Are you thinking of trusting the internet?

Don’t. I stumbled across this on Quora, a site that seems to specialize in collecting uninformed questions from ignorant people, and allowing other ignorant people to provide misinformation.

You may notice that it has 513 views. It also had about 40 upvotes, meaning 40 people read this and came away thinking they’d learned something.

It’s very confusing. So, if I’m planning a cannibal meal, and a right-handed person eats my left-handed victim, does everything just pass through (great if you’re trying to lose weight!), or does it turn all my dinner guests left-handed?


  1. says

    I liked Quora, and hung out there for a while, mostly to see my own prejudices reinforced and respond with asperity to challengers of same. I gave it up, though, when I read from several sources that they are very loose with the private information of those who sign up there. It’s similar to why I never went back to Facebook after I quit, though with Facebook it’s clearly intentional.

  2. weylguy says

    Your readers may also want to know that Quora is notoriously right-wing, with questions such as “Why do liberals hate America?” frequently posted.

  3. Callinectes says

    @ weylguy #3 That may depend on your recommendations, partly due to you preferences, but seemingly mostly due to the prior questions you’ve viewed. There’s an algorithm trap.

    Since you tend to view the questions it recommends, the algorithm comes to the conclusion that you must really like those questions, and pretty soon it’s showing you that particular kind of question to the near-exclusion of all others.

    For a while Quora thought I was obsessed with WW2 vehicles, when I’d only idly read one or two I came across. Currently it thinks I really like comparing the US and the UK.

  4. willj says

    But..but.. it’s peer-reviewed. You vote on the truth. It’s not only Quora. I’m noticing that newsfeeds, ads, searches, and everything else is skewed towards my viewing history and preferences. Soon we’ll all be living in our own private bubbles.

  5. Curt Sampson says

    I’ve not touched Quora much because every time I come across it in search results I may see one or two good answers, but within a few clicks it’s apparent that it’s generally a hot mess. I was about to say I don’t know how it still exists in a world with StackExchange, but then I remembered that even though we have The Guardian, we also still have The National Enquirer.

  6. says

    The general point is yeah but we don’t actually know if 40 people thought they learned something. 1 or 2 (whatever) could have upvoted because the found it funny, entertaining or whatever. #pedantic

  7. says

    I am reminded again of why I no longer* write for Quora:

    So many outrageously wrong “answers” that get upvoted over actual valid content; and also so many horrifically wrong “questions” (as @ weylguy noted at #3 – even without the algorithm distorting things).

    Quora has tried some ways to change that, such as designating specific writers as experts in particular areas and automatically up-ranking their answers, but nothing that has worked particularly well.

    *I wrote a number of answers to questions related to astronomy, planetary science, & spacecraft; as a planetary astronomer; and a few related to celiac disease; as someone who has it.

  8. neilgodfrey says

    I’m a little disappointed with this post because it seems to clash with PZ’s otherwise amply demonstrated tolerance, compassion and support for people who are genuinely seeking to learn. “Uninformed questions from ignorant people”? What other kinds of questions are serious and worth asking? I ask questions because I am uninformed and ignorant of something. I am sure we all think little of someone more knowledgeable despising those who dare show their ignorance by asking to be better informed.

    “Trusting the internet”? I don’t normally see this sort of sweeping dismissal on this blog. The internet is a medium, not content. “Thinking of trusting the print media?” It’s a meaningless question.

    I’m reminded of Nature’s comparison some years ago comparing Wkipedia with Encyclopedia Britannica. The numbers of errors in a particular field were comparable but while Wikipedia immediately moved to correct their errors EB took action to sue Nature publishers.

    Whenever I see an academic scoffing at something they read on Wikipedia, for example, I often wonder: DId they actually bother to crack open the edit option and make the correction for themselves? Or were they content to walk on with scornful laughter?

    I sometimes read Quora but I am sure I am no different from many others who are well aware that the internet contains many types of content and different answers and I am free to compare information I read there with other sources, and to fully appreciate that new and revised and alternate answers often appear over time. Anyone more familiar with the internet perhaps knows this better than those who have been brought up on print media.

    See someone wrong on the internet? Take a moment to drop in a corrective. Or have a little more faith in the larger sphere of the democratization of knowledge. Yes, there will be bumps and detours on the way. But we are all learning. And if we have the benefit of more training and knowledge than others then perhaps we have the greater responsibility to contribute something positive — as this blog here usually does!

  9. says

    @neilgodfrey @16:
    Here’s an example of some of the horrifically wrong “questions” that show up on Quora, via a commenter at the blog Love, Joy, Feminism who currently uses the site:

    Why do so many people mistakenly think submissive wives are being abused or controlled, when in fact many families quite enjoy a traditional marriage?

    That is not a question. It is gaslighting and an attempted defense of abusive relationships.

    Quora’s operators have allowed a horrific amount of such content on the site. That is a problem.

  10. leerudolph says

    dontlikeusernames@15: The example (I’m assuming that the lengthy last segment is, in fact, the question; no way I intend to click through) seems to be a pretty direct knock-off of that really, really horrible song “A Boy Named Sue”.

  11. mcfrank0 says

    Is there a comparable answer that uses the labels “cis” and “trans”? Asking for a friend.

  12. davidw says

    What started out as a useful (and used) analogy from organic chemistry turned into Fox News-level “facts.” I’m actually surprised that the writer of this “answer” didn’t say that left-handed molecules* cause autism…
    *Yes, @christoph 7, it’s “stereoisomers” – one of several types.

  13. says

    If it’s this answer, then someone seems to be impersonating another poster. It also seems to have lost its upvotes since you saw it.

    As someone who has found Quora useful for satisfying a minor urge to show off the little I know and pick up a little self-worth from the puny number of upvotes I get, I don’t think the site is completely useless. Like anything on the net, you have to check anything you read there elsewhere. This answer looks like a joke, but who can tell who took it seriously?

  14. fffabio says

    Ridiculous description of “Chirality”. Somebody probably watched too much “Breaking Bad”.