Siri and the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

Posted on 27-10-2013

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.