Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Now What?

My students have been looking at web sites to determine whether they are hosted by reputable sources, and whether the information they provide is sufficiently accurate to be of use in their final projects.  I had them evaluate a number of web sites, including this one: DHMO.org.

Most of my students came to the same conclusion: dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) sounds terrifying! Why on earth hasn't anyone banned such a terrible substance from anything?  And it is used in everything! Students have the same reaction every semester. Given the other environmental problems in the world, this one seems to put them over their limit in terms of being able to cope. They express despair, hopelessness, repeat the refrain, "what can we do?"

But do they need to worry?  It helps to have some working knowledge of word etymology: di = 2, hydrogen = (well, hydrogen),  mono = 1, oxide = oxygen. So DHMO contains two hydrogens and one oxygen, which would make the chemical formula OH2, no, wait, H2O. Hmm... don't we know that formula? Isn't it water?  Ah, yes, and if we go to the main DHMO.org page, we find this disclaimer at the bottom: Note: content veracity not implied. Well, if you can't imply that your content is true, what are you doing on the web? 

This particular example is a hoax and was set up in part to demonstrate just how gullible people are, particularly when something is sensationally presented. It is so very easy to find erroneous, deliberately (or accidentally) misleading information on the web. So how do you know something can be trusted? Consumer Reports has WebWatch guidelines to promote credibility.

As for me, I will do my best to always cite my sources and to link only to sites that provide credible information (or that help to make a point, as above). I will strive to "blog with integrity". 

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