Saturday, February 20, 2010

Quackwatch and Snopes

Quackwatch?  What the heck is that, a bird-watching group that focuses on Mallards?  No, it is a web site that is devoted to exposing those who are engaged in health fraud.  Dr. Stephen Barrett, a psychiatrist, takes skepticism to a higher level than most of us practice.  For that, he's encountered some critics and controversy.  Does that make his conclusions wrong?  A good debate to be sure.  He exposes some very popular methods of healing as scams or ineffective.  Some "cherished beliefs are challenged."  Personally, I like anything that takes us out of our cognitive comfort zone.  

As teachers of psychology and science, we've undoubtedly encountered students who share with us experiences that family members have had with healing magnets, crystals, homeopathy, special vitamins, colon cleansing, etc.  When I hear of these, I will go to to see what they and the research has to say.

I will also do this with when I hear things that sound like Urban Legends.  For those unfamiliar, urban legends are stories that are told and retold as fact even though there is often no basis for the story--they are modern myths.  From Wikipedia, "Like all folklore, contemporary legends are not necessarily false, but they are often distorted, exaggerated, or sensationalized over time."  While they make for great entertainment and even as cautionary tales, they are not true and often reflect fears, biases and prejudices of the tellers.  Anyone who recalls the "Birther Conspiracy" or the lady with the cat caught in the rain who microwaved it to dry it out faster will recognize the power of these stories.  Often, it has happened to a FOAF (friend of a friend)--but it's REAL!!!!!  according to the teller. 

Both sites deal with our individual cognition as well as social cognition on top of research methods.  They would fit nicely within any of those units.


Steve said...

Great post, Chuck. When I first started actively using the Internet one of my favorite haunts was the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban. In addition to reading and posting there I devoured the UL books of Utah professor Jan Harold Brunvand ( I would highly recommend any of them but especially the earlier ones like The Mexican Pet, Curses! Broiled Again! or even The Big Book of Urban Legends. They have a similar format in that Dr. Brunvand tells the tale and the variations of the tale, and then tries to track down the source.

You can pick out just a few even and try them with your class, such as people who poison/put razor blades in Halloween candy, or the one about getting all A's if your college roommate commits suicide. Snopes has a "top 25" so those may be even more familiar to your students. Ask them to think about HOW they know this information, and WHY they believe it so strongly! (What are the cognitive and social factors involved?)

Rob Mc said...

Agreed! Snopes is a fabulous resource. Many times when I get an email forwarded to me that starts "you won't believe it, but. . ." I can just copy and paste the first couple lines from the email into Snopes and up pops the myth and the research debunking it. I usually share these with my class as a critical thinking example (although I don't share with them that it was usually a member of my family that forwarded me the myth in the first place :)