Friday, October 31, 2014

Answer: Notice anything odd about these sites?

This week's Challenge was to say what's odd about these three really interesting sites.  For each site, the question is the same:  What strikes you as odd about this web site?  If you run across this site, what triggers you to dig a little more deeply into what's going on here?  

This kind of thing happens all the time whey you're doing your research.  You see a site and almost instantly make a kind of provisional credibility assessment. (See ref [1] below: TL;DR--you have less than 1 second to make a good first impression. Your mom was right: first impressions count.)  

See anything odd about these sites?  

RYT Hospital
1.  RYT Hospital  A new hospital describes its services.
Is this a real hospital?  How can you tell one way or the other?
What tells you that it's real?  Does anything make you suspicious?

When I first found the RYT Hospital site, I was very impressed. It's got gorgeous graphics and a slick interaction style.  Someone clearly spent a lot of time crafting this site to make it have a high gloss, high-tech feel to it. 
I was frankly impressed... until I saw the section on "male pregnancy."  THAT seemed pretty suspicious.  (As a scuba diver, I know that male seahorses carry their young, but humans?  Really?)  
That extraordinary claim required some extraordinary support.  So my first move was to check on the RYT Hospital from some independent source.  I did the obvious search to second-source something about RYT Hospital: 
     [ RYT Hospital ] 
and quickly found that it's prominently featured in lists of online hoaxes.  

And if you just watch the suggestions that pop-up as you search, there's a bit of a hint right there: 

and the fact that I couldn't find a legit street address for them made me suspicious.  ("Avenue of the Americas" is AKA 6th Avenue in NYC.  A quick check shows no hospitals actually on 6th Ave.)  
If you keep digging, pretty quickly you'll find that "Elizabeth Preatner" is the only MD whose name you'll find on the site.  Checking into her (which is a great credibility checking step) reveals that she's pretty sketchy as well.  
Unfortunately, she also appears in the book "Case Studies in Biomedical Research Ethics," a serious text from MIT Press--a publisher that doesn't usually condone hoaxes.  So what's going on?  
Answer:  Keep digging.  
On the other hand, Elizabeth Preatner also appears in the book "Teaching Information Fluency:  How to teach students to be efficient, ethical and critical information consumers," a book all about debunking such misleading sites.  (If you're interested in this kind of critical analysis, this book is well worth checking out.)  
Conclusion: Pretty bogus.  But it is beautifully done. 

2.  Ann Kirkpatrick runs for re-election.
Does anything strike you as odd about this site?
What can you do to verify that it's an accurate site?
Is it?
The first thing that tipped me off here was the dissonance between the appearance of the site (looks like a fundraising site) and the language of the site.  Everything is fine until you read the negative language that's in play here:  " Pelosi's back pocket.." or "Kirkpatrick is a huge embarassment.." or "..she doesn't even do her job.."  
This all sounded really out of joint.  
So I did a WHOIS search on the site name and found this: 

It doesn't take long to find out that this site was created by  Look them up and you'll find:  "The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is a political committee devoted to increasing the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives." 
This is classic political dirty tricks: Setting up a bogus website that spreads negative information about the competition.  (It helps to notice that Ann Kirkpatrick is a Democrat.)  
If you actually click on the big DONATE button, you're immediately taken to a web page that clearly says what their goal is.  

Conclusion:  Bogus, and a bit of political trickery besides.  

3.  Dihydrogen Monoxide  Some chemical compounds are deadly.
Is dihydrogen monoxide inherently dangerous?
How would you know? 

 When I first saw this I was surprised that there was something that sounded toxic, but that I'd never heard of before.  How could this be?  

I have to admit that I picked up on the questionable nature of this site pretty quickly.  I thought "So what IS dihydrogen monoxide?"  And picked the nomenclature apart: 2 hydrogens with one oxygen atom.  That's H2O!  

That's what I did.  But suppose you didn't notice that right off the bat.  What would you do to check this? 

I scanned the pages, clicking around a bit to just check things out.  That's when I started to notice some things that were a bit off.  

Klein bottles for sale?  (You could look them up: it's a mathematical construction that you can't actually make in the real world, although you can buy representations of them.  Regardless, it's incompatible with the point of the web site.) 

Then there's the statement at the bottom of the page:  "Content veracity not implied."  

Finally, I clicked through the press kit information.  (Login: press, Password: press.)  

And there, the author, Tom Way, fesses up.  He created the site in late 1997 as a way to vent steam about the ways in which reporting about chemistry was being mishandled.  He made the site to point out a bit of critical thinking skills.  It's a hoax site with a message:  Read these things carefully.  

In a nice mini-essay, Preston MacDougall writes about how this site nearly took in the Aliso Viejo city council:  Chemical Eye on Scientific Literacy 

Conclusion:  Bogus, but done with an eye towards teaching us about overblown language, and the value of careful reading.  

Search Lessons:  

You've probably heard these before, but they bear repeating.  

1.  If something sounds too good (or amazing) to be true, it probably isn't.  Check your facts.  Look up the person.  Verify the address.  Male pregnancy?  Amazing.  Check it out before you check it into your brain. 

2.  Dig a little deeper.   We've talked about using WHOIS before.  It's a basic skill whenever you run into a site that you don't know about.  Make sure you know who's posting that content.  (Quick summary:  [ whois ] click on one of the links offering this service, then enter the web site address to find out who's running the site.  

3.  You can learn a lot by looking around.  .. as Yogi Berra said.  In the DHMO case, there's lots of things to be learned by discovery.  When you see a site like the one for Ann Kirkpatrick, dig a little bit.  If you click through the "Donation" button, you're immediately taken to a clearly identified site that's from the opposition.  (Just don't give them your credit card, and careful with those autofill form things.)

And I'm happy to repeat Fred's link here:  The Google post about "How not to get tricked online"  (It's not really about searching, but generally good advice about online good practices.)  

Or.. this poster I saw in the train station in Edinburgh last week.  More good advice. 

Search on!  

[1]  Lindgaard, Gitte, et al. "Attention web designers: You have 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression!." Behaviour & information technology 25.2 (2006): 115-126.


  1. Good post, but I take exception with the small Facebook and Twitter icons in the upper left corner of a public-service poster designed to promote cybersavvy. Through its recent unethical experimentation on users, Facebook has destroyed their credibility and moved themselves over to the part of the internet that ought to be scrutinized - like the H20 hoax or a political operative's website. This isn't something that Dan did - the Cyber Streetwise organization in the UK did it - nevertheless, Facebook no longer deserves to be referenced in passing as part of another point, as though they are simply part of the furniture. In acknowledgment of the importance of vetting the credibility of a source, here is a citation from the Wall Street Journal.

    1. Thanks, OneCommentWriter. Excellent point. I'm going to leave the images as-is, but you're correct.