Chinese Whispers

From Wikipedia

Chinese whispers (some Commonwealth English) or telephone (American English and Canadian English) is an internationally popular children’s game. It is also called transmission chain experiments in the context of cultural evolution research, and is primarily used to identify the type of information that is more easily passed on from one person to another.

Players form a line or circle, and the first player comes up with a message and whispers it to the ear of the second person in the line. The second player repeats the message to the third player, and so on. When the last player is reached, they announce the message they heard to the entire group. The first person then compares the original message with the final version. Although the objective is to pass around the message without it becoming garbled along the way, part of the enjoyment is that, regardless, this usually ends up happening. Errors typically accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last player differs significantly from that of the first player, usually with amusing or humorous effect. Reasons for changes include anxiousness or impatience, erroneous corrections, and the difficult-to-understand mechanism of whispering.

The game is often played by children as a party game or on the playground. It is often invoked as a metaphor for cumulative error, especially the inaccuracies as rumours or gossip spread, or, more generally, for the unreliability of typical human recollection.


In general, it is a part of my custom to check references. When using Wikipedia for example, I do on occasion follow up the reference links in them. Many Wikipedia pages are in need of completion shall we say politely. When I used to examine Ph.D. theses I would download and read some of the key cited references. On occasion my interpretation of the reference differed from that of the candidate. If it was only a small immaterial difference, I let it pass. I don’t suppose that many examiners check references.

The internet is perhaps the facility par excellence for Chinese whispers. I have just been following up a statement about a certain lama having attended Oxford {university} on a Spalding scholarship.  I can find no clear records and given his fame it is likely that a college would seek to claim him as Alumni. Yet this mythos can be found in many different corners.

Where are you going?

Oxford to live.

Becomes: attending Oxford university to get a degree in X…

Fred went to Oxford to study X

Becomes; Fred got a degree in X.

People can be very slack especially when it comes to the propagation, distortion and enhancement of gossip. I have personal experience of being the subject of gossip. Someone who did not know me once told me about me and how many people I was supposed to have slept with. The figure was a massive overestimate. It was really funny. Buy people drinks, get them pissed and they spout off.  Mr Wayne Kerr has many relatives. Hagiographies whether positive and adoring or negative and vilifying abound.

I used to sometimes use Chinese whispers in a team development situation. I would start a rumour and see where it ended a few days later. People would not have been aware, at least initially. The urge to pass on a salacious juicy tidbit is utterly irresistible for some.

I have mentioned in this blog that I have some science articles published, I could pick a name and an institution, and one could verify that the name and the institution are linked. Unless you checked my identity you could not prove that I was involved. My name is a very common one. Apparently, they used to call my father, that bastard Taylor.


What have you heard about me?

Have you checked its provenance and accuracy?

Might the purveyors have a vested interest?

Did you check it with me before you passed it on?

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