Saturday, July 6, 2013


In the last couple of years, at the bottom of articles on your favorite "content" site, you might have noticed several links to--well, it's hard to call them articles--let's say other content that might have some relationship to what you just read, or might not.  I'm not talking about links to articles on the same site.  These are links to other sites.  Many of them are driven by a service called Outbrain.

Outbrain works like this:  Outbrain's customers pay Outbrain to drive traffic to their specified sites, which might include ad-supported content-heavy sites, or direct advertising, or thinly-veiled "sponsored content."  Heavy traffic sites can install Outbrain's content recommendation app on their sites, and may get a cut of the ad revenue.  Outbrain tracks your interests and activities on the websites that give it access to do so and recommends articles you might like.

It's kind of a cool business model for Outbrain, and even though I find the content to be kind of ridiculous and vapid, I have been swayed into clicking on those links more than a few times.

Today was one of those days.  Today's irresistable article was called "10 Mythical Things That Actually Existed," and it was featured on a site called ""  BoreBurn seems to be a site that follows the BuzzFeed model (in fact, pretty closely, with one exception).  BuzzFeed is the home of lists of things.  For example, at the moment, BuzzFeed is featuring the following lists:  "28 Images That Will Make You Feel Cooler on This Disgustingly Hot Day," "18 Types of Roommates You Should Never Become," "17 Things That Are So Fluffy We Could Die," and "23 Books You Didn't Read in High School But Absolutely Should."

In fact, much of Outbrain's customer base appears to be BuzzFeed-type sites. 

I like BuzzFeed as a time-waster.  There's a lot of good information on there.  It covers a wide range of topics, and therefore it is good for building a knowledge base for trivia competitions, which are my hobby.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about myths and credulity lately, which is leading up to a future post, so BoreBurn's article seemed like it might be interesting.  Rather than thinking about fake things people believe are real, I was expecting to learn about real things people believe are fake.  So I clicked.

The first Actual Thing:  Amazon women.  OK, this is a promising start.  There is at least some historical evidence of a female-centric warrior society in antiquity, even though a lot of the story from Greek mythology is probably apocryphal.

The next Actual Thing:  Mermaids.  Well...kind of a stretch.  They correctly point out that sailors, most notably Columbus, have reported seeing mermaids.  That doesn't mean that mermaids, as in water-dwelling humanoids who have gills and fish tails, exist.  I should have known something was up when the accompanying photo showed two sailors hunched over a large fish; the fish, however, had been badly photoshopped to have a woman's head and torso, and the sailor's heads were replaced with smiling photos of Regis Philbin and Joe Lieberman, for some reason.  The text said something about Atlantis.  I skipped to the next item.

Dragons.  Back on track.  The Komodo dragon exists today, and it has a much larger extinct relative.  No fire-breathing or flying, but the extinct lizard did spit venom.

Then hobbits.  Well, kind of.  H. florensiensis remains were discovered a few years ago on a remote island in the South Pacific; the individuals identified were fully grown but very short-statured.  And Mocha Dick (CH as in cherry, not charisma), an enormous white whale that was the inspiration for Melville's novel Moby-Dick.

The sixth item is Atlantis.  At this point, I'm guessing that whatever editor was responsible for this article fell asleep.  This is how BoreBurn describes the "real" Atlantis:
The Atlanteans were a civilization of highly evolved human beings with extraordinary powers. They existed in a world of five dimensions, and electrified cities by manipulating energy from crystals. The civilization came about essentially as a universal experiment to see what would happen if a variety of spiritual beings, including humans, live as material beings with free will. This experiment occurred three times, the last one lasting for a very long time, before matters got out of hand (again).
No. "Highly evolved human beings with extraordinary powers"?  All humans are highly evolved, and compared to other organisms we do indeed have some extraordinary powers--higher reasoning and language, to name a couple. But that's not what the folks at BoreBurn are talking about.

There is nothing in that paragraph that is even remotely real.  It is sad that even one person believed it enough to write it--unless we're being punk'd by the writer, which I admit is a possibility.

But there is a larger point here.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  That's something every scientist and logician understands.  For example, if you are going to claim that advanced superhumans from a fifth-dimensional society traveled around on flying carpets during antiquity, you'd better have something to back it up.  By the same token, if you are going to claim that humans evolved from a common ancestor with other apes, proof is required (and we do have proof of that).

The BoreBurn example is probably a bad one; if you're looking to Outbrain (or something like it) to send you to the place to learn about history and science, you're probably looking in the wrong place.  But there are literally billions of people on this earth for whom the most important "facts" stored in their brains are utter unsupported fantasy.  The only thing separating those "facts" from the story of Atlantis is the number of sincere adherents. 

Time and again I have found it to be true that people are most often harmed not by the things that they do not know, but by the things of which they are absolutely certain, that are simply not true.  Critical thinking--now that's an extraordinary power.

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