Adventures in Ethics and Science

Regular readers will recall that this is not the first time the Free-Ride family has discussed skepticism and trust.

Dr. Free-Ride: You two are both exploring the internet more lately, and you know that one of the things people use the internet for is to sell you stuff, right?

Younger offspring: Yeah.

Elder offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: So how do you tell if the people selling you stuff are telling the truth about what they’re selling?


Elder offspring: Rave reviews about the item.

Dr. Free-Ride: Rave reviews about the item from whom?

Elder offspring: From … people who bought the item.

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmm. How do you tell if the people reviewing the item really bought it?

Elder offspring: Hmm.

Dr. Free-Ride: Actually, can you think of a situation where someone reviewing the item might not be the most trustworthy person to get a review from?

Elder offspring: Let’s see … If they have a record of stealing, snatching, or paid to do something.

Dr. Free-Ride: Can you say more about that?

Elder offspring: Like, being bribed to say good things about the item.

Dr. Free-Ride: I see. What if they weren’t bribed exactly but — say someone posted a review on one of your Harvest Moon forums about a new Harvest Moon game and you found out later that the person posting the review worked for the company that makes Harvest Moon?

Elder offspring: Then I couldn’t just go on that review. I’d have to talk to some people who played the game but didn’t work for Marvelous Interactive.

Dr. Free-Ride: Why wouldn’t it be enough for you to have the Marvelous Interactive employee tell you, “Look, it’s a really good game!”?

Elder offspring: Well, Marvelous Interactive is in Japan, and the Japanese people who play the games might have different opinions of them than most of the American players. And if they work for the company that makes it, they might be lying. But all the Harvest Moon games I’ve played have been pretty good.

Dr. Free-Ride: I’m not even sure that they’d necessarily be lying. But the people who work for the company that makes the game have an interest in you doing what?

Elder offspring: Buying the game.

Dr. Free-Ride: What if there was someone who was making a lot of posts to these forums you frequent, and you started to feel like, “Wow, here’s someone whose opinion I think I can trust,” and then you found out later that that person was an employee of the company making the games she was reviewing, and she had hidden that fact?

Elder offspring: Then I would shun her! And then not buy the game.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, it might still be a good game. But …

Elder offspring: … I’d want to hear about what it was like from someone else who played it and who wasn’t trying to hide the fact that they worked for the company that makes it.

Dr. Free-Ride: This kind of situation is sometimes called a conflict of interest. Sometimes the people who are telling you stuff, even if they believe it, may have a strong reason to believe that stuff themselves that doesn’t apply to you.

Younger offspring: Like the reason that they want you to buy the game so their company will make money.

Dr. Free-Ride: So my question is, what kind of information do you want about someone on the internet who’s telling you “This is a great product!” or “These are the facts!”? What kind of information do you need to know before you take their word for it?

Elder offspring: I don’t know.

Dr. Free-Ride: If someone told you, “This new movie is the best movie ever!” would you believe them automatically, or would you need to know more?

Younger offspring: I’d want to see the movie, or toy, or game, or whatever myself so I could decide whether I liked it.

Dr. Free-Ride: You trust your own opinion more than other people’s opinions anyway, huh?

Younger offspring: Mmm-hmm. I won’t trust them until I actually see it myself.

Dr. Free-Ride: I see. No product reviews for you. You just want the products.

Younger offspring: Not all of them.

Dr. Free-Ride: What if there’s someone on the internet who’s not actually trying to sell you a product, but rather they’re trying to tell you what the facts are? What if someone has a webpage that says it’s actually good for kids your ages to drink a lot of coffee? I see from your incredulous looks at me that right off, you’d be skeptical of that particular claim, but maybe you think caffeine isn’t good for kids because the grown-ups are plotting to keep kids from drinking their coffee. What kinds of information would you need to be able to evaluate a claim like that on the internet?

Younger offspring: I don’t know.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, there’s a lot of information on the web, a lot of pages claiming here’s what you need to know about health, here’s what you need to know to make a wart go away, here’s what you need to know to build a tree house, here’s what you need to know about dinosaurs or the environment or space. How do you tell which information out there is good information?

Younger offspring: Mmmm …

Dr. Free-Ride: Do you have any ideas? Because if you don’t, I’m a little scared to let you play in the internet.

Younger offspring: What was the question again?

Dr. Free-Ride: How do you tell which of the websites that are out there are giving reasonable information that’s based on facts?

Elder offspring: Google?

Younger offspring: Wikipedia.

Dr. Free-Ride: Did you know that Google actually has sponsored search results? Do you know what that means?

Elder offspring: It means that they’re paid to show those results.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yes, it means someone has paid Google money to put their link at the top of the search results. Of course, Google labels those sponsored results so you can tell which ones someone is paying for you to see. You can tell that they’re not necessarily high in the search results because a lot of people are linking to them.

Younger offspring: Can you check to see if some things on Google are not sponsored?

Dr. Free-Ride: There are plenty of things on Google that are not sponsored. But the other thing you should know about Google — do you know how they determine the order, more or less, of the pages in your search results?

Elder offspring: No.

Dr. Free-Ride: It’s by how many other sites link to it.

Elder offspring: Oh.

Dr. Free-Ride: And sometimes other sites link to it because it’s true, or credible, or based on good arguments and good facts that people have been able to check, but sometimes people link to a site on the internet to point and laugh and say, “This is ridiculous!” But the pointing and laughing doesn’t necessarily show up on the page that a lot of other pages linked to to point and laugh.

Younger offspring: So you can’t tell the links in Google are good just because they’re near the top of the list.

Dr. Free-Ride: This brings us back to the larger question. There’s a lot of people out there on the internet putting a lot of things forward as true. What kind of strategies do you guys have for figuring out what you can trust?

Elder offspring: I don’t know.

Dr. Free-Ride: You spend a lot of time on the internet to not have a strategy about this.

Elder offspring: I really only go to a few particular sites where we talk about games.

Dr. Free-Ride: I guess that’s true. You’ve been hanging out in forums. Do you feel like you’ve had a chance to get to know the other posters there?

Elder offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: Are there some whose opinions you trust more than others?

Elder offspring: Yeah.

Dr. Free-Ride: How do you form that judgment about whose opinion you can trust and whose you can’t?

Elder offspring: Well, we’re talking about what we like or don’t like about particular games. I basically have my own opinions about the games I’ve played. The other people whose opinions are pretty similar on the games I’ve played are the ones whose opinions I look for about the games I haven’t played yet. But we could still end up disagreeing about those once I play them.

Dr. Free-Ride: Trust could be trickier here, since most of what you’re talking about is subjective judgments about games.

Younger offspring: I post on that forum, too.

Dr. Free-Ride: I didn’t know that. I do know that you have conversations in real life with your schoolmates about stuff. Do you ever talk about who’s a good teacher, or who’s a mean teacher, or who doesn’t play fair on the playground?

Younger offspring: Yeah, I talk about that with my actual friends — the ones who are my friends all the time, no matter who’s watching, not nice when they feel like it and mean when their other friends are around. Some of my classmates lie.

Dr. Free-Ride: Are you able to recognize when they’re lying?

Younger offspring: Well, I recognize now who’s going to lie to me.

Dr. Free-Ride: Maybe they don’t always lie, but when you found out that they lied to you before, how did it change things?

Younger offspring: If I catch them in a lie, the next time they try to tell me something, I feel like they’re lying.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, there are some people who are convincing liars. You think you can trust them and then find out that you can’t, and that really hurts.

Elder offspring: Trust can break.

Comments

  1. #1 F
    July 9, 2010

    Wow, that is a really cool conversation to have with children about trust relationships on the internet. And quite a few adults, as well.

    I need to link to this post somewhere else now, so I’ll be moseying on over there for the moment. ;)

  2. #2 JafafaHots
    July 10, 2010

    What a neat family. I’m envious. :)

    unless… you made it all up and you’re lying!?!?!
    Cause it IS the internet. :)

    Thanks.

  3. #3 Helen Huntingdon
    July 10, 2010

    Fantastic post.

  4. #4 Shaun
    July 10, 2010

    You know, I don’t know that I would do much better in that conversation. I’d like to think that I have a pretty good judge of what is and is not trustworthy on the Internet, but it’s basically just an instinctual thing.

    Tragically, I’m forced to concede that a lot of times it centers around the fact that I’m willing to trust people that are within a certain degree of variance from my own opinion, which is NOT a good metric! This, of course, fails when I try to point out to some of my coworkers why some of the sites they rely on for news are likely to not be trustworthy. I’ll point out things like poor website design (suggesting they aren’t “serious” enough to put forward a good face), tone, lack of links to “credible” sites, etc. But when the whole point of these sites is “bringing you the news the media is too scared to!” or something like that, well, such arguments tend to fall on deaf ears anyway. You ought to do a post dedicated just to this sometime!

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    July 10, 2010

    Have you had any experience with eBay? There you send money to some unknown person in the hopes that they will send you an article which is exactly as they described it.

  6. #6 Prometheus
    July 12, 2010

    Wow. It sounds almost as if you invented that entire conversation to add credence to a tenuous former position using the extent to which people (incorrectly) attribute virtue to children and veracity to motherhood (again incorrectly) as a means of emotionally manipulating your audience.

    Nyaaa.

    You couldn’t possibly do such a thing.

    Ethicist.

    Check.

  7. #7 EK
    July 13, 2010

    Prometheus – this isn’t the first time that Janet has posted conversations with her kids, on a variety of topics, some similar.  This one seems in character with the rest.  I don’t really understand what the basis for your comment is.

  8. #8 Prometheus
    July 13, 2010

    My objection is not about how to discuss science or ethics with children and that really isn’t what her post was about.

    In this particular instance she is using an established popular device to support her previously challenged position on conflicts-of-interest.

    I have however read the others and they too have a rather tin ring.

    Dear Professor Janet—

    I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it on Dr. Free-Ride’s blog, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

    Virginia O’Hewlett-Packard

    *to be read with adorable speech defect*

    Even if she is faithfully chronicling these astoundingly unlikely conversations they are designed to illicit iconographic emotional responses in support of positions that should stand alone without the appeal-to-emotion fallacy.

    This is particularly true when asserted by someone who represents herself to be an ethicist.

    It’s exploitative.

    Did she defend her own dissertation or did she hire a very fluffy foundling bunny with abnormally large eyes?

  9. #9 EK
    July 13, 2010

    Maybe it’s because I’m autistic, but I don’t find the gratuitous attribution of mental states, or reading of ulterior motivation and intent into statements that can stand on their own – presumably on the basis of Janet’s perceived integrity, given her stance on a particular issue (or whatever) – to be appropriate. Personally, I really wish that people on both sides of the Pepsi debacle would stick to the facts.

  10. #10 david
    July 13, 2010

    Had to think about this one, thought provoking, not like the bunny posts. Where do these attitudes come from? I can only speculate. I do remember one saying one time, “because I live with you.” So one is not in the darkling wood.

    But reality for other children and adults is starker. Most adults live a lie all day long, all their life. Their job is about puffery and flattery and at times direct fraud, by which we can conclude that these children are not from such a family. The reality therefore is that most adults in the U.S. have given up their moral integrity long ago and found reasons for doing so, such as the kids need cereal for breakfast, go ahead, lie, claw, crawl, fit in at all costs, get ahead. In the US these persons are by far the majority. Deceit, their own and others, is a way of life. Not good, death of a salesman.

    So from what different environment could these attitudes come? A secure life leaning on an institution, no need to lie, hm. Historically, western, such an institution has been the church, or church connected, or a pension from the state and nobility structure. Hold it, not so fast. No need to lie? Really? You have your answer.

    Anybody get a job with PepsiCo and your attitude would change, and the children’s along with you. Somebody at PepsiCo was zapped here, we don’t know who, perhaps wrongly.

    The implications are far-reaching. For example, the children won’t be hooking up with the children of used car salesmen whose integrity is compromised. They may hesitate to take a job except in a secure area, government, institution, church.

    Then again, maybe not. Concerns about conflict of interest may be found quite charming, appealing, and quaint on Broadway, where the assumption is that everyone is on the make. Children can surprise us.

    It’s the gingerbread man again, isn’t it? But if you have taken one towel from a hotel and they know it, you are dealing with the Pearl Poet’s Green Knight, about ethics and an adventure.

    It’s just my opinion, considered, but after thought I don’t see anything wrong with taking on PepsiCo, just make them reveal. And with a little digging and cross-examination I think I could find a conflict of interest for most if not all science bloggers, which they have not revealed and which often they are not honest enough to recognize as a conflict so they don’t call it that.

    Hope you and your readers find these thoughts provoking in return.

  11. #11 Pen
    July 13, 2010

    My university teaches how to evaluate the quality of information on the Internet in several of its courses. I think they’ve made some of that available for free, here: http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=397577&section=1.4.1

    I’m not sure if it compares well with the fairly rigorous and field specific case studies we had to do, but it might actually be quite good for older kids and people with a general interest.

  12. #12 ranggaw0636
    July 16, 2010

    This is a good conversation about trust in the internet, it’s good think tough, sometimes i just send money without veryfying wetherthe seller trustworthy or not

  13. #13 DuWayne
    July 16, 2010

    Prometheus –

    I am intrigued (much as I am intrigued by the motives vandals) as to exactly what would indicate to you that Dr. Free-Ride is making things up. We can go into your assertion that chronicling such “alleged” conversations is exploitative in a moment.

    You seem to believe that these discussions with her children are highly unlikely. Why? Do you simply have no experience with particularly clever children? Such as the children of parents who are particularly focused on teaching their children critical thinking skills and who thus talk about things like this on a regular basis?

    Just because your own experience with children may be limited to the children of parents who are either incapable of having such discussions with their kids, or just can’t be bothered to, doesn’t mean that experience can be generalized. My own experience is that when you take the time to talk to children – very clearly and with the willingness to spend as long as it takes to make sure they get it, they are capable of learning a lot of relatively complex abstractions at a very early age.

    My eight year old, for example, understood how whales evolved when he was four. Not because understanding this is intuitive to a four year old, nor because of the picture book. Rather because I spent nearly two hours right then, and many hours over the following few weeks discussing it. Looking it up online also brought the accuracy of books and the changing nature of evidence in science into the mix, because the picture book was mistaken by virtue of being out of date. Rather than trying to avoid it, I dove headlong into it because though that made the discussion far more complicated than I was prepared for, it was a great opportunity.

    Yes, trying to discuss that sort of thing to very young children is difficult. It sometimes means several hours of conversation that wanders all around it, but ultimately focuses on the central theme of a concept you’re trying to get across. It also means taking all the opportunities you can to reinforce those ideas – sometimes taking a given opportunity (read – example) to discuss more than one idea that can reasonably be applied to it.

    So no, conversations like the one Janet describes here is not the least bit unlikely. Not when you’re talking about children who have a parent who is willing and able to talk to their children like this on a regular basis.

    Given that it is not unlikely, just what has Janet said or done previously, to indicate that she is as dishonest as you seem to believe she is? Note I am not suggesting that she has proven herself entirely trustworthy, as such things go. I would just like to see some evidence to support your very serious, implied accusation that she is making shit up. You are implying she is a liar and that is something that I take rather seriously.

    As for being exploitative, you are totally grasping here. Normal people have conversations with other people, including their children, about things that they are thinking about at a given moment. It is especially likely they will talk to their children about things that involve abstractions they believe are important for their children to understand.

    When to trust people with whom your only contact is through the written word, is extremely important for kids. Whether one might like it or not, we are living in an increasingly digital world. My own experience is nothing compared to what my children will face – do face. I believe that as a parent I have a profound responsibility to ensure that my kids understand that, for many reasons, you can’t always trust what you hear. I press that home at every opportunity – most especially when it was me who passed along erroneous information.

    So when something happens that makes such conversations relevant, those conversations happen – whether I talk about what sparked the thinking on it or not. Choosing to write about it on the blog isn’t exploitation, it is of interest to other parents. For my part, it is interesting because I like knowing that I’m not alone in having interesting discussions with my kids – and of course because sometimes there are interesting ideas on how to present certain concepts to my own children.

    Of course it is likely you will simply decide that I too am a liar, sans any evidence to indicate this is actually true. But I really loathe letting accusations such as yours float about without challenging them.