Saturday, January 14, 2006

Bigger Haystacks Require Smarter Needle

Earlier, in the context of reviewing Nature’s study comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia and Brittanica, I wrote about the difficulties in distinguishing fact from error, and in labeling a quantum of information as "true." Since then, the Smoking Gun revealed that James Frey falsified large portions of his popular memoirs. What is interesting is not that Frey exaggerated, deceived, and outright lied both in his book and to his fans. No, the big news is that nobody seems to care all that much.

The standard apologist line is that this was a book and what really counts is the story that it tells, whether or not the story is true. Ignoring all the obvious counter-arguments (the most damning being that the book, if fictional, should have been published as such) the reaction to Frey's induced revelations provide further indication that truth is not only subjective, but that it may not even be all that important.
Several of my recent posts – evaluating disputed information as either factual or erroneous, the lack of a correlation between popularity and quality in online information, the disclosure that our online first impressions happen far too quickly to give any weight to content or quality – draw on a similar theme: the transition of information to the online environment, combined with an unprecedented surge in the amount of available information, present us with problems of previously unimagined complexity.

The online environment is dynamic and powerful and it allows information consumers to have more of the world than ever before at their fingertips…if you know what you’re looking for.

The metaphorical haystacks have long overflowed the barn and they’re starting to crowd out the farmers. We need better, smarter needles that will find their own way out of that haystack, and bring themselves to us.

[N.B. – I have reposted the discussion on fact and error in Wikipedia/Britannica to allow it to appear (for the time being) on the main page. The original post date was January 9th]


Blogger Hobie said...

I'd like to add to the Frey apologist concern by saying that his book actually helped people. I know it helped me and I hope that what I've learned from the book helped others in turn.

Many of us who have recovered from addictions know that what Frey wrote was not beyond the pale of imagination and was kinda normal stuff. However, as I read it I had to suspend disbelief where it came to specifics - it's just hard to remember that stuff, particularly if you were in a drug/booze fog at the time. His story rang true for me and others.

That it was not factual but was published as nonfiction is ultimately the responsibility of the publishers who wanted to protect their investment. Check for what I've written on the topic.

Sat Jan 14, 02:59:00 PM EST  
Blogger Tim Kanwar said...

I don't deny that Frey's book has substantial value, its factual accuracy notwithstanding.

While we can differ over who - Frey, the publishers, or both; I tend to think both - is responsible for a work of fiction masquerading as a nonfiction memoir, the real point is that most people don't seem all that bothered by it.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing, necessarily. But it is another example of why we need to reevaluate how we parse information these days.

Sat Jan 14, 05:04:00 PM EST  
Blogger Hobie said...

Drive by comment, as I need to work. Check out this article (if you havent' already):
Ny Times: My True Storey, More or Less

Sun Jan 15, 12:15:00 PM EST  
Blogger Tim Kanwar said...

That's a nice piece, thanks for the link. And I agree with the premise that, at least in the memoir genre, the fact/fiction balance is not of primary importance.

What I'm more concerned about is that ambivalence about truth expanding outward. Taken to its logical extreme it creates openings for utilitarian (as opposed to rational) belief.

In some circumstances that's just fine. But in many others, it's not.

I may gain tremendous personal value from believing that I can fly. And from the recent scientific study (or best-selling novel, or whatever source for belief you care to imagine) that has announced that flying is now a standard ability of all human beings.

But it's absolutely critical that I understand that my belief in this respect, while high in utility, is low in its rational warrant. Before I jump off of a building or out of an airplane I'd probably like to know, in addition to what I believe will happen, whether or not I'm going to be deceased a few seconds later.

A silly example but a reminder nonetheless that figuring out which beliefs to hold is at least often a matter of separating fact from fiction.

Sun Jan 15, 02:01:00 PM EST  
Blogger Hobie said...

Indeed, belief can often stand in the way of thought. I actually try to avoid belief on the grounds that it may hinder my thought. I try to question everything, but remain open to everything.

Approaching life as an investigator, or scientist, you get to try a bunch of stuff. Of course, there are those things to be accepted or rejected a priori, but, within reason, we can try a whole bunch of stuff and lead happy, creative lives.

Mon Jan 16, 10:30:00 PM EST  

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