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How Do You Tell If Something Is True?

A recent story about language sticklers having OCD seemed too good to be true.

By
Mignon Fogarty,,
August 9, 2012
Episode #332

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The full name of this podcast is Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, and part of better writing is making sure your sources are credible, so this week, we’re going to look at a particularly well-done grammar hoax, and see how you could have avoided falling for it.

About six weeks ago, a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois named Dennis Baron posted an article on his university-hosted blog that at first glance looked like a press release about a scientific study showing that grammar sticklers have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

A Serious-Sounding Introduction

The article begins, “It used to be we thought that people who went around correcting other people’s grammar were just plain annoying. Now there’s evidence they are actually ill, suffering from a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder/oppositional defiant disorder (OCD/ODD). Researchers are calling it Grammatical Pedantry Syndrome, or GPS.”

The Hallmarks of a Scientific Study

It goes on to talk about a real gene known to be involved in language processing or development (FOXP2); it shows supposed brain scans comparing the differing responses of people with and without the made-up FOXP2 variant, and it even goes so far as to include a properly formatted citation to the fictitious Journal of Syntactic Cognition in which Baron imagines the article would have been published. 

If Only It Were True...

What a delicious story that would have been if it were true, and if you only read the headline, the first paragraph or two, and glanced at the rest, you could be forgiven for believing it was true. I first became aware of the article when it was forwarded to me by someone on Twitter who, indeed, thought it was real.

Signs of Satire

As I read the whole thing though, I became more and more suspicious. My first clue was that one of the researchers was named “Maledict.” I happened to know that this is an archaic word that means “to curse,” and I thought it was an oddly coincidental name for a language researcher. However, many a dentist is named Dr. Tooth, so I wasn’t completely thrown. (In retrospect, the other researcher's name was also suspicious. It looks Asian: Hi Ding Lo, but without pronouncing it out loud, I didn’t immediately realize that phonetically, it was “hiding low.”)

It wasn’t until the fifth paragraph, far below the fold, that I read the sentence that really set off alarm bells--a sentence that included a quotation from “Dr. Maledict” that read, “‘We don’t know what this data means.’ And then he added, ‘or is it, what these data mean?’”

That’s a particularly jocular quotation for a scientist. Still, I was finding myself wanting to believe this story was true because it would be fantastic to be able to talk about it in interviews, so I read on, hoping against all my instincts that it was real; but after a few more quotations that seemed a bit too cute, and the introduction of another commenter named Bob Lowth (the name of a prescriptivist writer, Robert Lowth, from the 1700s who is well-known to linguists), I was 95% sure it was a hoax.

Looking for Proof

At that point, I did a Google search for the Journal of Syntactic Cognition and for doctor Len Maledict. I didn’t get any hits for either of them, and I became 99% sure it was a hoax.

I wrote back to the person who had sent me the link in the first place and asked if it was a joke. Tellingly, he responded, “I Didn't look very closely. Assumed it was legit because it came to my inbox through the Writing Program Administration listserv.”

And this brings me to the first reason this was a particularly believable hoax: it came from a credible source.

How Credible Is Your Source?

Typically, I advise people to consider the credibility of the source. For example, the Stanford Cancer Center website is more credible than Aunt Mary’s Kancer Page hosted on Blogger.

In this case, however, that advice wouldn’t have helped. Dr. Baron is a real professor at the University of Illinois. The article is hosted on the university site with an illinois.edu address. Glancing at his other posts seems to indicate that he has a fondness for the odd and the funny, but his site as a whole doesn’t appear to be devoted to satire (unless I’m really missing the joke). As I just said, the person who sent it to me assumed it was true because it came over his writing program listserv.

Assessing the credibility of your source is usually a good place to start, but you can’t be certain something is true just because it’s from a credible source or got passed on to you by someone you trust.

Who Is Linking to It?

Another way to check a site’s credibility is to see who else is linking to it. You can search for this at Google by typing the word “link” followed by a colon and the URL of the page you want to check. Doing this kind of search on Baron’s post doesn’t turn up a lot, which can be a hint that it’s not credible.

However, it’s important not to read too much into skimpy results. If he were posting a real press release that was circulated prominently, there may be no reason for other sites to link to his because they could find the release elsewhere.

On the other hand, if you do this kind of search and find a lot of credible sources linking to your page, it’s a vote of confidence for the material. Again, imagine our two cancer sites: You’d probably find a lot of credible sites linking to the Stanford Cancer Center, and maybe all you’d find linking to Aunt Mary’s Kancer Page is obscure forum posts or sites that are selling nutritional supplements.

Are They Selling Anything?

This leads me to another piece of advice that I usually give that wouldn’t have been helpful in this case: Ask whether they’re selling anything. People can have a sales business and still be truthful, but you should always be especially skeptical of information on a website that is trying to sell you something. If they’re selling aloe juice on the site, don’t let them be your only source of information about aloe juice. But, in this case, Baron wasn’t selling a cure for Grammatical Pedantry Syndrome; he was just having some fun.

Who Else Supports the Claim?

Another reason this was a particularly good hoax, was because it included scientific images and a citation. The brain scans seemed pretty convincing. They even have a note that they were “used by permission” from the fake journal, but they were just lifted from a different journal. (Thanks to Ben Zimmer for pointing me to the original source of the images.)

The story actually had a full citation from the fake Journal of Syntactic Cognition with everything you’d expect in a real citation, including volume, issue, and page numbers. A reader who was scanning and not familiar with the names of the journals in this field, could easily be lulled into gullibility. The citation must be real, otherwise why would Baron include it? It’s like a resume with fake credentials. You think, “Well, he wouldn’t put it on there if it weren’t real because I could go check,” so sometimes you don’t bother checking.

I don’t remember the specifics of this example, but I do have a vague recollection of a book that included a lot of footnotes that turned out to not support the points the author was making. They were real sources, but their information was taken out of context.

If you need to be sure information is true, not only check whether the source actually exists, but also check to be sure it says what the writer is claiming it says.

Check Snopes

Once things start getting forwarded around, they can take on a life of their own. I received another message a couple of weeks ago from someone who thought this grammar-OCD story was true.

If you receive something fishy from a well-meaning friend, another easy thing you can do before forwarding it to others is to check the website Snopes, which specializes in debunking hoaxes, myths, rumors, and urban legends. This particular story isn’t on Snopes yet, but many fake stories that get passed around by e-mail are. Check Snopes to keep yourself from looking stupid by forwarding something that isn’t true.

I Wanted to Believe It

One thing you’ll notice about a lot of things like this that turn out not to be true is that they play on widespread fears, like a lot of urban legends about crimes that never happened, or they have just enough plausibility to make you believe them. At some level, you want to believe them. I mean, those grammar sticklers do seem a little obsessive at times, don’t they? It can be annoying when someone corrects your grammar, and you might get a little joy next time from pointing out that they have a mental condition, right?

When you want to believe something is true, that’s the time when you have to recognize that you’re susceptible to being tricked, and you have to dig even deeper. To be a good writer, you have to be sure your sources are real and correct.

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