Tag Archives: accuracy

Bookish Reference

Thinking about reference books, these days.

Are models inspired by reference books (encyclopedias, dictionaries, phonebooks, atlases…) still relevant in the context of almost-ubiquitous Internet access?

I don’t have an answer but questions such as these send me on streams of thought. I like thought streaming.

One stream of thought relates to a discussion I’ve had with fellow Yulblogger Martin Lessard about “trust in sources.” IIRC, Lessard was talking more specifically about individuals but I tend to react the same way about “source credibility” whether the source is a single human being, an institution, or a piece of writing. Typically, my reaction is a knee-jerk one: “No information is to be trusted, regardless of the source. Critical thinking and the scientific method both imply that we should apply the same rigorous analysis to any piece of information, regardless of the alleged source.” But this reasoned stance of mine is confronted with the reality of people (including myself and other vocal proponents of critical thinking) acting, at least occasionally, as if we did “trust” sources differentially.

I still think that this trusty attitude toward some sources needs to be challenged in contexts which give a lot of significance to information validity. Conversely, maybe there’s value in trust because information doesn’t always have to be that valid and because it’s often more expedient to trust some sources than to “apply the same rigorous analysis to information coming from any source.”

I also think that there are different forms of trust. From a strong version which relates to faith, all the way to a weak version, tantamount to suspension of disbelief. It’s not just a question of degree as there are different origins for source-trust, from positive prior experiences with a given source to the hierarchical dimensions of social status.

A basic point, here, might be that “trust in source” is contextual, nuanced, changing, constructed… relative.

Second stream of thought: popular reference books. I’m still afraid of groupthink, but there’s something deep about some well-known references.

Just learnt, through the most recent issue of Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access newsletter, some news about French reference book editor Larousse (now part of Hachette, which is owned by Lagardère) making a move toward Open Access. Through their Larousse.fr site, Larousse is not only making some of its content available for open access but it’s adding some user-contributed content to its site. As an Open Access enthusiast, I do find the OA angle interesting. But the user-content angle leads me in another direction having to do with reference books.

What may not be well-known outside of Francophone contexts is that Larousse is pretty much a “household name” in many French-speaking homes. Larousse dictionaries have been commonly used in schools and they have been selling quite well through much of the editor’s history. Not to mention that some specialized reference books published by Larousse, are quite unique.

To make this more personal: I pretty much grew up on Larousse dictionaries. In my mind, Larousse dictionaries were typically less “stuffy” and more encyclopedic in approach than other well-known French dictionaries. Not only did Larousse’s flagship Petit Larousse illustré contain numerous images, but some aspect of its supplementary content, including Latin expressions and proverbs, were very useful and convenient. At the same time, Larousse’s fairly extensive line of reference books could retain some of the prestige afforded its stuffier and less encyclopedic counterparts in the French reference book market. Perhaps because I never enjoyed stuffiness, I pretty much associated my view of erudition with Larousse dictionaries. Through a significant portion of my childhood, I spent countless hours reading disparate pieces of Larousse dictionaries. Just for fun.

So, for me, freely accessing and potentially contributing to Larousse feels strange. Can’t help but think of our battered household copies of Petit Larousse illustré. It’s a bit as if a comics enthusiast were not only given access to a set of Marvel or DC comics but could also go on the drawing board. I’ve never been “into” comics but I could recognize my childhood self as a dictionary nerd.

There’s a clear connection in my mind between my Larousse-enhanced childhood memories and my attitude toward using Wikipedia. Sure, Petit Larousse was edited in a “closed” environment, by a committee. But there was a sense of discovery with Petit Larousse that I later found with CD-ROM and online encyclopedias. I used a few of these, over the years, and I eventually stuck with Wikipedia for much of this encyclopedic fun. Like probably many others, I’ve spent some pleasant hours browsing through Wikipedia, creating in my head a more complex picture of the world.

Which is not to say that I perceive Larousse as creating a new Wikipedia. Describing the Larousse.fr move toward open access and user-contributed content, the Independent mostly compares Larousse with Wikipedia. In fact, a Larousse representative seems to have made some specific statements about trying to compete with Wikipedia. Yet, the new Larousse.fr site is significantly different from Wikipedia.

As Suber says, Larousse’s attempt is closer to Google’s knols than to Wikipedia. In contrast with the Wikipedia model but as in Google’s knol model, content contributed by users on the Larousse site preserves an explicit sense of authorship. According to the demo video for Larousse.fr, some specific features have been implemented on the site to help users gather around specific topics. Something similar has happened informally with some Wikipedians, but the Larousse site makes these features rather obvious and, as some would say, “user-friendly.” After all, while many people do contribute to Wikipedia, some groups of editors function more like tight-knit communities or aficionados than like amorphous groups of casual users. One interesting detail about the Larousse model is that user-contributed and Larousse contents run in parallel to one another. There are bridges in terms of related articles, but the distinction seems clear. Despite my tendency to wait for prestige structures to “just collapse, already,” I happen to think this model is sensible in the context of well-known reference books. Larousse is “reliable, dependable, trusty.” Like comfort food. Or like any number of items sold in commercials with an old-time feel.

So, “Wikipedia the model” is quite different from the Larousse model but both Wikipedia and Petit Larousse can be used in similar ways.

Another stream of thought, here, revolves around the venerable institution known as Encyclopædia Britannica. Britannica recently made it possible for bloggers (and other people publishing textual content online) to apply for an account giving them access to the complete online content of the encyclopedia. With this access comes the possibility to make specific articles available to our readers via simple linking, in a move reminiscent of the Financial Times model.

Since I received my “blogger accreditation to Britannica content,” I did browse some article on Britannica.com. I receive Britannica’s “On This Day” newsletter of historical events in my inbox daily and it did lead me to some intriguing entries. I did “happen” on some interesting content and I even used Britannica links on my main blog as well as in some forum posts for a course I teach online.

But, I must say, Britannica.com is just “not doing it for me.”

For one thing, the site is cluttered and cumbersome. Content is displayed in small chunks, extra content is almost dominant, links to related items are often confusing and, more sadly, many articles just don’t have enough content to make visits satisfying or worthwhile. Not to mention that it is quite difficult to link to a specific part of the content as the site doesn’t use page anchors in a standard way.

To be honest, I was enthusiastic when I first read about Britannica.com’s blogger access. Perhaps because of the (small) thrill of getting “privileged” access to protected content, I thought I might find the site useful. But time and again, I had to resort to Wikipedia. Wikipedia, like an old Larousse dictionary, is dependable. Besides, I trust my sense of judgement to not be too affect by inaccurate or invalid information.

One aspect of my deception with Britannica relates to the fact that, when I write things online, I use links as a way to give readers more information, to help them exercise critical thinking, to get them thinking about some concepts and issues, and/or to play with some potential ambiguity. In all of those cases, I want to link to a resource which is straightforward, easy to access, easy to share, clear, and “open toward the rest of the world.”

Britannica is not it. Despite all its “credibility” and perceived prestige, Britannica.com isn’t providing me with the kind of service I’m looking for. I don’t need a reference book in the traditional sense. I need something to give to other people.

After waxing nostalgic about Larousse and ranting about Britannica, I realize how funny some of this may seem, from the outside. In fact, given the structure of the Larousse.fr site, I already think that I won’t find it much more useful than Britannica for my needs and I’ll surely resort to Wikipedia, yet again.

But, at least, it’s all given me the opportunity to stream some thoughts about reference books. Yes, I’m enough of a knowledge geek to enjoy it.


“To Be Verified”: Trivia and Critical Thinking

A friend posted a link to the following list of factoids on his Facebook profile: Useless facts, Weird Information, humor. It contains such intriguing statements about biology, language, inventions, etc.

Similar lists abound, often containing the same tidbits:

Several neat pieces of trivial information. Not exactly “useless.” But gratuitous and irrelevant. The type of thing you may wish to plug in a conversation. Especially at the proverbial “cocktail party.” This is, after all, an appropriate context for attention economy. But these lists are also useful as preparation for game shows and barroom competitions. The stuff of erudition.

One of my first reflexes, when I see such lists of trivia online, is to look for ways to evaluate their accuracy. This is partly due to my training in folkloristics, as “netlore” is a prolific medium for verbal folklore (folk beliefs, rumors, urban legends, myths, and jokes). My reflex is also, I think, a common reaction among academics. After all, the detective work of critical thinking is pretty much our “bread and butter.” Sure, we can become bothersome with this. “Don’t be a bore, it’s just trivia.” But many of us may react from a fear of such “trivial” thinking preventing more careful consideration.

An obvious place to start verifying these tidbits is Snopes. In fact, they do debunk several of the statements made in those lists. For instance, the one about an alleged Donald Duck “ban” in Finland found in the list my friend shared through Facebook. Unfortunately, however, many factoids are absent from Snopes, despite that site’s extensive database.

These specific trivia lists are quite interesting. They include some statements which are easy to verify. For instance, the product of two numbers. (However, many calculators are insufficiently precise for the specific example used in those factoid lists.) The ease with which one can verify the accuracy of some statements brings an air of legitimacy to the list in which those easily verified statements are included. The apparent truth-value of those statements is such that a complete list can be perceived as being on unshakable foundations. For full effectiveness, the easily verified statements should not be common knowledge. “Did you know? Two plus two equals four.”

Other statements appear to be based on hypothesis. The plausibility of such statements may be relatively difficult to assess for anyone not familiar with research in that specific field. For instance, the statement about typical life expectancy of currently living humans compared to individual longevity. At first sight, it does seem plausible that today’s extreme longevity would only benefit extremely few individuals in the future. Yet my guess is that those who do research on aging may rebut the statement that “Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.” Because such statements require special training, their effect is a weaker version of the legitimizing effect of easily verifiable statements.

Some of the most difficult statements to assess are the ones which contain quantifiers, especially those for uniqueness. There may, in fact, be “only one” fish which can blink with both eyes. And it seems possible that the English language may include only one word ending in “-mt” (or, to avoid pedantic disclaimers, “only one common word”). To verify these claims, one would need to have access to an exhaustive catalog of fish species or English words. While the dream of “the Web as encyclopedia” may hinge on such claims of exhaustivity, there is a type of “black swan effect” related to the common fallacy about lack of evidence being considered sufficient evidence of lack.

I just noticed, while writing this post, a Google Answers page which not only evaluates the accuracy of several statements found in those trivia lists but also mentions ease of verifiability as a matter of interest. Critical thinking is active in many parts of the online world.

An obvious feature of those factoid lists, found online or in dead-tree print, is the lack of context. Even when those lists are concerned with a single topic (say, snails or sleep), they provide inadequate context for the information they contain. I’m using the term “context” rather loosely as it covers both the text’s internal relationships (the “immediate context,” if you will) and the broader references to the world at large. Without going into details about philosophy of language, these approaches clearly inform my perspective.

A typical academic, especially an English-speaking one, might put the context issue this way: “citation needed.” After all, the Wikipedia approach to truth is close to current academic practice (especially in English-speaking North America) with peer-review replacing audits. Even journalists are trained to cite sources, though they rarely help others apply critical thinking to those sources. In some ways, sources are conceived as the most efficient way to assess accuracy.

My own approach isn’t that far from the citation-happy one. Like most other academics, I’ve learned the value of an appropriate citation. Where I “beg to differ” is on the perceived “weight” of a citation as support. Through an awkward quirk of academic writing, some citation practices amount to fallacious appeal to authority. I’m probably overreacting about this but I’ve heard enough academics make statements equating citations with evidence that I tend to be weary of what I perceive to be excessive referencing. In fact, some of my most link-laden posts could be perceived as attempts to poke fun at citation-happy writing styles. One may even notice my extensive use of Wikipedia links. These are sometimes meant as inside jokes (to my own sorry self). Same thing with many of my blogging tags/categories, actually. Yes, blogging can be playful.

The broad concept is that, regardless of a source’s authority, critical thinking should be applied as much as possible. No more, no less.


Beer Terminology and Media Coverage

Thomas comments on coverage of the Yakima hop fire.

Bear Droppings :: Crying Over Spilled Beer

Beer and ale, funny I always thought ale was a kind of beer, just goes to show you what happens with you send a unknowledgable reporter to write a story.

Distinguishing “beer” from “ale” is not the most accurate measure of cluelessness in terms of beer. Some terminologies (say, in legal documents) have very specific definitions for those terms, distinguishing them from one another (say, alcohol percentage). Inaccurate for brewers but accurate for many newspaper readers.

Actually, most of the articles on the Yakima hop fire were relatively appropriate in terms of beer knowledge. Not “worthy of beergeek praise” appropriate, but “better than your average wine journalist” appropriate. Be thankful that those articles actually mentions hops as contributing bitterness, flavour, and aroma to beer. Some people seem to think that hops are the main ingredient in beer fermentation.

What I still don’t understand is why some people maintain that the warehouse belonged to Hop Union while most people seem to say it was one of S. S. Steiner Inc.’s warehouse (and those people are quoting a Hop Union warehouse manager who might know whether or not his hops burnt). Of course, it’s still possible that it was in fact a Hop Union warehouse but, if so, it’s rather strange that the Hop Union corporate website makes no mention of this, even to reassure clients.

There definitely should be better media coverage for beer in general. It could potentially help people understand what beer really is. Thankfully, some people, like Joseph Hallinan of the Wall Street Journal and Jennifer Iannolo of Food Philosophy are doing their homeworks and are getting people to learn more about beer.