I've pretty much given up criticizing the BBC's reporting on science and technology, since this is Language Log, not BBC-Science-Reporting-Is-Broken Log, and documenting every breathless misunderstanding or credulous reprint of a misleading public-relations handout would take more time than I have available for blogging. So for the past few years, I've examined an occasional bit of BBC-mediated neuro-nonsense, historical hooey or dialectal drivel as if it came from the Daily Mail or the Guardian or any other media outlet from which nothing better should be expected.
But today there's something new: the BBC actually announced, in public, the fact that it had been taken in by a (public-relations?) hoax masquerading as rational inquiry: "Internet Explorer story was bogus", 8/3/2011:
A story which suggested that users of Internet Explorer have a lower IQ than people who chose other browsers appears to have been an elaborate hoax.
A number of media organisations, including the BBC, reported on the research, put out by Canadian firm ApTiquant.
(That should actually be "AptiQuant", if you're keeping score at home.)
This is a strikingly different response than we've seen in the past to bogus BBC reports on cow dialects, "chat-nannies", parrot telepathy, three-headed frogs, breast-enlarging chewing gum, and so on.
I'd like to think that this represents a change in policy; but perhaps the difference is just the size and importance of the interests that their credulity and carelessness threaten in this instance.
One of the reasons for skepticism about the report is the fact that AptiQuant's web site appears to be relatively new, and the pictures of its staff (as well as much of the rest of its site — see below) seem to have been recycled from the web site of a completely unrelated company in France. On the other hand, I found some evidence that AptiQuant did exist at least back in November of 2010. So my tentative evaluation is that the contested study was a PR stunt aimed at promoting the company — like the cow-dialect stunt — and not an elaborate hoax, involving the creation of a completely fake web site, intended to demonstrate the role of sci-tech journalists as transcribers and amplifiers of press releases. But I could well be wrong…
Update — Poking around a bit more on the AptiQuant web site, I find that several (all?) of their pages (for example this one, "Keeping Employees Motivated: The Manager's Role") have been copied from pages on the site of the firm Central Test (in the cited case, this one). Central Test's web site now includes a page denying any connection with AptiQuant. This looks like evidence that the whole AptiQuant company and web site are a hoax — either aimed at promoting this prank web survey, or aimed at some more serious scam.
The plagiarism might also be evidence that AptiQuant's web design team learned their authorial ethics in a recent experience with the modern educational system. But the fact that AptiQuant's "Our Team" page presents exactly the same pictures and layout as Central Testing's "Our Team" page , with just the names changed (and they forgot to change the mouseover text on the CEO!), provides additional evidence that AptiQuant is bogus through and through.
Update #2 — Google News Archive has nothing for AptiQuant, and LexisNexis yields 26 hits, all from 7/29/2011 or later. This is additional evidence that AptiQuant is a hoax, though it doesn't tell us what kind of hoax it is.
Update #3 — the perpetrators 'fess up on AptiQuant's web site:
AptiQuant was set up in late July 2011 by comparison shopping website AtCheap.com, in order to launch a fake “study” called “Intelligent Quotient and Browser Usage.” The study claimed that people using Internet Explorer have a below than average IQ score. The study took the IT world by storm. The main purpose behind this hoax was to create awareness about the incompatibilities of IE6, and not to insult or hurt anyone.
They also added a list of "Tell-Tale signs that should have uncovered the hoax in less than 5 minutes":
- The domain was registered on July 14th 2011.
- The test that was mentioned in the report, “Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (IV) test” is a copyrighted test and cannot be administered online.
- The phone number listed on the report and the press release is the same listed on the press releases/whois of my other websites. A google search reveals this.
- The address listed on the report does not exist.
- I copy/pasted most of the material from “Central Test” and got lazy to even change the pictures.
- The website is made in WordPress. Come on now!
- I am sure, my haphazardly put together report had more than one grammatical mistakes.
- There is a link to our website AtCheap.com in the footer.
I missed quite a few of these — in particular, I should have checked the domain registration, and I should have noticed that the link in the tag "All rights reserved by AptiQuant" actually went to AtCheap.com. But they don't mention the implausibility of the IQ results.
There's also a page explaining their motivation (persuading people to give up IE6) at greater length. But really, wouldn't it be a good idea to perpetrate similar hoaxes on a regular basis, in order to persuade journalists and editors to be a bit less credulous about scientific, biomedical, and technological press releases?
No, I take it back — most of the hoaxes would never be detected, most of the stories would never be withdrawn, and the wellsprings of public discourse would become even more insalubrious than they are already.