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?

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 product 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 search interface 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.