Feeds

'Tree Octopus' proves journos no smarter than 13-year-old Americans

We believe anything we read on the wire

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Intelligent flash storage arrays

During Saturday – at least to this writer, it may have started Friday in the lagging time-zones – a story started to take off on Twitter, news sites and blogs.

Picking up – either marginally re-written or verbatim – a wire release, journalists were gratified to discover that the Internet makes kids stupid. Specifically, the research (from the University of Connecticut’s New Literacies research team, led by professor Donald Leu) asked the children to research as real information a species, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, which was actually a decade-old hoax.

The idea is that if the research subjects – “digital natives” – were any good at evaluating information on the Internet, they would catch the hoax. They didn’t, therefore the Internet is turning children into poor researchers.

And because the children believed the research materials, the researchers – and the credulous and lazy journalists that ran with the story – concluded that the Internet is destroying research skills.

Certainly, reporters’ research skills were tested. Almost nobody treated the story with even the mildest skepticism.

In a talk called The New Literacies of Online Reading (warning: it's a PowerPoint), Professor Leu says: “In our recent work, 96% of 7th graders (24/25) recommended The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus Site as reliable to another classroom”.

To put this in context: a sample of 25 students is almost double the sample size that Andrew Wakefield used to prove the link between vaccination and autism.

Those reporting that “the Internet is making children stupid” also failed to ask:

“Was this the only task set for the children?” – this is important because if other tasks were included, they could impact the research. The children may have been put in a trusting frame of mind by other tasks; or they might have been asked to follow up the “Tree Octopus” information at the end of their attention span.

“Did anything about the research protocols, or the interactions between researchers and children, influence the results?” – For example, did the “Tree Octopus” information come after the researcher had been accepted as a trusted source by the children?

“Could any other factors affect the childrens’ research skills?” – For example, have they been taught well? What’s their educational and/or socio-economic background?

“How do you create a control to differentiate between the research skills of different student cohorts?” – Without a control, the research fails to tell us whether the problem is particular to research conducted using the Internet.

Finally, journalists could have asked whether their instinctive response to this story reflected their own selection bias, rather than the research outcomes.

Security for virtualized datacentres

More from The Register

next story
Boffins who stare at goats: I do believe they’re SHRINKING
Alpine chamois being squashed by global warming
What's that PONG? Rosetta probe shoves nose under comet's tail
Rotten eggs, horse dung and almonds – yuck
Comet Siding Spring revealed as flying molehill
Hiding from this space pimple isn't going to do humanity's reputation any good
Experts brand LOHAN's squeaky-clean box
Phytosanitary treatment renders Vulture 2 crate fit for export
LONG ARM of the SAUR: Brachially gifted dino bone conundrum solved
Deinocheirus mirificus was a bit of a knuckle dragger
MARS NEEDS WOMEN, claims NASA pseudo 'naut: They eat less
'Some might find this idea offensive' boffin admits
prev story

Whitepapers

Choosing cloud Backup services
Demystify how you can address your data protection needs in your small- to medium-sized business and select the best online backup service to meet your needs.
Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.