Tuesday, November 10, 2015

#Library Learning - fun fact: main stream media tried to tell us that apparently it's plague gerbils not plague rats

I was on my library's chat reference service last week and was asked if I could help find videos on the Black Death. So I did a search of the library's catalogue to see what we had, the patron didn't end up sticking around on the chat after I said searching the catalogue was their best place to start, but I was curious about what videos we had on the topic so I decided to look at the search results. I started reading through some of the titles with my coworkers, because they were curious about what I was looking at. There was the usual stuff about religion, war, and famine...and then we got about half way down the first page of results, and came across this:

That stopped me right in my tracks, piqued my curiosity, that was not what I was expecting to come across. Gerbils responsible for the plague. I immediately had to know more. So I turned to Google for some news articles on the subject. 

As you can see from those few results in the above image, it turns out it's not so cut and dry, there's a lot of debate about whether or not it was actually the gerbils or whether it was indeed the rats like it has historically been attributed. The original study that inspired all this gerbil related sensationalism is a report by Professor Nils Christian Stenseth and scientists from the University of Oslo titled Climate-driven introduction of the Black Death and successive plague reintroductions into Europe. The article from the Skeptics Guide, which was the top result in the Google search was actually very interesting and does a really good job of explaining how the media took the original report out of context for the sake of headlines. Alison Atkin, whose article Avoid Killer Gerbil Headlines Like a Cliche was linked in the Skeptics Guide article as being a good explanation of the chain of logic in the original study, commented on the article with a link to another of her articles, Blame The Gerbils? Blame The Journalists! which explores how the media blew it so out of proportion.

This is just another standard example of not taking everything the media tells you at face value, it's always a good idea to do some digging into the headlines.

-- Ren

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