Celebrity-endorsed cognitive bias

Mike Rowe shared the following image on his Facebook page today:

01

If you can’t read the script on the ad:

Taste isn’t the only reason I smoke

People are always telling me that smoking causes low birth weight. Talk about a win-win-win! An easy labor, a slim baby, and the full flavor of Winston!

Winston- when you’re smoking for two

It’s a fake ad. And while it’s entirely possible Mike knew the image wasn’t real, there’s nothing in his post to indicate he was aware that it was a doctored image.

So what’s the big deal? It’s fake, but it’s not like it’s a harmful hoax, right?

Don’t get me wrong; I love Mike Rowe. I’ve been a fan for years, and I’ll always pause what I’m doing to read an article or watch an interview of his. He is a superb writer and an eloquent speaker, and while many people view his opinions as conservative-leaning (I’m more liberal-leaning), the way he presents his views in a careful, calculated, and informative manner rarely, if ever, comes off as politically charged. In short, his opinion is always one I will consider and respect – even when it differs from my own.

That’s why I was struck by this post. It seemed uncharacteristic of the meticulous Mike Rowe to share something so easily identifiable as fake. As many of the comments point out, the over-the-top language is suspicious, and the watermark in the lower left corner indicates the “ad” is actually a doctored image from the Photoshopping website Worth1000 (the original site shuttered in 2013, but you can still access their archives on the new parent site, DesignCrowd). Even as many users criticized the fake, a number of supporters clapped back against the critics, claiming the image was actually real, that the links to sites indicating it was a photoshop were wrong (“Snopes is fake!”), or stating that, fake or not, the ad presented an opinion that would have been espoused at the time, so the advice was real even though the image was not.

Why get your knickers in a twist over it?

People make mistakes. It’s a good fake, and believing it’s real doesn’t hurt anyone. Mike’s page is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It’s a lighthearted Facebook page full of amusing, one-off posts. In fact, earlier this month he shared a viral video with the caveat, “I have no idea if this is staged. Nor do I care. It’s just fun to watch” – so he clearly made an effort in that case to say “fake or not, this is funny.” I can respect that because we all like to suspend disbelief for a laugh or to make a point. But there wasn’t any sign of that introspection with the cigarette ad, which made me believe he was taken in by the rouse and shared it to his followers – all 2.2 million of them, including me – as being real.

So here’s what we need to ask ourselves:

  • Do people in the public eye have a responsibility to fact-check what they say on social media – even if it’s not a topic on which we expect them to have expertise?
  • Does the perceived “harmfulness” of a hoax affect its significance or the public opinion of the person posting it?
  • How does a celebrity endorsement affect cognitive bias, our willingness to accept information, and our desire to rationalize a hoax once we know it’s false?
  • Is it solely cognitive bias that causes us to believe something that can be proven to be objectively false (“this was a real ad because I’ve seen it/ones like it”), or is there some deeper personal investment in wanting the hoax to be true?

This incident doesn’t make me question Mike’s credibility at all, but it does make me think about how celebrities act as influencers on social media. Mike Rowe is not a Kardashian, a vapid Instagram star, or a flamboyant YouTuber. He’s an objective critical thinker whose opinion I respect and admire, and many people share my opinion. They see him as a purveyor of objective, non-partisan truth, so any misstep is significant. It’s not fair to hold him to a higher standard of credibility in this case – he’s human. Unfortunately, we know that unreasonable scrutiny is the curse of being a public figure.

Like my parents used to say to me when I fell short of their often unreasonable expectations, I’m not mad, Mike. I’m just disappointed.

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Allow me to ‘explain you’ something: The inevitability of modern syntactic change

**This post also appeared on The Speculative Blog on Quora**

When it comes to English, I have two minds. My prescriptive mind says there are certain, immutable rules in the language that should never be broken. Conversely, my descriptive mind says, “Hey, chill out. Language changes all the time, and you should not only deal with it, you should embrace it!” These two minds are in constant conflict, especially in my classroom. On one hand, it’s my job to teach students how to speak and write “properly,” and yet, I know that what is “proper” English now may be archaic and non-standard in the (very near) future.

This brings me to a recent observation: there is a syntactic change taking place in English with the phrase ‘explain you’ and its variants. My students use this modern, slang-style brocabulary in conversations, saying things like, “I will explain you it.” Native (read: old) speakers will note the cognitive dissonance of that sentence. It should be, “I will explain it to you,” but the syntax is inverted. Weird, right?

Maybe not…

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Garden path sentences, or “When the old man the boat, the young duck the oars.”

Native speakers of a language usually don’t have too much difficulty understanding what other native speakers are saying. That’s why grammar is so cool (to people like me). When you read the words in this sentence, your brain processes the syntax in real time, and everything makes sense. Sure, you might need to go back and reread a word or sentence every now and again if you get lost or distracted, but for the most part, reading is a pretty seamless exercise for the average literate person on the internet. Our brains just know when the syntax of a sentence works. Likewise, our brain gets hung up when the grammar is off. For an example, look at the following sentence:

horse raced

No doubt you probably had to go back and reread that sentence a couple of times to try to make sense of it. Most of you probably still can’t make it work. Your brain is telling you something’s not right. When your brain started reading the sentence, it assumed a horse was racing past a barn, but by the time you got to the end, your brain saw the barn falling. Your brain tells you that the syntax can’t make both of those things work. What the heck is going on? Is there such a thing as a “barn fell” that the horse ran past? No? Then clearly the sentence is just plain wrong, right?

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A little perspective…

Over the weekend, some terrible stuff happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m not going to throw my two political cents into the fray because there are already plenty of opinions out there on the issue.

Instead, I want to talk about perspective. And my students.

As an English teacher, I spend a lot of my time asking people how things would be different:

  • How would the story be different if it were told from a different character’s perspective?
  • How would the conflict change if a certain event hadn’t happened or happened differently?
  • How can one character make another character understand his point of view?

It’s difficult for the students to think critically enough to answer some of these questions. Heck, it’s difficult for many adults to think critically about things like this. And even when we confront these questions earnestly, there’s no guarantee that the assumptions we’re making are sensible or well-informed, let alone correct. Most of the deeper implications of this problem are lost on eleven-year-olds, so I play a little trick on my students to illustrate the perspective problem.

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10 emergency classroom items for teachers (of either gender, really…)

Ok, so I was trying to avoid possible sexism in the title of this post, but I didn’t want to call it “10 emergency classroom items for teachers” and imply that I knew what female teachers needed. At the same time, I didn’t want to call it “10 emergency classroom items for male teachers” and appear to alienate three quarters of America’s educators.

Thus, I present to you, “10 emergency items for teachers (of either gender, really, but with a slight bias toward men…possibly).”

Enjoy!

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My Focus Brick: Some advice for teachers

I originally posted this on Quora. as a response to the question, “What’s a great piece of advice for teachers?” It resonated with many people on the site, so I wanted to share it here on my teaching blog as well.

What’s a great piece of advice for teachers?

This is my “Focus Brick” in my classroom:

focusbrick

It’s in the top-center of my back wall so it faces me while I’m teaching. It’s just a regular old brick with the letters “TJK” written in washable marker. There’s not much to it, but it’s an incredibly effective tool for me because it’s a constant reminder of something I frequently forget:

They’re Just Kids.

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Making the Mundane Interesting

I tell my students:

I’m going to read a story to you, but there’s a warning: it’s a disturbing story. It’s not suitable for all audiences, and I’ll understand if anyone wants to leave before I begin. Seriously.

Anyone want to leave? No? I don’t want to get any angry emails from your parents about this, ok? Ok.

Everything in this story is based on true events. This is real, it’s horrifying, and it happens every day. I’m going to relate the tale from the perspective of one who experienced it first-hand. Here it is:

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