baltimoresun.com

« A temple of books | Main | Call my lawyer »

You don't need proof; you have the Internet

I’m reluctant to give additional currency to what appears to be a scurrilous fraud, but Wishydig has an interesting post on bogus quotations, “Quotation marks don’t make it so,” featuring a remark attributed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

“You don’t need [G-d] anymore, you have us democrats.”

He has expended some time trying to run it to its source, but, as with so many things on the Internet, sources are elusive. But his research is extensive enough to persuade him that the remark is counterfeit, a canard, a partisan fabrication.

It is bad enough trying to run down the source of authentic quotations on the Internet, where every other remark seems to be given as having come from Mark Twain or Winston Churchill. That is just sloppiness. But the willingness to circulate material that looks dubious, or is manifestly false, is one of the least attractive attributes of our brave world of free-flowing information. A lie has half a million hits while truth is still putting on its britches.

Be careful out there.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:06 PM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

"You can say the most outrageous things if you wrap a pair of quotes around it." --Usenet 1994

Welcome to the 90's Professor McIntyre

True enough, but in the old days, lies spread by traditional media seldom got answered; now they do. For instance, Dan Rather's story about President Bush's National Guard service was shown to be based on fake documents within a few days of its airing. Without the Internet, I doubt that anything would have happened.

For a more-recent example, the traditional media have hardly noticed the harm that is being done by the CPSIA, which, among other things, has made it illegal to sell any children's book published before 1985 (because they used ink with lead in it in those days). The New York Times has ridiculed critics of the act who. it says, have stirred up "needless fears" that it will harm small businesses. For the real story (including libraries considering closing their children's sections) you have to go to overlawyered.com, which has covered this story in detail, for months.

On balance, I'm inclined to think the internet does more for accuracy than newspapers ever did. Maybe I'm wrong, but citing one example of a false story on the Internet doesn't prove it. I have never read an article in a paper other than the Wall Street Journal about a subject I knew about personally without finding mistakes. I don't claim that this proves that papers are worthless, though, and I even read my local paper at times. But I do hope the Internet replaces it someday.

I agree that the Internet is useful for a multitude of things; I could hardly imagine working without it. But two things continue to trouble me. One is the immense magnification of questionable information that the Internet makes possible, which I addressed in the post. The other could be described as the sheer noise, which makes it difficult to single out the kind of useful information that you specify.

I agree that the "sheer noise" is a problem. But is it any worse than in a library, where maybe 99 percent of the books aren't what you need?

When I was a bookworm kid, I spent much of my free time with a 20-volume encyclopedia called "The Book of Knowledge." It was full of wonderful things, but it also had its fair share of garbage. In 1945 it talked about light waves going through "the ether," a notion Einstein had killed off in 1905. This did me no permanent harm, I think. The Internet strikes me as being much the same sort of thing, on a vastly larger scale. I've found a site with the complete text of all of Ambrose Bierce's stories. I can read first rate economists without leaving the house. I can play chess with my son, who is stationed in Italy, and also with some guy named Luis, in Colombia, whose skills are very close to mine. I can find out whether a particular person is still in an Indiana prison (this can be useful in my line). I even read blogs about language; before the Internet I just had one good book (Claire Cook) and some junk (Strunk & White). Sure, it takes work to figure out where to go. It's worth it.

(I recently resumed watching a BBC miniseries called "Island at War." I was a bit unclear about what had happened in the episodes I'd watched several months ago. Wikipedia cleared it up just fine, though with some annoying misspellings.)

You have awakened memories of the time 30 years ago, before I abandoned the idea of completing a dissertation, when I was reading abstracts of other people's dissertations and marveling at the waste of time, shelf space and trees.

Prof. McIntyre, you may be glad to learn that printed dissertations are on their way out. Pretty soon they will exist in digital form only.

". . . printed dissertations are on their way out. Pretty soon they will exist in digital form only."

Strike "shelf space" and "trees."

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
Baltimore Sun Facebook page
-- ADVERTISEMENT --

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected