Finding targets for skeptical analysis via RBUTR

One of the interesting side-effects of the anti-misinformation tools I wrote about on Sunday may be better availability of metrics about what misinformation is actually making the rounds.  That could be very useful for skeptics.

I often wonder whether skeptics are staying focused on the right topics. Skeptics are reactive. We often find ourselves responding to news articles, social media trends and other ephemera needing critical analysis. While this is necessary, there is always the danger that we might be distracted from other topics needing us. Those neglected topics could affect equally as many people but are not getting media attention. This is why I often talk about the long tail and focusing on a niche, because the more skeptics who do that, the better overall topic coverage we can get.

I was reminded of this while listening to this week’s Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, in which host Steven Novella pointed out that although the pseudoscience of neuromuscular dentistry has existed for half a century, there is “very little written about it, skeptically.” I’ve also seen evidence of this when responding to earnest requests for information on the James Randi Educational Foundation’s forum.  Requests occasionally arrive there for a skeptical analysis on some product that has been around for quite some time, and yet nothing appropriately critical about it can be found online.

Let me give you a quick example of how information generated by one of those new tools might help us see whether the focus problem exists and solve it at the same time.

Over last weekend I spoke via Skype with Shane Greenup, one of the developers behind RBUTR. We were talking about his tremendous progress so far in creating the test version of the product which is already up and running. I encourage you to try it out.

As you recall from my earlier post, it is a browser plug-in that helps you link directly to rebuttals of questionable material. The linkages are currently 100% crowd-sourced by the users of the product. When you land on a page that has a rebuttal, the RBUTR button in your browser lights up to alert you to material that rebuts what you are reading. That of course can include skeptic content.

But often (especially now, early in the life of the product) there isn’t a rebuttal in the system yet for a given page.  Sounds like the cases I mentioned above, right?  Well, Shane reminded me of a feature of the product that could be quite handy here.  It is a link that lets user request a rebuttal of a page that currently does not have one.  It looks like this:

Screen shot showing "Request the rbutr community find rebuttals for this page" link in RBUTR.

These requests are collected on a publicly available page on the RBUTR site that lists all the requests and allows other users to express interest in them too.  Now keep in mind that right now RBUTR is only in beta, and only has a few hundred users at most.  So this page is probably not reaching its full potential yet.

But as I write this, the second entry on this list is a misleading post by noted quack and occasional anti-vaccine campaigner “Dr. Sears” titled “The Truth About Skin Cancer: It Is NOT Caused By The Sun, You NEED Sun For Vitamin D.”  As is common for quackery articles, it combines a provocative and incorrect title with a few grains of truth as well as some potentially bad advice.

It’s not 100% quackery, but it’s bad enough that people could be getting the wrong idea from it. Whoever requested a rebut of this article seems correct, I see no good addressing of it in the skeptical literature. Perhaps it is not outrageous enough to attract a skeptic’s attention?

And aside from that link to RENSE (which I assure you has a NOFOLLOW tag per my best practice recommendations) there are at least 18 other copies of this article on other pseudoscience, conspiracy theory and alt-med websites.  Clearly this article gets plenty of exposure. It could use a good skeptical critique, so that when members of the public ask about it, skeptics have something to point them to. (And of course, that critique should be entered into RBUTR!)

I think this is just a single early example of what could be a very valuable new work-flow for skeptics. Skeptical bloggers may come to rely on RBUTR requests (and similar features like it) to get the pulse of what average people need skeptical assistance in understanding.

I believe as those other misinformation fighting tools come online (especially the ones that are open source or are otherwise sharing their data) there are going to be other great opportunities like this to get good measurements and metrics with with to drive skepticism.  Let’s keep an eye out for those opportunities.

And if you’re a skeptical blogger looking for ideas, be sure to check the RBUTR requests page occasionally.

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About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

4 Responses to Finding targets for skeptical analysis via RBUTR

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