“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Louis Brandeis (Other People’s Money: and How the Bankers Use It, 1914)
Linking directly to Internet misinformation and explaining why it is wrong is skepticism’s answer to Brandeis’ sunlight. But because Google and the other search engines use hyperlinks to determine the importance of web pages, many skeptics are fearful of linking to pseudoscience and paranormal sites. They fear that doing so will help (in some small way) boost the visibility of misinformation on the Internet.
They are right. Every time we link to the sites of our cultural competitors, we give them a tiny boost up in the search engines. It’s as if we’ve contributed ten cents to a fund for them to eventually buy a billboard. Those coins eventually add up.
Search engine optimization (SEO) plays a key role in the battle between skeptics and alternative medicine. Ensuring that good skeptical material ranks highly for popular relevant search terms is an important form of outreach to people who know nothing about what science says on skeptical topics.
Yesterday I became aware of an article on this topic written by a chiropractor. I was alerted to this by the editor of the excellent EBM First website, who goes by the moniker Blue Wode. He characterized it as an attempt at a “dirty trick” but it immediately struck me as a misguided waste of time.
With a little applied skepticism, you’ll see why I thought this. Read on.
One of the hot new terms in the world of web-based services is gamification. This is when a web site is designed to add game-like features to the user experience. The idea is to take something that might be fairly tedious if it were just a simple utility, and make it fun. The form this takes varies widely from site to site, but often includes user-to-user competition scoreboards, achievement badges, unlocking of extra abilities through achievements, and so on.
Probably the most famous example is a site called Foursquare. This is a site that encourages its users to log where they are during the day. Sounds tedious, right? Why should I keep a rigorous diary of everywhere I go? But by allowing you to connect with your friends, get discounts at local businesses, and earn rewards such as badges, Foursquare turns the experience into a game.
Much of what skeptics do can be tedious or repetitive at times. We have to reiterate over and over the same evidence to new believers in several different of topic areas. We repeatedly have to debunk new versions of old scams. Many skeptics quite understandably grow weary of this and drop out of skepticism eventually. This is an ongoing problem.
And so I’ve been interested for some time in the idea of applying gamification to skepticism. There’s been an interesting development in this area. Read on…
There’s an important task we need all skeptics to perform this week. It is to help one of our own and to help the movement. Please read on for instructions on what to do, but let me explain the technology behind this first.
If you’ve been following the blogosphere for a while, you know that there was a huge problem with comment spam around 2003 or so. The problem arose because most blogs and online guestbooks allow you to supply a link to your own blog when you add a comment. Spammers realized that they could use automated robots to add comments and therefore links to the sites they were being paid to promote.
For a while the comment areas of certain blogs were almost unusable, and many bloggers were overwhelmed with the number of comments they had to delete. Exacerbating this problem was the fact that it didn’t matter if any person actually followed these spam links, it only mattered if the search engines found them. This is because search engines determine the relative importance of web sites by counting how many other sites link to them.
Naturally it was the folks at Google (and Blogger) who responded to this problem by proposing a slight change to the way links are handled. Understanding how that works requires a little background.