wagging finger that chides us with studies measuring how dumb and fat we are.

  7. I have been using this in library orientation sessions for several years now (for freshmen in college–I’m an academic librarian). It’s part of a unit on evaluating websites. I assign this randomly to a group of students to evaluate in class. Other websites have various other biases or problems that students are supposed to find.

    I haven’t kept track of reactions exactly, but it’s definitely mixed based on who is in the group. Some groups have spotted it right away and start laughing. Other groups look at it for a long time, and when I ask “So, what do you think of this site?” they are still taking it a face value but something strikes them as odd. Others totally buy it. The issue is that the students often have a hard time citing specific reasons they knew it was fake, so I always walk through it with them. In any event it’s a great teaching tool to show the class some tricks for figuring out whether a website is reliable.

  8. There was a recent article? study? that showed how people who argue with those who have irrational beliefs, even showing evidence and so forth, can inadvertently strengthen those beliefs. I’m sorry I don’t have a citation, I just remember Gorski or someone having a conniption fit over it.

  9. Why shouldn’t seventh graders fall for that page? Take a look at the list of “Other Animals Of Interest” at the bottom and pick out all the real ones without looking at the pages they link to, and without your experience with weird biology since 7th grade (the latter might be a bit tricky, I know).

    How about we toss the kids a Däniken-book and ask them how reliable that is? Sure we need to teach kids critical thinking skills, but that’s not all that unique to internet information, and the expectations of the researchers involved seem utterly unrealistic. The kids involved are barely teenagers for chrissake!

    Imagine I’d been given Chariots of the Gods? as a reading assignment instead of finding it on my parents’ bookshelf and been asked to judge its reliability instead of just being troubled by it. Where would I go to check its veracity? An encyclopedia perhaps? Well I have a dead tree encyclopedia available, although it was printed several years after I actually read, and was confused by, Däniken’s book. And what does the entry on Däniken say? “archaeologist and author“, “builds on theories of visits from aliens in ancient times“, “his books very popular and been translated to many languages“, and not a word that the man is a raving loon. I’d have been much better off looking him up on wikipedia.

    Critical thinking skills should be taught, starting with little pinpricks at an early age, but make kids too skeptical and they wont be able to absorb any information at all.

  10. Yes; as indicated in the cattywumpus article, independent thinking skeptical students are trouble makers. They are consistently punished in school, for good reason — they’re disruptive: Their behavior interferes with the normal educational process — which is to accept and regurgitate the claims of assigned authority figures.

  11. @JeffGrigg: If that’s supposed to be a response to my final paragraph it fails to make sense to me. Did you miss where I wrote critical thinking is a skill that should be taught? Do you contend that it’s impossible to be too skeptical?

  12. @Bjornar: Yes, I think we’re mostly in agreement. I think of my last post mostly as an amplification of your last point: …that the down side of too much skepticism can be much worse than you say.

    I think we probably have a healthy idea going with an emphasis on asking why you should believe what you do, and/or disbelieve other claims.

    But your score on the history test will probably still be based on remembering what the instructor and book said.

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