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Truth: Can You Handle It?
Better Yet: Do You Know It When You See It?

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008

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 Abe on some 11,000 different 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. Okay?]

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."

And a scholar at the Hoover Institution performed an experiment with totally unsurprising results: When 100 terms from U.S. 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?

Librarians for Truth

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

Stark is the sweater vest-wearing, 30-something Hyattsville librarian currently manning AskUsNow, a 24/7 online chat open to Maryland residents 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.

Stark types that he'd be happy to help, but he's not fast enough for the user:

"dude u r boring me."

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

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

More pi ngs . 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."

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

Stark sighs. "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 . . . "

Information vs. Knowledge

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, that reviewed scientific entries side-by-side, 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 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 same-named book. 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.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a Tufts University historian and author of "Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed," has recently noticed something very odd: "Information has replaced knowledge," he says, "and the truth of that information no longer seems to matter as much."

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 never95 degrees in Anchorage."

Joining librarians as trench warriors for truth are some teachers, from grade school through college.

Mike Grill, who teaches Advanced Placement government at Wakefield High School in Arlington, 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 -- 'Jon Stewart said so.' " 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 memorize. Grill says he "cannot in good conscience" let his students graduate without knowing how to conduct good research. "When they go off to college, 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 in college.' "

'Growing Impatience'

Anna Johnson is a George Washington University freshman from Iowa, who can sympathize with 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 the mandatory freshman seminar, which partners each section with a librarian to combat the decline of information literacy and is all the rage in liberal arts programs these days. At first, "I got really overwhelmed" by all the information, says Johnson. "The idea of having original thought completely terrified me." Once she realized how much information was out there, the idea of synthesizing it seemed impossible.

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

More on the search for truth, from two other students who had their papers selected for the symposium:

"Some professors require at least one source in a book," Dhruv Choudhry says with a shrug. "If you want me to find a book, I'll find a book to get an A. But it's just a formality." He points out that many academic journals are available online, anyway.

If he's doing Web research that's not for school, and he finds multiple answers to the same question, "I'll just pick the hit that seems right." Usually that means a Web site that ends in .gov or .org, something with a little clout behind it. "But sometimes I might even just choose the one that favors my argument."

His classmate Hillary Swaim uses books, but says she's an exception to a lot of her friends. And unless she's being graded on her research, she estimates she'll spend about five minutes trying to track down an answer before giving up.

Corbin Lyday, the professor who moderated Choudhry and Swaim's discussion, looks horrified. "That's the most profound change" he's noticed in students since he taught his first class some 30 years ago. "The way they manage information. There's a growing impatience and a real passivity."

But Johnson, Choudhry and Swaim do not seem lazy, nor do they seem in the least ignorant. They seem like busy teens who are treading water the best they can in a sea of information that gets increasingly deeper. "We can get information so fast, and pretty reliably . . . " says Choudhry.

At least they are weaning themselves from having that information spoon-fed.

Back in Hyattsville, Stark accepts another question, from a user who wants to know the distance between New Jersey and Venezuela for a science project on migration. 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. Stark finds the distance using two random cities, then answers three more questions from the same patron, including "In what continent is Venezuela?"

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," Stark says quietly. "That is pretty amazing."

True or False?

People have always struggled with perceptions of truth, which ultimately come down to this general rule: We believe what we want to believe.

Two researchers who studied this in the 1960s learned that, when listening to debates on the risks of smoking, nonsmokers tuned in to the parts of the speeches that linked cigarettes to cancer. Smokers, on the other hand, paid closer attention to the parts that denied a health risk.

Rather than use the speeches as an opportunity to better educate themselves, subjects used them as an opportunity to reinforce their own beliefs.

So what's the big deal about now? How does the addition of Cumul.us or collateral misinformation really change things?

The answer, of course, is volume: millions of YouTube speeches, millions of Web pages -- including the 4,440 hits that still come up today when you type "Smoking does NOT cause cancer" into Google.

"We're reading in niches," says Manjoo, the author of "True Enough," who discusses the smoking study in his book. "Since people have more choice, they can choose to read the things that reflect what they already believe."

Making it even messier is the way our brains separate good information from bad. In 2003 a group of psychologists had a group of senior citizens read several statements. Some of the statements were labeled as true and some -- "Shark cartilage helps arthritis" -- were labeled as false.

But later, when asked to recall which information was false, the seniors couldn't do it. They remembered all of the information as true, knowing that they'd heard something about shark cartilage somewhere.

In fact, the more times that they were told the information was false, the more they believed it was true.

When younger subjects were tested, they eventually misremembered at the same rate as the seniors.

"People are very insensitive to where they hear things," says Norbert Schwarz, a University of Michigan psychologist who worked on the study. If one quack repeats the same piece of information to you five times, it's nearly as effective as hearing the sound bite from five different reputable sources.

Same goes for reading e-mails -- if you get three spam e-mails relating Abraham Lincoln's folksy wisdom about truth and dogs, you'll eventually believe it as strongly as if you heard it from the reference desk at the Lincoln Library.

"The basic psychological process is the same" as it's always been, Schwarz says. "But in the olden days you might have seen something once in your newspaper . . . now the likelihood that you'll see it again and again and again" -- on blogs, in your inbox, on YouTube -- has exploded.

Abraham Lincoln talked about cows, not dogs. But good luck remembering that.

* * *

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 ain't bad -- and probably good enough for the research the average person does on a daily basis.

Grill, the AP government 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?' " Grill says. "She's the one who makes all the money, so I can't really argue."

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