ETA: This article was originally published in 1995, as Alter points out, which makes it much more reasonable. It popped up in my Google toolbar, so I can’t tell if the toolbar dredged it out of the archive, or if Newsweek republished it more recently. Not sure what search engine I was using in 1995, or what all content was out there. I should have been suspicious at the lack of abuse of Wikipedia, I suppose.
Cliff Stoll, in a column in Newsweek, says “Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. Hundreds of files show up, and it takes 15 minutes to unravel them–one’s a biography written by an eighth grader, the second is a computer game that doesn’t work and the third is an image of a London monument. None answers my question, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, “Too many connectios, try again later.””
He’s always been a bit of an Internet-skeptic, and a good portion of the points he makes are clearly true. But this one was so far over the top I couldn’t stand it.
See, I tried a quick web search. The most obvious one. I entered “battle of Trafalgar date” (no quotes) into the Google search box. And in less than one second got a clear-cut answer, without even following through any of the links. With enough information to validate the information for most purposes (remembering that encyclopedias contain nonsense sometimes too).
So, the first line gives the desired answer. A couple of other lines give visible confirmation. And if you want to go to extra trouble to check an authoritative source, #5 there is the UK National Archives, which ought to be sufficiently authoritative for most purposes.
So, what’s his problem? Does he actually believe everything he reads in a newspaper, or even in a peer-reviewed astronomical journal? Has something made him completely incapable of performing basic sanity-checks on data when it comes out of his computer?
I’m thinking that teaching people to distrust single-sourced data is going to make people better researchers, and get rid of some of the stupid misinformation that circulates so widely, when it gets deeply enough into the population.
I believe Cliff is younger than I am, but he sounds like somebody who came to the Internet late and just doesn’t relate to the paradigm. I got to it early and was instantly at home. So his writing on the topic grates on me sometimes. To the extent that he’s pointing out real problems that I’m prone to gloss over, that’s a good thing, but it would be better if he avoided exaggerations of this magnitude.