Friday, March 06, 2009

Consider the Source

These are real eagles, doing what eagles really do. I get lots of these pictures via e-mail, and I enjoy every one. They're fascinating, magnificent creatures, happily brought back from the edge of extinction in no small part through the efforts of programs based right here in Minnesota. The upper Mississippi is a great place to view these birds, and the National Eagle Center in Wabasha is THE place to learn about them.

But saving the eagle is not the point of this blog. I want to talk about saving ourselves--our minds, our curiosity, our willingness to take a closer look--in this amazing Age of Information. Remember that public service ad that says, "This is your brain; this is your brain on crack"? My question: What happens to our brains on Information Overload?

Don't run away. I'm not about to get too philosophical here. But with all the nonsense in the news this week--you know what I'm talking about--I'm just hoping all educators--including teachers, parents, writers and the like--are hammering this message home now more than ever: consider the source.

Back in the Pre-Info Age we were educated in this principle, big-time. We discussed Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage in high school. That's pretty weighty stuff, and it's worth looking at again. And again. I'm thinking we are seriously overloaded with meaningless messages and much too much massage. We can actually watch our government at work these days. With cable and C-span, we can tune in to Congress in "real time". Among other things, we see them twittering. Twittering? I might expect kids to be doing something like this in class, but the United States Congress?

I look to the news to get some information about what's going on in the world, and the anchors are inviting viewers to Twitter and Tweet. What the heck? Sound bytes (bites?) are killing the message, and the people who are supposed to be getting real information out to the public--the Fourth Estate, for heaven's sake--are acting like bird fanciers trying to coax sounds out of their pets.

We can save ourselves, people. We can teach the art of considering the source. Full circle, now, back to the eagles. (This is where I make my point.) I got one of those Inspiring Message e-mails recently that told of eagle behavior, not in terms of folklore (which might have worked) but presenting an incredible claim about eagle behavior called "Rebirth of an Eagle." Have you seen it? I'm sure it's making the e-mail rounds. It's a slide show. The claim is that in the wild some eagles perform a painful self-mutilating ritual when they reach old age, and that afterward they can live to be 70 years old. This must be Googled, say I. I found a wonderful, really funny debunking by Minnesota's own Birdchick. If you haven't seen the slide show, you can view it here, along with a lovely deconstruction.

I often delete these things without reading them, but this one was about eagles. And I love eagles. And Eagles. But I've been to the Eagle Center, and this was outrageous. Still, this is the kind of thing that will be swallowed hook, line and sinker by too many innocent people. Granted, this particular "load of crap" (as Birdchick says) probably won't hurt too much. But there's a lot out there that will. And I can get taken as easily as the next guy. Thank heaven for Snopes. Thank heaven for "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," for so often satire turns out to be the real purveyor of truth.

I fear the power of The Big Lie. I worry about the effects of TMI. And I truly hope our mantra in this day and age never ceases to be Consider the Source. What's your favorite Urban Myth? How do you handle forwarded gems? What is considering the source all about, and how do you keep the practice alive in your corner of the world?

Late breaking update: One of you commented about the Snopes website, so I did the Google, and I found an interesting Reader's Digest article about the masterminds behind Snopes and how they do what they do.

Lest I sound like an old throwback, I hasten to add that I often enjoy all kinds of forwarded gems--a good joke, an interesting tidbit, a bit of info that sends me Googling. And great pictures. Look at these and smile big:


Cindy Gerard said...

Kathy - as always you make us think and appreciate that amazing mind of yours.
I forward very few things - when I do generally it's something that tickled me and I hope it will give someone a pick me up but I have a tendency to simply delete the
"stranger than truth" e-mails for the reasons you stated. i don't buy it - not any more. TMI is right on target and it is a worry that we either invest too much in believing all the wild info we receive or we discount it because we've been fooled too many times. I have no idea what the solution is, I just know I'm getting jaded and I hate that.

Oh - and while this wasn't really about eagles :o) I have to tell you that last week i saw, in person, a scene very similar to the eagle picture you shared with us. There's a small waterfowl reserve about six miles from us and as I drove past it, there they were - 35 - 40 bald eagles all settled on the icy marsh. it was a magnificent sight to see.

catslady said...

I live at snopes. I happen to be the only one in my circle of friends and family that ever bothers to look things up. I have an uncle who lives on the internet and he sends me the most outrageous things. I shudder to think how many of these stories are considered fact. Their theory is if you see it (or hear it) it has to be true. I blame a lot of this on the media. And don't get me started on politics - so many lies. I don't understand how outright lies are allowed and especially the stories that have a grain of truth and everything else is turned around. I know a lot of the stuff that goes around is because people want to believe it and/or they don't want to know the truth and unfortunately it's usually derogatory. Bottom line is people are just too lazy to check things out for themselves.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Cindy, you're way too kind, and I love you for it. I also love that the 'net has made it so much easier to communicate with friends and family. Sometimes when I'm snowed under (not literally) I send one of those sweet tickles out as a quick way to let people know I'm still alive and kicking.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Cindy, the gathering of eagles you described is one of those sights that really does make your heart beat faster. During spring and fall migration the drive along the MN-WI border is heavily peppered with scenes like that. This month--this is the time to go. Give it another week or two.

When I moved to the Dakotas back in 1970, you never saw an eagle. Never. Now you see them gliding up there all the time, riding the waves of warm air like sky kings. Thank you, Rachel Carson! (SILENT SPRING was also required reading when I was in high school. Hope it still is.)

Kylie said...

Your message is right on, Kathy, and when I question one of those urban legends I google it and try to find the truth. But I sometimes swallow something like I did a few weeks ago. There was an email going around that everyone had to register their cell phones with the do not call registry because Congress was going to allow telemarketers to call cell phones and the owner would be charged. Cynic that I am, I thought that sounded like something Congress would do. But son corrected me and pointed me to the debunked source and he was right. It wasn't true.

It wasn't a scam, because it was a valid site. But it's just the sort of well meaning messages we get inundated with (like the teacher mass mailing everyone in the district warning them of poisoning from plastic bottles.)

I think it's a good upper level thinking skill to teach to kids--consider the source. Evaluate the information. But I fear they will also become cynics, believing in nothing without proof because there are so many Chicken Littles in the world.

Kathleen Eagle said...

What catslady said. Research is both noun and verb. It's both art and skill. It's vital to education, and it must be taught. It's essential to critical thinking, which must also be taught and practiced diligently. (Yeah, I was an English teacher. I confess.)

Kathleen Eagle said...

Kylie, I did the same thing recently--Snopes-ed out that cell phone warning. And not for the first time. When I found the entry, I realized I'd been there before. But it's easy to check, and sometimes the warnings turn out to have merit.

Helen Brenna said...

I'm with you on the tmi, Kathy. Email can be a wonderful time saver, but there are definitely times I wish it hadn't ever caught on.

I delete all kinds of stuff now without reading it - the consider the source thing is key for me. I used to feel bad about it, but I just don't have time.

I've also emailed people on occasion and asked to be taken off their email lists because it's so clear that I don't share their same political or religious beliefs. Never had anyone get offended.

GunDiva said...

I love snopes, but how do we know that it's accurate? Really? That's something I ask myself everytime I refer to it, then go on and do it anyway :)

One of the assignments I give my class is to research "DHMO" and decide whether or not it should be banned. DHMO - dihydrogen monoxide - is plain ole water, but everytime I give the assignment almost half of my class emphatically demands that it be banned because of its harmful effects. The whole point of the assignment is to get my students to think for themselves and consider the source.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Diva, what a cool assignment! And I've wondered about Snopes, too. I mean, who can you trust these days? Snopes has gotten lots of media attention. It's really just 2 people who have turned debunking into a full time job. Found an article about them from Readers' Digest:

Interesting note--they do most of their research "the old fashioned way." They use books!

Robin of My Two Blessings said...

Like Catlady, I'm the only one of my friends or family who bothers to look at snopes or urban legends when receive a forwarded "on my, look at this, can you believe it." email. I actually had one cousin get very angry with me for debunking her forwarded email. Took all the fun out of it I guess.

Somedays, I just think - not again - and delete it. We are making sure to educate our son to consider the source and teach him how to find the correct information or at least ask questions. It amazes me what people accept blindly. I won't get on my soapbox here or it will be an awfully long comment.

Great post, as always!

Linda said...

You asked about our "favorite" urban myth. There were two things going around in emails that were myths that got me so angry I fired letters back to the people who forwarded them to me. One was about Obama being a Moslem. Grrrr. The other was filled with misinformation (AKA lies) about Islam and the Moslem faith. But you are absolutely right, I wish people would think before forwarding things and "consider the source."

kim-free ads posting said...

I am kinda gullible with a lot of things that I see in the internet but most often I wonder if they were true.You're article made me think some more and find the truth.Thanks for sharing this post.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Happy short-one-hour-Sunday, guys!

Kim, I hear you on the gullible thing. Me, too. I could tell you some stories...

Linda, I'm with you on those examples of misinformation. I think it's good practice to reply to sender on stuff like that, maybe help contain the virus.

Robin, good on ya' teaching your son to question and search. The details are different from what they were when I was raising kids and teaching in the classroom, but the principles haven't changed. It's just that now there's a glut of unreliable sources available on the internet. So much more to question. Still, you do your homework, rate reliability, return to credible sources. But you can't take reliability for granted, kids. You have to keep an eye on your sources. Has there been a change in ownership?

Trust is a fragile thing. Not only is it necessary to build knowledge and know-how, but we have to develop our instincts. Choosing your friends, your leaders, your sources--all of a piece,IMO. You've got to do your homework.

Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation here. So interesting!