Sunday, August 20, 2006

The (mis)information highway

Something made me think of a quotation I'd heard years ago, and so, like any good netizen, of course I googled what I could recall of it. I duly was presented with a few hundred hits, but in reading the summaries I noticed that part of the quotation as cited in the majority of hits was strangely different from what I remembered. And so I got a useful reminder of how risky it can be to rely on that first screen of Google hits.

Here's the correct quotation:

Truth lies within a little and certain compass, but error is immense.

It's by Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, writing ca. 1716. The first time I read it, many years ago, I loved it for the way it just sticks it to relativism. Hey, bub, there aren't many dissimilar truths about a thing; there is one, and it's closely circumscribed, and you can know what it is if you try hard enough. The vast remainder of what else you might say about the thing are not other truths, or "true for you but not for me"; they're just wrong.

Go get 'em, Henry!

But a funny thing happened to this fine sentence on its way to the web; on website after website that I checked out, it had turned into:

Truth lies within a little uncertain compass, but error is immense.

Just a few letters of difference, but what a change. Now the compass in which truth is to be found is no longer certain; gone is the author's confident assurance that we can know that compass, and the limits of what is true about a thing. We're still told that error is immense, but we can't be sure just where the truth is.

How did this change happen, so that it could be strewn all over the web? I think I can guess.

I suspect that whoever first goofed it up only heard the quotation, and never read it. And the speaker he was listening to slurred the "and" into the sloppy " 'n' " you hear all the time. My imagined listener parsed the " 'n' certain " he had heard into "uncertain", then wrote it down feverishly into his notebook or PDA or laptop, and without checking, or even reading his corrupt version carefully and realizing that it doesn't really make sense with the change, threw it up onto his website. And as things do on the web, it was picked up by one person after another who never checked it, and just trustingly repeated it -- also without noticing that it really didn't make sense.

So the search for truth hasn't really changed much. Centuries ago, when news traveled largely by word of mouth, you knew you couldn't trust everyone, and you honed the skills by which you could tell a reliable person from a rumor-mongering halfwit.

Now, after enormous technological change and the invention of the greatest information-gathering tool ever known, we're still right where we always were: trying to tell the reliable witness from the halfwit, and keep our inheritance of wisdom from morphing into gibberish.