If a Columnist Calls a Tail a Leg…

There was yet another Andrew Keen inspired article last week bemoaning the age of “wikiality” — an age of supposed gullibility of us internet sorts. It begins with shocking news — people are getting quotes wrong, and Web 2.0 is at fault:

Truth: Can You Handle It?
Better Yet: Do You Know It When You See It?
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008; Page M01

How many legs does a dog have, if you call the tail a leg? Four.
Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.

Abraham Lincoln *

[*Note: Lincoln never said this. He liked a similar, more long-winded anecdote about a cow, but the dog version? Nope. Still, the quote is credited to Abe on some 11,000 different Web pages, including quote resources Brainy Quote and World of Quotes.

Though not technically “true,” the quote makes a nice start to this article about truth, being topical and brief, so if we want to go with truth-by-consensus (very popular now), we can go ahead and just say that he said it.]

Hesse then explains the crisis:

Andrew Keen describes it as “the cult of the amateur” in his same-named book. Stephen Colbert called it “wikiality” — meaning, “a reality where, if enough people agree with a notion, it must be true.

Information specialists call it the death of information literacy.

What’s really amusing about the Hesse article is that her initial example – the Lincoln quote – is an example where the web was more correct — and the web could have shown her that. The web has well known conventions for dealing with authority and making truth more verifiable, and when these conventions are embraced rather than rejected, one gets better results.

Follow along while we compare what it takes to verify truth on the web, and what it takes the “old world”…

Score one for wiki-world

Hesse seems to be claiming that the web (and it’s tendency to magnify casual opinion over scholarship) was responsible for this quote being wrong. But was the quote actually wrong? That seemed an important point — and nothing in the article seemed to prove the “Brainy Quote” version false — nothing, that is, beyond her simple assertion.

I decided to use the web to find older, more authoritative references to the “false” quote. It was easy once I realized that I should include the phrase “said Lincoln” to filter out simple non-contextualized quotes, such as one finds in quote lists. In fact, once I figured that out, an extremely early instance was on the first page of results [Note: my posting this article appears to have altered that result set]. It appears in a work called Lincoln’s Own Stories published in 1912:

Once when a deputation visited him and urged emancipation before he was ready, he argued that he could not enforce it, and, to illustrate, asked them: How many legs will a sheep have if you call the tail a leg?” They answered, “Five.” “You are mistaken,” said Lincoln, “for calling a tail a leg don’t make it so”; and that exhibited the fallacy of their position more than twenty syllogisms.

It took less than fifteen minutes to prove the Hesse article wrong: far from being an false product of the wild web, the quote has an extremely good provenance. There’s a small matter of it being a sheep mentioned, but it matches the “wiki” quotes far better than the “long-winded anecdote” about a cow that Hesse favors.

Incidentally, the web can even show you how the “sheep” may have become a “dog”: Christopher Morely uses the modified Lincoln quote in Parnassus on Wheels in 1917 citing a dog, Wikipedia shows us he was an editor of several editions of Bartlett’s Quotations, which probably explains why the quote appears in his editions of Bartlett’s in the dog variation (no full text online, but see cites here).

That doesn’t seem to me a problem of authority. And it certainly has nothing to do with Web 2.0.

Score zero for the world of “authority”

Then, I decided to try it the other way round — could I prove the Hesse version of the Lincoln quote was from an even more trustworthy source?

Here’s where it gets ridiculous — the article that is bemoaning that people simply believe what they read provides no source for their version of the quote. So whereas you, the reader of this blog, can click the link “Lincoln’s Own Stories” to verify my assertion, to verify something in traditional media requires launching a federal investigation.

To try to find the source for her quote, I took the fact that it involved a cow, and probably contained the core phrase “calling a tail a leg”. Google Web search turned up nothing of use. Google Scholar turned nothing up, neither did Google Book Search. Figuring the author probably read this in a book (or saw it in a documentary) I tried Amazon’s full text search. Bingo.

The keywords I had chosen occurred in the biography “Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald. But the book was not providing a useful context snippet to Amazon. So I went down to the library, and got the book out. I looked up “emancipation” in the index — far too many pages listed. Looked up cow, and of course found nothing. Ugh.

My lunch break was slipping away. In a moment of insight, I went to the terminal in the library and pulled up Amazon.com. I did “search inside the book” again. While the snippet didn’t appear, it gave me the page number: page 396. I turned to the page — Aha! There was the source of the Hesse version. It talked of a long-winded anecdote about a Western case involving a cow.

Which raises the question: why do the defenders of “truth” want to make it so hard to verify their sources?

(The answer, in case you haven’t guessed yet, is they aren’t defenders of truth. They are defenders of authority. And from Ancient Egypt on, authority was maintained by having exclusive access to information… )

I won’t belabor this much longer. The source of the quote in the Lincoln biography is an obscure quarterly from 1950, the nearest available copy of which is in Worcester, about an hour and a half away. I thought of getting the article through Interlibrary Loan, but realized from the title “A Conference with Abraham Lincoln: From the Diary of Nathan Brown” that even if I got the journal, the article relied on a diary that would not be accessible to me.

So the Hesse version appears based on a single, non-primary source which references a journal article the author didn’t read, and the journal article references a diary that neither the author of the WaPo article or the author of the biography has ever seen.

It’s a big circle of trust, none of it linkable. And yet the web people, who are insisting on verifiable, linked sources are somehow the intellectually sloppy ones.

A final check

Still, given my source was from 1912, and the unverifiable source was likely contemporary, I could only prove that the quote being bemoaned as a prodct of “wikiality” had a good history, and was more verifiable. I couldn’t prove that it was more likely. So I called in a favor. I used to be a programmer for the amazing Readex “Early American Newspapers” project, the project to create a searchable full text database of this nation’s periodicals from pre-revolutionary times until 1876. So I emailed a person I know that still programs there. I asked them if they could punch in “Lincoln” and “calling a tail a leg” into the product and send me back the first results.

Sixty seconds later I had my answer — Web: 1, Books: 0.

What Lincoln said to the party visiting him — well, it was reported in the Chicago Tribune at the time.

And it’s not a “long-winded anecdote about a cow”, but rather, it’s much closer to that quote that appears in all those crazy wikis.

Headline: Lincoln’s Own Construction of His Proclamation;
Article Type:News/Opinion
Paper: Macon Telegraph, published as Macon Daily Telegraph;
Date: 10-23-1862; Issue: 841; Page: [3];

LINCOLN’S OWN CONSTRUCTION OF HIS PROCLAMATION — A little while anterior to Lincoln’s interview with the clerical committee (says the Chicago Tribune) a couple of other abolition fanatics found their way to the President and pressed upon him the emancipation scheme, and this was his reply: You remember the slave who asked his master — if I should call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs would it have? ’Five’ ’No, only four, for my calling a tail a leg would not make it so.”

(Incidentally, the Readex Collection of Early American Newspapers is the most exciting thing going on in historical databases today — if your institution doesn’t have a license to it, you’re not serious about American History. Go check it out…)

I realize this is a Macon paper (hardly an uninterested party) quoting the Chicago Tribune (as was the custom in early papers). But there are plenty of other hits from other papers in the list as well — I’m staying on the clear side of fair use here, but they are there to be discovered by any user of Readex.

Suffice it to say, however, that the quote, and Hesse’s problem with it, are far more telling than she anticipated.

The subtitle of her article asks if you’ll know truth “when you see it”.

It’s a good question, but Hesse has the battery wired backwards.

The answer, from any web literate scholar, is if you make it easy for me to check it, maybe I will know it when I see it. The web does that in spades, which allows us, ironically, to repair the errors that the Washington Post generates.

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27 Comments on “If a Columnist Calls a Tail a Leg…”

  1. Zedman says:

    Mike,

    What an outstanding rebuttal of the Hesse article that is gaining a lot of traction in and around the Web lately. What really struck me was how easy it was for you to search the web to verify the quote from original sources based on your own experience and skill-set. My concern is that even if I wanted to verify the original quote, I am not sure that I could have executed the same process that you did. Since I do not have sophisticate search and verify skills myself, the question that immediately popped into my head was: How well could my own students execute a similar rebuttal of Hesse? Am I providing them with the training to be able to search and verify information on the web in a similar critical fashion? I will certainly take this lesson to heart and use it as a teaching moment in my Critical Reasoning course. Thanks for showing me what I didn’t know I didn’t know…

  2. Mike says:

    I have an advantage here obviously — in graduate school I studied discourse linguistics, where much of the work was searching through corpora trying to find examples. I worked at Newsbank for a year, building search interfaces to early newspapers, that likely helped as well.

    With the Google searching, the key is to imagine words that would appear in the sort of document you want and not in the sort of document you don’t want. People usually focus on searching for topics, and that’s where they go wrong. Do the topic and see what you get back. Think about words that are likely to appear in the result set you want, but not in the one you don’t want — that’s where the “said Lincoln” trick comes in.

    Or even more directly, imagine your *perfect* result. That’s how I got the result set here, by imagining initially a quote that had “replied Lincoln” in it, which gave me a good, but not old enough set of results, and then moving to “said Lincoln” OR “Lincoln said”.

    Of course, now *I’m* at the top of the “said Lincoln” results, but there you go.

    This stuff could be taught, but my experience is that far too much time is focussed on the use of indexes relative to the use of full text search. And the principles are entirely different in many respects — so I’m not sure the person who teaches the students index use always is an expert in full-text search…all the same, it should certainly be taught.

    On a related note I see that this post has pushed the 1912 instance off the results page, I’m going to edit that statement now…

  3. [...] Caulfield provides a brilliant rebuttal of a stupid column (by Monica Hesse in the Washington Post) supporting the ideas of a moronic book [...]

  4. [...] Stephen Downes already linked to it, so this may be irrelevant, nonetheless if you missed Mike Caulfield’s post about Monica Hesse’s article in the Washington Post, be sure to check it out, it is [...]

  5. Brian says:

    I concur with Jim’s laudatory post trackbacked above. This post is a thing of beauty.

  6. Beautifully done.

    Thanks for breaking this down.

    I’m curious if the Post will respond to their inaccuracy in any way.

    Cheers,

    Bill

  7. martha says:

    simply brilliant rebuttal.

  8. Terry Heaton says:

    Mike, this is breathtakingly brilliant. Thank you for the work, and I predict you’ll find this showing up as a reference in future history books. Well done.

  9. A great (and terrifying) illustration of the dire state of new media literacy among traditional media practitioners. Really excellent work.

  10. Ritchie says:

    I would REALLY like to know about any response from the Post. I’d like to know if your article was read by the Post writer–whether or not you got a response. Is there a way to find rumors about the Post authors talking with anybody–who would then write about it on a blog?

    What sort of search words and phrases would one have to use to find quotes from the original author of the Post article that others might have heard and then posted on the web?

    And so on…

  11. Mike says:

    Thanks for all the comments…on possible retractions/coorections from WaPo: I’ve done enough political blogging to know that a retraction is unlikely. Lincoln ain’t gonna put up a stink about Ms. Hesse misquoting him, and if you look at the article there’s really no one who is tied to defending wikiality to raise a fuss either — the article is surprisingly devoid of defenders of web 2.0 —

    But who knows — I’ve been surprised before.

  12. WikiWorld « says:

    [...] WikiWorld 12 May 08, 10:25 am Filed under: blogosphere, random Our WikiWorld: Mike Caulfield deconstructs a recent WP writer’s bemoaning of the “cult of the amateur.” [via] No [...]

  13. Interesting example of the value of the web. For an astonishing, Smithsonian example of the disadvantage of “authority,” see my post “a peculiar advantage of Wikipedia.”

  14. Mike says:

    Doug — that’s a great article, tagging it on del.icio.us momentarily…

  15. Edna Searles says:

    Thanks! I wanted to draw a picture based on this quote and wanted to get the quote correct. You have and I thank you. I’ll draw a sheep now.

  16. Mike says:

    Edna — that is the most unexpected comment ever, but I love it. Glad I could help!

    Let me know when the picture is done, I’d love to put it up here.

  17. [...] that the Washington Post generates.” Mike Caulfield, Weblog, May 8, 2008 [Tags: Books] [Link] [...]

  18. flw says:

    Mike,

    Interesting exercise, but you’re doing a lot of speculating about the writer’s research. Perhaps Hesse does have a more authoritative source than you were able to find?

    Which leads me to Ritchie, who wrote:
    “I would REALLY like to know about any response from the Post. I’d like to know if your article was read by the Post writer–whether or not you got a response. Is there a way to find rumors about the Post authors talking with anybody–who would then write about it on a blog?”

    Umm, why not try contacting her directly to ask where she got the quote? Writers aren’t hard to reach, their emails are posted at the top of every article.

  19. Mike says:

    @flw:

    To your specific point — if you are saying that she researched it enough to know about the sheep quote in contemporary papers, yet decided not to use the quote, that’s an ethical concern. And if you are saying that you believe, based what was in the article, unsourced, that she reviewed a primary source, I’d ask you what odds you’d take on that bet.

    Regardless, I think you’re missing the more important point — if I have to speculate about her sources, her article becomes an exercise in irony. The whole point of the article is what makes something “true”.

    Her answer is because her pay stub says WaPo on it.

    What protects truth on the internet is transparency. It’s kind of a major flaw in an article about truth on the internet to not get that.

  20. flw says:

    Mike,

    We’ll have to respectfully disagree that the “whole point of the article is what makes something “true” and that her “answer is because her pay stub says WaPo on it.”

    First, I didn’t read that as the “whole point.” I read a number of running themes/questions, like:
    -what is the difference between information and knowledge?
    -what role does the repetition of information, especially in the internet age, play regarding accuracy?
    -in a world with lots of information, what’s the best way to sort it all out?

    Second, you suggest her answer is “because her pay stub says WaPo on it.” Really? I didn’t think she attempted to provide us with any answers, just questions and different perspectives (e.g., those of the teachers and students).

    My original point was that you could have simply contacted her directly to ask, but you didn’t.

    Ironically, it seems that you sort of played into a theme in the article: how best to sort through information. You sorted through multiple sources (often times returning to the web when you hit roadblocks). But you never approached the writer directly on her source?

    You then go on to make a number of assertions, at one point suggesting that “the Hesse version appears based on a single, non-primary source which references a journal article the author DIDN’T READ [emphasis added]…”

    Really, how do you know? Is this a true statement, or just truthy? If it’s not true will it become true – if it is attributed here and repeated enough?

    How DO you sort through all that info out there? That’s the question, with different people offering different answers, as the article suggests.

  21. Mike says:

    @flw; I really don’t think we have any common ground for discussion here. My point is you are not addressing the substance of my article. And I think reading my article in good faith one would have to assume the burden of proof is on the Washington Post.

    Regardless of how she got her information, it turned out to be false. We can assume she trekked to a library or museum somewhere to view the original document if we want to do such a thought experiment, but ultimately that’s a minor point. That amount of effort, had it still produced her faulty conclusion, would merely call attention to other absurdities. An email from her clarifying why she put out an erroneous article would be nice for me, but it wouldn’t change the fact that she has wrongly impugned BrainyQuote and other web resources, when in fact a very cursory examination of web resources would have revealed that the web had nothing to do with propogating this quote, and the the web quote was most likely the right quote.

    It’s quite possible that had chance gone differently she would have chosen an example where the web actually did result in a degradation of truth. Had she chosen such an example then perhaps our conversation would be different, But that didn’t happen and although I’ve repeatedly read my post next to your critique, I can only see your critique as a sort of thought experiment, interesting, but making far stranger assumptions than mine, and not really addressing the reality.

    But you’re right, we’ll have to agree to disagree here.

  22. flw says:

    Mike,

    We seem to be talking past each other, so let me try a different approach:

    You continue to suggest that the quote turned out to be false, based on your research. I continue to suggest that she may indeed have a better source than you, which otherwise proves the quote true. And my point was that you could have contacted the writer at some point to ask for the source.

    But I guess that would undermine your argument about verifiability and transparency and effort, in which you seem to argue that it’s really hard to verify sources with traditional media, whereas all one needs to do on the web is click around the links on your blog. I think that is a bit of a straw man. My suggestion in contacting the writer was precisely because it’s easy, not much more effort than the web. They make it easy, with an email at the top of the article. No need -as you put it- to launch a “federal investigation.” All you needed to do was contact the writer, which seems simple.

    As I said before, you spend a lot of time assuming where her sources were from. Maybe you got all of them, maybe not. But you don’t know. Worse, you conclude that the writer didn’t read some of the primary sources. Your reason? Apparently, since it was too much trouble for you to get the InterLibrary Loan, it must have been for her, too. So she must not have done the work. Umm, to conclude that, with no verifiable support is, at best, irresponsible. And, if you’re wrong, it’s another example of where something on the web is not true.

    As to your other minor point: that were she to go to all this research trouble and find the primary sources, it only proves the absurdity of the effort needed for the old way. Well, that sort of takes us back to the the article, which seems to suggest that –in most cases (and as the students interviewed would probably agree), the web works just fine, and you get results that are pretty accurate. But there are some (librararians and teachers) who think that, when you need something really accurate, perhaps a bit more work, a bit more effort, is called for.

    Thanks for your indulgence.

  23. Charles says:

    I found this information on the web, http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/2007/05/23/lincoln-quote-sourced-calfs-tail-not-dogs-tail/
    and I have NOT read the cited book. It seems to verify parts of the story and leaves others uncertain. For what it is worth:

    * * * * *

    But there is always the doubt: Is the story [of calling the dog's leg a tail] accurate? Is this just another of the dozens of quotes that are misattributed to Lincoln in order to lend credence to them?

    I have a source for the quote: Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by distinguished men of his time / collected and edited by Allen Thorndike Rice (1853-1889). New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1909. This story is found on page 242. Remarkably, the book is still available in an edition from the University of Michigan Press. More convenient for us, the University of Michigan has the entire text on-line, in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, an on-line source whose whole text is searchable.

    However, Lincoln does not tell the story about a dog — he uses a calf.

    Rice’s book is a collection of reminiscences of others, exactly as the title suggests. Among those doing the reminiscing are ex-president and Gen. U. S. Grant, Massachusetts Gov. Benjamin Butler (also a former Member of Congress), Charles A. Dana the editor and former Assistant Secretary of War, and several others. In describing Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, George W. Julian relates the story. Julian was a Free-Soil Party leader and a Member of Congress during Lincoln’s administration. Julian’s story begins on page 241:

    Few subjects have been more debated and less understood than the Proclamation of Emancipation. Mr. Lincoln was himself opposed to the measure, and when he very reluctantly issued the preliminary proclamation in September, 1862, he wished it distinctly understood that the deportation of the slaves was, in his mind, inseparably connected with the policy. Like Mr. Clay and other prominent leaders of the old Whig party, he believed in colonization, and that the separation of the two races was necessary to the welfare of both. He was at that time pressing upon the attention of Congress a scheme of colonization in Chiriqui, in Central America, which Senator Pomeroy espoused with great zeal, and in which he had the favor of a majority of the Cabinet, including Secretary Smith, who warmly indorsed the project. Subsequent developments, however, proved that it was simply an organization for land-stealing and plunder, and it was abandoned; but it is by no means certain that if the President had foreseen this fact his preliminary notice to the rebels would have been given. There are strong reasons for saying that he doubted his right to emancipate under the war power, and he doubtless meant what he said when he compared an Executive order to that effect to “the Pope’s Bull against the comet.” In discussing the question, he used to liken the case to that of the boy who, when asked how many legs his calf would have if he called its tail a leg, replied, ” Five,” to which the prompt response was made that calling the tail a leg would not make it a leg.

    I believe it is fair to call the story “confirmed.” It’s not an exact quote, but it’s an accurate story.

    * * * * *

    Sincerely yours, Charles

  24. Mike says:

    I think so, between the work you cite and contemporary newspapers it’s clear the story way a boy/slave answers a question about a calf/sheep. It seems that Lincoln may have told this a number of times as well, and likely varied livestock with audience.

    What is also increasingly clear is that the “long winded anecdote” has no available sourcing, other than perhaps the biography mentioned above. The quote, for all intents and puposes, looks very much like the BrainyQuote version.

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