Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Answer: Who backs the site?

An important skill to have..

... is that of knowing how to figure out who's posting this article.  

In other words, a really important skill is that of being able to figure out who's behind an article.  

Although this is something we should have learned in elementary school, it's a continuous surprise to me how often searchers DO NOT do this!  

This observation is what motivated the SearchResearch Challenge this week.   Think of this week's Challenge as practice to learn the skill of finding out Who Backs the Site?   

P/C Google. The inside of a Google data center
(showing cooling lines to chill the data flowing through the internet)

1.  I keep hearing that the Internet is about to run out of addresses.  Is this true?  Here's one article that claims this it's about to happen  Will the Internet really come to a screaming halt sometime soon because it ran out of addresses?  (Important: How do you assess the quality of this article?  Believable, or not?)

When I saw this article my first questions were (a) WHO wrote it?  (b) WHY did he write it?  (c) WHAT is the reputation of the website where it was published?  

It's easy to figure out the author:  Clicking on his author's byline in the article takes you to his personal page for his writings on Gizmodo (the website).   This is list of the articles he's written, and by a quick scan, you can see that he writes many product reviews ("Best Travel Gadgets"), tech product updates ("Samsung Is Limiting Note 7 Batteries to 60 Percent to Avoid More Explosions") and random light pieces ("Diego the Loverboy Sires Over 800 Baby Tortoises, Saves His Species").  So it's clear that he's got some technology background, but how much? 

I did a quick search for his name  [ Darren Orf ]  which is, handily, a low-frequency name (i.e., fairly rare), and found his LinkedIn profile which tells me that he's now a Senior Editor for Hearst Digital Media, but was a senior writer for Gizmodo (until a couple of weeks ago).  

He's really a tech-journalist with a Master's degree in Journalism from University of Missouri-Columbia (a well-respected Journalism program), and that 5 people have vetted him for his fact-checking skills.  That's a good sign.  

If you read the article carefully, you'll see that it relies heavily on (and cites properly) a Wall Street Journal article on the same topic. To wit,  Coming This Summer: U.S. Will Run Out of Internet Addresses  

THAT article is written by Robert McMillan whose author profile shows him to be very focused computer technology writer.  (All of his writings over the past couple of years have been technology news.)  Looking at McMillan's LinkedIn profile shows that he has spent many years editing LinuxWorld and Linux magazines, both very techy journals that are dedicated to the Linux universe.  A quick look at the articles he's written there show him to be deeply engaged in the security and computer-tech world, so there's a high probability that he got this one right as well.  

What about the site? 

Searching for [ Gizmodo ] quickly shows us that it's a  "...design, technology and science fiction website. It was originally launched as part of the Gawker Media network... [and] ...  includes the subsite io9, which focuses on science fiction and futurism." 

With leading article (for this week) on topics ranging from Star Wars Halloween costumes, to an analysis of Juno's engine troubles  (the NASA Jupiter space-craft), it's a kind of technology-light webzine.  So it's not a hard-core tech magazine.  What this tells me is that it's worth checking out the facts behind the article, just in case something got lost in translation.  

When I read the WSJ article about "running out of internet addresses" that all checked out, and the author of that article really does have a strong reputation as an accurate technology writer.  (To be clear, so does Orf; but McMillan has a deeper background on issues like this one.) 

Bottom Line:  The website isn't well-known for the depth of their tech writing, but the author (and original material on which he based his article) both check out as being accurate.  And the article is correct:  The original internet would have run out of addresses, except that a major new technology (known at IP-6) was implanted into all of the internet, and the address problem was avoided.  

Who backs the site?  Gizmodo, the tech publishing company back the site, but the author did a good job of reflecting the internet address situation and its solution.  

2. Here's an article from the EPA claiming that the federal government is suing a farmer for simply plowing his field.  Is this for real?  How would you assess the truthiness (and credibility) of this article?  

This article caught my eye with extraordinary fishiness when I first opened it up.  I was expecting an article about farming regulations put in place by the EPA.  

I know that the acronym "EPA" stands for "Environmental Protection Agency."   It's an agency of the federal government responsible for protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress.  

To be honest, the first thing I noticed was how nice the site looked.  In my experience, US government sites are a bit more... ah... clunky than this one.  This article on this site looks pretty good!  

The next thing I noticed were some of the titles of the articles.  Titles like "EPA’s Fancy Office Furniture Costs Taxpayers Nearly $100 Million" and "EPA Offers Paid Leave to Employee Caught with Pot at Work"  didn't seem quite like the articles I'd expect to see on an official government web site!  

When I looked at the URL, I noticed it was Epafacts.com -- that is, a .COM site, and not a .GOV site, which is what I expected.  

So I looked at the top-level page of the site (that is, I looked at Epafacts.com) to see what the entire site is all about, and saw immediately that it's an EPA critic site, which they talk about very openly.  As they write on their top-level page (emphasis mine):  
"EPA Facts is a project of the Environmental Policy Alliance dedicated to highlighting the high cost of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory actions and peeling back the layers of secrecy surrounding the agency’s actions."
Got it.  But it's a bit sneaky about the whole thing.  Note that his site ranks highly for obvious queries like: 

    [ facts about the EPA

Notice that the "Environmental Protection Agency" and the "Environmental Policy Alliance" the same acronym, and they have fairly similar logos:  

This is a bit of a subterfuge--almost as though they're hoping you won't notice.  So it's not a surprise that they're very critical of the real EPA.  

To get a bit more background on EPAFacts, I did a search for:  

     [ Environmental Policy Alliance ] 

and found several articles (Huffington Post, Food and Water Watch, The Journal of American Architects, Source Watch) that describe EPAFacts.com as a "...A front group for Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm Berman & Company..."  

Reading a bit more, I found that multiple articles describing EPAFacts.com as an "astroturf operation" run by Rick Berman's lobbying organization.  (The word "astroturf" here means to create the impression of grassroots support for an issue by masking the real sponsors of a website or article.)  

Is there really a connection between the Environmental Policy Alliance and Berman & Co?  

Well, where are they located?  

A click on the Berman & Company website ("About us") tells us that their address is: 

      Berman & Co. 
     1090 Vermont Avenue, NW, Suite 800
     Washington, DC 20005

while the address of the EPAfacts.com (found at the bottom of their web page) is: 

     Environmental Policy Alliance 
     1090 Vermont Avenue, NW, Suite 800
     Washington, DC 20005

Notice the similarity?  That's pretty convincing evidence that EPAFacts is a "project" of Berman & Co.  It's not exactly an independent organization.  

Who backs the site?  In this case, it's the DC lobbying firm Berman & Co, which has made quite a reputation for itself as an anti-environment, anti-union, and pro-energy  firm.  Should you believe the articles published by EPAFacts.com?  Based on this analysis, I'd take a long, hard look at the claims made  there.  It's clear they have an anti-Environmental Protection Agency agenda.  

3. A favorite topic in certain circles is the question of whether the USA has actually landed a person on the lunar surface.  Here's one YouTube video that makes a series of arguments to claim that it was all a fake.  How would you assess the credibility of this video?  

I know, I know... this is pretty silly, but lets take it seriously as an example of what you would do to check this out.  

Deb & Anne mentioned using the "5 W's"  (who, when, where, why, what) and the CRAP mnemonic (CRAP stands for Currency, Reliability, Accuracy, Purpose (or Point-of-view)).  

Let's check out this video using this guideline.  

Who?  The video author is Shane Dawson.  The obvious search on his name tells us that he's an entertainer (video blogger, author, actor, sketch comedian, singer, songwriter and film director).  All of his work is comedic in style.  And there's no evidence in any of his online information that he's ever worked in science (let alone rocket science).  

When?  (Currency?)   Publication date is May 31, 2016.  

Why? (Purpose?)  When watching the video, it's pretty clear that Dawson made the video to push his "conspiracy theory" (his term) about the moon landing.  If you ignore the literal hand-waving and arch tone of voice, all he's doing is repeating questions that have been raised before by other faked-lunar-landing conspiracy writers.  

What? (Reliability?)  In the video, he repeats the claims that others have raised -- (1) the flag waves in the absence of air, (2) there seem to be no stars in the background, (3) the letter C is apparently inscribed on a moon rock, (4) there is an apparent reflection of a stage light on the astronaut's helmet. (And so on.)  

Let's check what NASA has to say with this query: 

     [ site:NASA.gov lunar landing hoax ] 

And, as you'd expect (and as the hoaxers would also expect), there's a good deal of evidence to support the lunar landing.  You can see a large collection of evidence at NASA such as images of the landing sites as seen from other satellites.  

For example -- this image is from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), Sept 5, 2011.  This is an image taken from space, looking down at where the astronauts walked and drove around during their lunar mission in December, 1972.  

Image of Apollo 17 landing site.  Taurus-Littrow highlands.P/C: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU
Purpose?  I'll let you look at all of the evidence in these sites, but really it boils down to credibility of the source.  Can a comedy actor in a slightly bawdy YouTube video convince you that the moon landing was faked?  Probably not--certainly without compelling evidence, and in watching the "evidence" presented, it's all either very marginal, or easily explained with simpler stories than the one he's pushing.  

The purpose of Dawson's video was to promote his personal brand, and to be another video is his "Conspiracy Theories" chain.  (He has lots of other conspiracy theory videos as well, which also damages his credibility.)  

If this whole topic interests you, the Wikipedia article about the "Moon Landing Conspiracy Theories" has a pretty decent writeup of the positions, the people, and what really happened.  Or you could read the Snopes.com debunking of the lunar landing hoax.  

But I'll close this topic with another YouTube video from probably the most visible fact-checkers of our generation: Mythbusters.    

This video shows the Mythbusters team going to an observatory in Arizona to shine a laser at the moon and see the pulse bounce back from the retroreflector that the Apollo astronauts left on the lunar surface.    

Who backs the site?  To put it another way, how credible is this YouTube video about the lunar landing hoax?  I'd say it's pretty non-credible.  The author has no experience in assessing evidence, is simply repeating other hoax claims, and his analysis of the evidence is very weak.  There are multiple far more credible sites that counter each of the points presented as evidence.  (And, overall, the video just doesn't present very good arguments--each of the points presented is argued as "isn't it obvious?"  Which isn't a strong strategy for making a credible case.)  

And it's really hard to fake that laser pulse returning from the moon after the right amount of time.

Search Lessons

We live in a time when a huge amount of information is available via a quick Google search. And we also live in a time when it's really easy to publish almost any crazy notion and have it seem authoritative.  

That's why the skill of assessing credibility is such an important skill to have.  It's really not optional.  As we saw, the simplest queries can lead to content that you should definitely checkout before accepting as fact. 

     [ EPA facts ] leads to EPAFacts.com (see above) 

     [ dihydrogen monoxide ] leads to a spoof site that many have read as correct 

     [ Holocaust historical review ] leads to a Holocaust denial site

I could go on. 

You might ask why Google (or Bing, or other search engines) don't just filter out the "obviously wrong" content.  The reason is a bit complicated. 

At this point in time, it's very hard for search engines to know exactly what is true or not. As an example, the dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) site is really a brilliant spoof site because most of what's claimed on the site is actually correct.  For instance, DHMO is dangerous because "Death [can be] due to accidental inhalation of DHMO, even in small quantities."  That's actually true--water inhalation can kill you. Or, DHMO is "Often associated with killer cyclones in the U.S. Midwest and elsewhere..."  Again, that's true, but we don't normally think about water in that way.  

The problem here is that the tone of writing on the site is explicitly exaggerated for effect.  And that exaggeration is currently a difficult thing for search engines to parse.  

What's more, it's really difficult to say with certainty what's true with respect to many topics.  Are fighters in Syria "freedom fighters" or "terrorists"?  It depends on which side you're on. Is acupuncture an effective medical treatment, or is it purely a placebo?  Again, it depends on what you accept as evidence (and, to a certain extent, where you're doing the search from).  

So for the time being, the responsibility for determining whether or not to believe an article, a book, or a web page result is still really up to you.  

This has always been true.  But now that it's so cheap for anyone to publish (by putting up a web site), there's a lot more questionable content.  

You, as a responsible SearchResearcher, need to know this.  

We'll talk more about how to assess online content in your online research--but don't ever skip this important step!!  

Search on, credibly. 


  1. Thanks Dr. Russell!

    I really appreciate that you do all the Challenges. And specially like these ones because other ones we can solve searching and using tools or maybe by luck. And, in this ones we need to make a process and make analysis for example.

    I like a lot the answer you just share and the detail. Plenty of new tools and Search Lessons.

  2. While the original article you gave us came from an unreliable website for the Duarte issue, this was a real court case with the last countesuits having its final decision made June 10 2016. It had to do with the fact that the past exemption for farmers plowing "wetland" areas on their own land no longer exists. Located the decisions in Lexis Nexis. While the original article had a bias - the issue was real. Sometimes it pays to look a little deeper

    1. Can you tell us how you connected the EPAFacts article with the lawsuit? (I know about LexisNexis, but not everyone does. how did you go from the article to the LexisNexis search?) I agree there was an original story behind the website; the question there is whether or not the farmer knew he was violating wetlands regulations or not. (You're right--digging deeper is a great thing to do. Can you share with us what/how you did that?)

    2. We also looked at the court case. We did a search on google and from news articles found out info on the case. using landowners name and added in EPA and got several hits. Very interesting story.