Going where no fact has gone before

Is the distance between fact and factoid shrinking? Monica Hesse, of The Washington Post, looks to some first-person sources in her search for the truth.

How many legs does a dog have, if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg. - Abraham Lincoln

(Note: Lincoln never said this. He liked a similar, more long-winded anecdote about a cow, but the dog version? Nope.

Still, the quote is credited to the former US president on about 11,000 web pages, including quote resources Brainy Quote and World of Quotes.

Though not technically "true", the quote makes a nice start to this article about truth, being topical and brief, so if we want to go with truth-by-consensus (very popular now), we can go ahead and just say that he said it.

Besides, by the time you finish this article, your brain might have tricked you into thinking that he did say it (more on that later), so let's just go ahead and leave it in. All right?)

Moving on.

Inhabitants of the Wiki-world, consider these random but related events, most of which pertain to the under-25 set, all of which occurred in the past six months:

•The launching of Cumul.us, a Wiki-weather site in which users can collaboratively decide whether it is raining outside.

•The release of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, Farhad Manjoo's exploration of the "cultural ascendancy of belief over fact".

•The addition of "collateral misinformation" to UrbanDictionary.com. The entry: "When someone alters a Wikipedia article to win a specific argument, anyone who reads the false article before the `error' is corrected suffers from collateral misinformation."

•A scholar from the Hoover Institution performed an experiment with totally unsurprising results: When 100 terms from US history books were entered into Google, the topics' Wikipedia articles were the first hits 87 times.

All of these examples are signs of the times.

And all of them get at a big question: For the Google generation, what happens to the concepts of truth and knowledge in a user-generated world of information saturation?


 

"We're losing him! We're going to lose him!" Chad Stark frantically clicks back and forth between two windows on his computer screen.

Mr Stark is the sweater vest-wearing, 30-something, librarian currently manning AskUsNow, a 24/7 online chat open to Maryland residents in the US who need research help.

A few minutes ago, his computer, located in the grubby employee workroom, had gone ping.

A question, from an anonymous user: "How big do iguanas get?"AskUsNow, developed four years ago, helps patrons find accurate online information so they don't have to fumble blindly in Google.

Librarians: reliably on the front lines of truth protection.

Mr Stark types that he'd be happy to help, but he's not fast enough for the user:"dude u r boring me."

Mr Stark scrolls quickly through several sites, searching for reputable iguana info.

"u respond slow. please consider taking a typing class."

More pings. Questions that will be answered by other librarians logged on to the system flash up on the screen: "What did people learn from the physical effects of atomic bombings?""How do activities of insurance companies facilitate production?"

Suddenly, iguana guy feels remorseful for his earlier taunts. "i'm sorry. i'm drunk."

Mr Stark sends a link, but it's too late. Iguana guy seems to have left his computer.

"What they want is for you to give them the very first answer that pops up. And we can do that, but if it's wrong ..."

"If it's wrong" is the big "If", the question that plagues librarians and teachers today.

Of course, the information might be right - in one study, published in Nature, Wikipedia was found to be only slightly less reliable than Encyclopedia Britannica (four errors to Britannica's every three).

There's at least a decent chance that the wisdom of the crowds is fine wisdom indeed.

What concerns people like Mr Stark is the fact that, without peer review, it's so easy to be wrong, and for your wrongness to become the top Google hit on a subject, and for your wrongness to be repeated by other people who think it's right, until everyone decides that it's raining in Phoenix.

Andrew Keen describes it as "the cult of the amateur" in his book of the same name. Stephen Colbert called it "wikiality" meaning, "a reality where, if enough people agree with a notion, it must be true."

Information specialists call it the death of information literacy.

Information is about tidbits, crumbs of data.

Information can be carried around on a Trivial Pursuit card. Information says, "It's currently 95 degrees in Anchorage."

Knowledge is different. Knowledge is about context - about knowing what to do with accumulated information.

Knowledge is saying: "Dude, based on what I know of Alaska, it's never 95 degrees in Anchorage".

Joining librarians as trench warriors for truth are some teachers.

One such educator, Mike Grill, who teaches at Wakefield High School, in Virginia, describes the progression when he makes his students do a research paper.

"At the beginning of the year their sources will be some crank blog," Grill says. "Or they'll cite The Daily Show as a source: `[US current affairs show host] Jon Stewart said so'."

Mr Grill says his students quote opinions as facts, and rarely consider whether the source is a person of authority.

For the six-week research project, he puts them through detox: limiting their online sources to a maximum of three, making them use library reference desks, dealing with their assertions that anything found in a book couldn't be very useful - wouldn't the information be, like, way outdated?

He accepts Wikipedia as a starting place, but encourages his students to think and not memorise.

Mr Grill says he "cannot in good conscience" let his students move on to higher learning without knowing how to conduct good research.

"When they go off to [university], that's when they really get their hands caught in the cookie jar."

At least, that's what he'd assumed. But he has had some troubling visits from former students.

"They say, `Oh, Mr Grill, I've never been in a library [at university]'."

Anna Johnson is a first-year George Washington University student from Iowa, who can sympathise with Mr Grill's students.

"I got through my first semester without ever checking out a book," she says sheepishly.

But during her second semester, she had a mandatory first-year seminar, which partners each section with a librarian to combat the decline of information literacy.

At first, she got "really overwhelmed" by all the information. "The idea of having original thought completely terrified me."

Once she realised how much information was out there, the idea of synthesising it seemed impossible.

Ultimately, she finished a paper about homelessness and women that was strong enough to be selected for a writing symposium.

Her work could have been even better: "Had I devoted a couple more weeks to research ..." She trails off helplessly. "But I need to sleep three or four hours a night."

Back in Maryland, Mr Stark accepts another question, from a user who wants to know the distance between New Jersey and Venezuela for a science project on migration.

Mr Stark asks which cities in New Jersey and Venezuela, explaining that this variable could drastically change the answer.

The user seems annoyed - it's just science homework, dude. No need for such crazy accuracy.

Mr Stark finds the distance using two random cities, then answers three more questions from the same patron, including "In what continent is Venezuela?"

Mr Stark stares at the screen for a second before typing in "South America." He doesn't bother to cross-reference this information.

"This kid doesn't know where Venezuela is, but he managed to log on and use this service," Mr Stark says quietly. "That is pretty amazing."

There is a lot of information out there. It overwhelms us. It grows at a choking rate.

You wonder: Who is right?
The student who lives online? Or the lame teacher who thinks that books are a necessary component to a well-rounded understanding of how information works?

As students must absorb increasingly more information throughout their education, perhaps expecting them to assess whether it's true is simply too much.

Four errors to Britannica's three isn't bad, and it is probably good enough for the research the average person does on a daily basis.

Mr Grill, the teacher, listens to this argument thoughtfully before offering one of his own.

"The lessons that come through understanding a process should never become a thing of the past," he says.

The question of truth in a user-generated world isn't about the accuracy of information so much as it is about an appreciation for the intricacies of the search, for understanding that truth can be elusive, but the fight for it can be rewarding.

Sometimes it's a losing battle.

"My wife is in sales, and she's always saying, `Why do the kids need to know this?'," Mr Grill says.

"She's the one who makes all the money, so I can't really argue."

 



What are the facts on the facts?

A snapshot of online information literacy.

•2,340,000: number of articles on the English-language Wikipedia.

•120,000: number of articles on Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.

•36: the percentage of adults who use Wikipedia as a regular information source.

•13: the percentage who said that information online was more accurate than off-line information.

•11: the number of times the Wikipedia entry for "truth" was altered, in a one-week period.

•16,000: results found for the Google search "HIV does not cause Aids."

•9000: approximate hits for "The moon landing was staged."

•1: hit for "What is a primary source and why is it important?"

 

- Monica Hesse.

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