no lofts diversion about blue skies + how the internet works (+ doesn’t)

context is hard to convey in a quick hit

I love the Bad Astronomy guy at Slate, Phil Plait. Like the recently departed from Slate Matthew Yglesias, Plait has a gift for asking simple questions that (eventually) have simple answers, if not the answers we expect. His recent post, Meme, Myself, and Eyes, considers the way the intertubes present and distort information, while addressing that age-old question, why is the sky blue, and how can I explain that to a 5-year old? Along the way, he uses his own writing as an example of how anyone’s writing can be quoted out of context on the internet, with the (un)lucky ones becoming viral memes of misinterpretation.

Plait’s jumping off point is the recent repeat of an internet meme based on a quote from a book he wrote 15 years ago. He devoted a chapter to the first topic I mentioned (why is the sky blue?), which he closed with a discussion of the second, how can I explain that to a 5-year old? I’ve not bothered to check the sources, but I assume that Plait’s interpretation is correct, that people quote part of his response to that second topic to hold him up to ridicule. The (ridiculous) quote is

“If a little kid ever asks you why the sky is blue, you look him or her right in the eye and say, ‘It’s because of quantum effects involving Rayleigh scattering combined with a lack of violet photon receptors in our retinae.’”

The part not mentioned by people ridiculing Plait immediately follows, and includes: “In reality, explain to them that…”. In other words, the block quote was clearly not intended by Plait to be the best answer to give to a 5-year old.

Plait wrote that book before The Twitter was a thing, but the ease with which social media (especially) and The Internet (generally) reduce things to less than their essence is a remarkable thing. Indeed, a worrisome thing. Everyone that posted that block quote for the purpose of mocking the author was being both 100% accurate (in the quote) and 100% wrong (in its meaning). To take a more fraught example, you didn’t build that.

The urge to skim stuff to post cute on The Facebook or to break something complex into bites of less than 140 characters is a truism of modern social media life. ‘Corrections’ or ‘amplifications’ by the original purveyors (misinterpreters) never get the currency of the original link or post or RT, especially if the original (inaccurate) item fits what people (inaccurately) ‘know’ to be true.

Let’s be careful out there, boys and girls. The intertubes are dangerous. Don’t be lazy and post or RT a provocative piece without checking the source. Sometimes the scientist is not really suggesting you tell a 5-year old about Rayleigh scattering but concludes a  book chapter devoted to the question by offering a very understandable analogy about leaves being blown about before hitting the ground. Ignorance is just that; don’t fall into it.

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