Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Googling the Wikipedias

One of the podcasts I listen to every week is the Naked Scientist. In fact, I listen to a number of their podcasts, but the one  I'm referring to here is the one from local radio.

Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk have a weekly segment every Friday morning on Redi Tlhabi's show. Redi has a half-hour talk to Dr. Chris Smith, the original Naked Scientist during which listeners are invited to call in and ask science-related questions.

Chris is fantastic at it. His instant recall of an enormous variety of scientific facts and concepts is very impressive; And I particularly like the way he handles people who call in with questions about pseudoscientific topics. He's always gentle and sincere, and never condescending. He's really, really good at it.

What drives me up the wall, however, is how many of the questions are stupid.

They say there's no such thing as a stupid question. I disagree. If you're calling into a national radio show and making millions of people listen to you ask a question that you could have answered yourself with 30 seconds of googling, it's a stupid question.

I'd say that about 80% of the questions asked of the Naked Scientist fall into this category, ranging from people who don't know that the Earth orbits the sun to people who think Homeopathy is medicine. I'm assuming that these aren't performance art, like most of the submissions to Yahoo! Answers.

It's politically incorrect to scorn people for being ignorant. And I'm sympathetic to that position. I agree with the sentiment of this XKCD comic, which puts forward that it's more rewarding to tell someone something for the first time, than it is to make fun of them for not knowing it.

And I'm not trying to make fun of anyone here, really. I know full well that the education system failed many of us, particularly when it comes to science. My complaint here is more about the lack of self-sufficiency that seems to be prevalent, at least among the callers of the Naked Scientist.

Let me give you an example. One guy called in a week or two ago and asked Chris "Why is [some everyday occurrence] called a phenomenon?"

Chris was taken aback. The question was so stupid that he didn't understand it. After asking the caller to repeat it, he realised that the caller didn't understand what the word 'phenomenon' meant. Chris graciously told him what it meant, and swiftly moved onto a brief and elegant explanation of the everyday occurrence in question.

Now, this caller was a grown man. Obviously he wasn't educated, but he was at least clever enough to listen to a radio show called The Naked Scientist, to operate a phone, and to formulate a question. Did it not occur to this guy that maybe his understanding of the word 'phenomenon' was incorrect? Could he not have spent 30 seconds looking up the definition of the word in a dictionary or on Google before calling the radio station and wasting all our time?

It occurs to me that I come across this kind of attitude all the time. People I deal with daily (and I probably do this myself) would rather ask someone else for an answer than try to find it themselves. The number of questions I've been asked about obvious and easy-to-find things has driven me, on more than one occasion, to respond with a link to Let Me Google That For You.

I applaud Chris and the rest of the Naked Scientist team for their patience in dealing with callers of this calibre. And if you're thinking of calling the Naked Scientist, do us all a favour: check Wikipedia first.


  1. Owen, I LOVE asking you stupid questions, because you always have an answer. Sometimes I ask you stupid questions just to see how you will choose to be nice to me.

  2. I get your complaint about self sufficiency but South Africa has one of the worst internet penetrations in the world. I have several times seen stats hovering around 10% mark. So I googled it and the first hit was 13.9%.

    Even if that is not an accurate number it is still a frighteningly low one. So for some people googling is not an option. Not that this is the case for all callers to 702. I have heard some some questions that sound like they are crafted out of proud and belligerent ignorance. And some that are is awesome and you would have to spend the day googling to answer. Add to that the fact that many journal articles are hidden behind a pay wall and science journalism is crappy and you have to rely on science bloggers as "trusted" sources for science information. Those of us who are science and sceptical thinking enthusiasts know where to look for resources for reliable info. But for the science alliterate there's the Naked Scientist. The science literate can ask their fancy questions at the Speak to the Scientist talks etc.

    So lets say I am wrong and it is because they are lazy sacks. For every fool that phones in there are probably 100 with the same silly question that are listening and are to lazy to even ask. So science info delivered by a classy patient chap like Chris Smith probably goes really far. Further I would guess than many of the wonderful and brilliant science writers on the net.

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