Friday, December 23, 2005

My Britannica and other Fallen Heroes

Seigenthaler's recent vitriolic tirade against Wikipedia brought into focus a few contentious facts about facts. It turns out that in testing for accuracy against others, Wikipedia faired quite well, with 162 errors in 42 articles, while Britannica boasted 123 errors in 42 articles on the same topics. Dividing by the 42 article count, this means that the average Wikipedia article has 3.9 "factual errors, omissions, or misleading statements" against the average Britannica article's mere 2.9... And let's not even think of doing the sensible thing - checking the reivewers' assertions about errors for accuracy, becuase my guess is that without the editorial clout of the Britannica, their error rate in rating errors is probably at least double that.

Back in 1986, I spent $2700, which I definitely did not have then, to buy myself a very fine thing that is what I missed the most from my parents' house in Chile - my own Encyclopedia Britannica. I have had faith inculcated in the absolute reliability of the information in its pages.

It used to be that I thought being a Supreme Court Justice would be just about the greatest job a person could have - imagine a job where everything that is important about humaities could be relevant to your work every day... Then came the Bork nomination and it instantly became crystal clear that the widening gap between Justice and "The Law" becomes a veritable chasm at the top- that this is possibly one of the most political jobs, and hence really not suited for anyone who might choose to laugh when a joke is funny rather than when its deliverer is a potential stepping stone, if you see what I mean... Disappointment set in and this opinion has only been confirmed in spades in the past year - imagine an architect of torture becoming the liberal choice for a seat on the Supreme Court - a strange world indeed.

When I gave that idea up, I started looking again towards the Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica as the zenith of successful career - now there is a person, I thought, with amazing power and integrity, and for whom the complete universe of humanistic thought was the stuff of daily life. I wanted to be Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Now this... an average of 2.9 serious errors per article - the "gold standard" is pretty muddy....

To add insult to injury, this summer, scientists at Caltech announced the discovery of a tenth planet. This seemed like a big deal to me, until the dicussion got around to asking the obvious question - what is a planet anyway? And if 2003UB313 is indeed not a planet, but a Kuyper Object, as many authorities in the field contend, then Pluto, it appears, does not really qualify as a planet either. So it seems that by finding a new planet we've ended up with an 8 planet solar system...

I won't even begin to speculate what this does to the hanging mobile industry - the impact will certainly be felt in natural science museum stores around the world. But the distressing thing that comes into focus as suggested by this little event, is that a planet, as object, is really nothing but a grouping by convention - if you go with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysic's definition, there are only 8 major planets, and if Pluto must get included (and by extension 2003UB313) then there are 12,779 named minor planets that by rights should also be included, if we are to apply the criteria for inclusion even-handedly.

The internet has given us a new awareness of world politics because information flows freely enough, for those who care to drink from the stream, that the petticoats of the diplomatic process have been raised for all to see its seamier side - lies being spun and realities passed off as factual that are nothing but politically motivated distortions. Perhaps, the authorities of established science are starting to suffer from the same exposure. Now I have the sneaky feeling that there is an untold amount of what I take to be absolute truth that is about as real as the officialdom in The Atomic Cafe... Web 2.0 indeed.

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