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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cooked Books

Even if you are a Wikipedia fan who thinks the site is usually accurate, you can't help but feel that there's an implicit marker on all the content: "Maybe this is correct." That "maybe" is what sticks in the craws of so many people. Teachers often insist that their students cannot cite Wikipedia. Journalists and academics are embarrassed to admit they use it, and most would not consider writing for it. But if your goal is to improve human understanding, isn't one of the world's top websites a better outlet than University of Nebraska Press?

The old model of publishing non-fiction, borrowed largely from academia, promised a straightforward result. You picked up an academic journal to find the latest word on French tax farming in the 18th century. You knew that what you were getting was tried, tested, vetted, and replicated, at least as much as was humanly possible. You thought of the author as laying small bricks for subsequent scientific advances. But this model of knowledge accretion never had the accuracy it pretended to. If I had to guess whether Wikipedia or the median refereed journal article on economics was more likely to be true, after a not so long think I would opt for Wikipedia. This comparison should give us pause.

The issues of trust and accuracy have come to the fore lately with the "revelation" that a number of published autobiographies are little more than fiction. Most notably, Margaret B. Jones's acclaimed new memoir Love and Consequences was discovered to be fraudulent; a week before that, Misha Defonseca's European bestseller Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, first published in 1997, was admitted to be a fabrication. Ms. Defonseca had told tales about running from the Nazis, living with wolves (really), and searching for her deported parents across Europe. Last month the author confessed that most of the story, including her identity, was simply made up.

Let's examine the Defonseca case. The only news here is the belief that the falsity of this story is in fact news. A quick look at Amazon.com shows that the first book review--dated 2001--charges the following: "Uplifting and entertaining though this story may be, it is impossible to tell how much of it is true. Let's face it, no one has ever been brought up by wolves, beautiful idea though it is. I would love to believe that wolves would take care of children, bring them up and feed them, but they don't." As of early March 2008, 48 out of 61 people found that review to be helpful, yet only now is the fabrication a story for the mainstream media. On the academic side, doubts were raised about the book's veracity by potential blurbers even before it was published.

The earliest Wikipedia article I can find on Defonseca comes on French Wikipedia, on February 29, 2008; by the end of that day, one of the revisers noted that the story is false. (By the way, the longer Wikipedia page on literary hoaxes is impressive; see it here.) That the mainstream media did not challenge the original story reflects one of the most important and most pernicious biases of print media and TV. If something isn't reported, people assume it either didn't happen or isn't important. Since just about everything is reported on the web--whether it is true or false--issues of verification become more important than issues of omission. On the positive side, we're less likely to take a lot of claims for granted.

Defonseca's fabrication joins a long list of hoaxes, along with Clifford Irving's fake biography of Howard Hughes, the so-called Hitler Diaries, James Frey's partially false memoir about addiction, James Macpherson's 18th-century marketing of Ossian--and dare I mention the claim that Moses wrote the Torah and thus authored the story of his own demise in Deuteronomy?

Via-Tyler Cowen

Posted by Ajay :: 3:31 PM :: 0 comments

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