Siri and the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

A couple of months ago my mother bought her first iPhone. I was showing her how various bits and pieces on it worked, and I thought I’d show her how Siri worked. Much as I love the iPhone, I tend to think Siri is a bit of a gimmick. The one thing I do use it for now and again is converting weights and measures. I know my mum, being born in the imperial era but now living in the metric era, finds conversions between the two a real pain. So I thought I’d show her how to use Siri to convert pounds into kilos, etc. After Siri came back with the right answer, my mother looked at me in awe. She said what she normally said on these occasions, which is ‘my god, why didn’t they put that on Tomorrow’s World?’ (It is a long-standing complaint of my mother’s that all the hundreds of episodes of Tomorrow’s World that she watched in the 60s predicted nothing more exciting than the odd talking toaster.) Then, after a moment of thinking, she said something I hear less often from her. ‘But Dais,’ she said, ‘this means you’re wrong!’ I put my head in my hands. ‘Did you know about this when you wrote your book?’ she said. ‘Because if you’ve got this Siri, then you really can just look it up!’ Of course I had the last laugh when she rang me up a couple of hours later asking me how to use Siri, and I told her to ask Siri how to use Siri.

Anyway, I thought the time was therefore right to blog some more about just looking it up. The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is a famous internet hoax. It’s an informative and well-written website about a completely made-up animal. It is very well done, and it has all the features of real websites about endangered animals. It’s got Latin names, scientific terminology, maps, pictures, links, FAQs, and an endorsement from the ‘Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society’. My favourite bit is the page where it explains in detail whether the plural should be ‘octopuses’ or ‘octopi’.

If you were using any abstract or generic approach to evaluating online sources, you probably wouldn’t realise that this was a hoax. In this blog post, Robert Pondiscio takes a popular rubric called RADCAB that helps pupils evaluate online sources and shows how useless it is in the face of the Tree Octopus hoax.

RADCAB features a rubric that helps students evaluate online information. Level 3 of 4 (the “Research Pro” level, and presumably a reasonable goal for all learners) includes things like “I create ’slam-dunk’ keywords from my research questions and use them to find relevant information” and “I leave information sources quickly that are too hard for me or offend my core values.” Nothing very helpful in determining if the Tree Octopus is for real or not. The rubric also tells us we are research pros if we “look for copyright information or ‘last updated’ information” in the source. Very well: The tree octopus site was created in 1998 and updated within the last two months, so it must be a current source of tree octopus information. We are also research pros if we ”look for the authority behind the information on a website because I know if affects the accuracy of the information found there.” Merely looking for the authority tells us nothing about its value, but let’s dig deeper. The authority behind the site is the “Kelvinic University branch of the Wild Haggis Conservation Society.” Sounds credible. It is, after all, a university, and one only has to go the extra mile to be a Level 4, or “Totally Rad Researcher.” The Tree Octopus site even carries an endorsement from, and I’ve heard of them (haven’t I?) and links to the scientific-sounding ”Cephalopod News.”

On the other hand, if you just knew a little about animals, octopuses (or octopi) and ‘arboreal habitats’ you’d very quickly see through the hoax. And that is exactly what has happened. In one study of 25 7th graders, all of them fell for the hoax, they struggled to explain why it was a hoax even when they were told it was, and even after they were told it was a hoax, they didn’t believe it. This rings very true with my own experience of teaching, and is of course what would be predicted given what we know about knowledge being foundational for cognition. I think it all goes to prove William Beveridge’s point – that ‘ignorance is an evil weed, which dictators cultivate amongst their dupes but which no democracy can afford amongst its citizens.’ This is as true in the online world as it was when Beveridge was writing in the 40s. Knowledge is the best protection we have against being duped by clever hoaxsters. In the absence of knowledge, abstract rubrics cannot help us.



4 thoughts on “Siri and the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

  1. Barry Naylor

    My old HOD used to use the saying “all roads lead to Rome’ but I am now starting to use ‘all roads lead to Hirsch’. The reason for this is that I find increasingly, and not unexpectedly I guess a proliferation of weird ideas that via tortuous prose lead to the conclusion that if we had a Core Knowledge curriculum then we would be much better off, and thanks to Hirsch for passing on this wisdom.

    This is I feel an excellent example. I will withstand the urge to start writing about strawmen and dichotemies and just say it as I find it.

    I have taught ICT from year 7 to year 13 and I would never use RADCAB as an approach to determining the validity and reliability of a source. I think RADCAB is lacking and that is possibly why Pondiscio chose it for his blog post on the Core Knowledge website.

    I went to read the article (as one would) and looked throught the first few comments. I started to get depressed when the discussion started about whether a vertibrate, Invertebrates or cephalopod would be able to climb a tree. Some contributors did suggest very simple ways by which students could have used to check for the validity of the website.

    So I didn’t necessarily agree with RADCAB, but the lesson was for 4th Graders and it is perhaps a good foundation on which to build. Mr Pondiscio did make much of the Research Pro categorisation but this was just another of his red herrings. The use of this example did allow Mr Pondiscio to raise the old 21st Century Skills wild goose chase. On the plus side for the lesson it did allow students to practice the application of evaluation using criteria that they would easily be able to follow at grade 4.

    For me however the whole thing, even without the carefully chosen example designed to give one conclusion. For me, ignoring the fact that the website had a good description of ‘octopuses’ or ‘octopi’. For me it wasn’t even that I might be expecting 4th Graders to be ‘understanding’, not just knowing a ‘little’ about ‘arboreal habitats’ that made this article start to be come just a little depressing.

    For me it wasn’t even the example of the 7th Graders which was so grossly misrepresented in order to be able to say ‘all roads lead to Hirsch’ that it became for me a little silly.

    The research quoted from the University of Connecticut concluded that the issue was one of lack of ‘internet skills’, reaulting from a lack of the use/teaching on the use of Internet in the classroom within the State. Internet Skills are part of the infamous 21st Century Skills, one with which I tend to agree. They could have been given a quick course in arboreal habitats but that may not have improved their internet skills.

    In my class, the first thing I would do is to have the students google ‘Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus’ as I did. They would have found the same 150,000-200,000 links that I found. I would have had them check the first 10 quickly as a group. They would have found the first two as the original sit somehting like…””

    After that they would find wikipedia’s article which starts with the line…

    “The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is an Internet hoax”

    They would then have found a very very large number of other sites (those not on youtube written by kids especially) that quickly described the hoax. I would then have had them google some other terms found on the site.

    Hey presto.

    When I approach this from year 7 to year 13 I tend to use the “Dihydrogen Monoxide –” website but this is probably not so good up to year 10. They all fall for it and that is the idea. Learning is about making mistakes and when they are doing web based research later on they I just mention DHMO and they all have a good memory of the lessons learned. Falling for hoaxes doesn’t always mean yo are somehow stupid, it is part of the plan.

    So in fact the most efficient and in my view effective way to determine that this was a hoax was to ‘google it’, and this was the general view of the University of Connecticut with their 7th Graders. They needed better internet skills.

    I am very happy that we might go down the road of Hirsch in part as a little more knowledge is always a good thing. Internet skills are in good measure cognitive skills of evaluation and analysis. With excellent cognitive skills and sound background knowledge one has the foundations for future autodidaxy.

    My view that although some roads lead to Hirsch, not all do, and the KS3 ICT stuff contains much better approaches that RADCAB.

  2. Pingback: Does memorisation get in the way of learning? – Part 2 | …to the real.

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