Saturday, April 25, 2009
"Internet information" poll
Can the information supplied by Internet sources be trusted?
The person that voted "yes" might want to consider the following two examples.
From the consultant [call him William] for an outstanding science library in my city came the April 23rd LH Newsletter. He holds degrees in philosophy of science and has been a fine colleague...I respect his acquired knowledge and opinion.
On Apr. 23, 1868, the Royal Society of London received a paper from William Huggins, an amateur astronomer in London. Huggins was one of the first to apply the newly discovered principles of spectroscopy to study of the stars, and in this paper he announced that he had detected a shift in the spectral lines of the star Sirius. We now call such a shift a "Doppler shift" or, in this case, since the lines moved toward the red end of the spectrum of Sirius, a "red shift". Huggins was able to calculate that Sirius is moving away from us at the rate of about 30 miles per second. This figure is too large, but in fact Sirius is moving away from us, and Huggins' observation was the first detection of a red shift in a celestial object. In modern astronomy, red-shift measurements are used to study binary stars, detect unseen planets around stars, and determine the rate of expansion of the universe, so Huggins was pioneering a most useful tool.
Max Planck, a German physicist, was born Apr. 23, 1858. Planck in the late 1890s was trying to explain a paradox called the "ultraviolet catastrophe." Theory predicted that certain objects called "black bodies" should emit prohibitively prodigious amounts of ultraviolet radiation. In reality, this does not occur. Planck found he could explain the paradox by proposing that energy was not infinitely divisible, but came in small minimal packets. Planck called such a packet a "quantum" of energy. Thus, in 1900, the quantum theory was born. When, five years later, Einstein successfully applied the concept of quanta to light, quantum theory was off and running, and it runs with us still. The only unfortunate side-effect is a misappropriated expression that is in common use. We often employ the term "quantum leap" to denote some sort of large-scale change, when in fact a quantum leap is the very smallest transition that can occur in nature. Go figure.
I was at the same time preparing a post regarding William Rowan Hamilton. My source was Today in Science and sent the following to William...
In 1827, William Rowan Hamilton presented his Theory of Systems of Rays at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. Although he was still an undergraduate, only 21 years old, his work is one of the important works in optics, for it provided a single function that brings together mechanics, optics and mathematics. It led to establishing the wave theory of light, which gives that light is a form of energy that travels in waves.
William Rowan Hamilton's "Theory of Systems of Rays"
Is there an April 23 connection? I couldn't find it in the link. Not that it matters, because I don't write about anything I don't understand, and I certainly don't understand Hamiltonian optics.
At the bottom of the page...
Today in Science
The trouble with most of these lists is that are seriously unreliable, so I don't use them. For example, I looked up the Hamilton paper, by which I mean I actually looked at the volume that contains his printed paper. It was read Dec. 3, 1824, and it was revised for three years, with the printed version being dated June 1827, with a 1 page conclusion dated April 1828. It appeared in the 1828 volume of the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, volume 15, page 69. There is no April 23, 1827 associated with the paper that I can see.
See? These lists just copy from one another, and if something is wrong, it spreads anyway. Your job is to figure out where the Apr 23, 1827 date came from. Somebody had to have started it. Unfortunately, now we will never get rid of it.
It's just a matter of what I have to accept as bona fide information. I am no longer in academic circles and do not receive the benefits of journal access [JSTOR, Pubmed, Springer]. I simply cannot afford to subscribe to the journals and I refuse to pay $80 for a seven page paper. Many times when I attempt to verify something, I run into a brick wall..."pay up or get out." Thus, I am limited, fully realizing Internet errors, to a narrow band of cumulating converging evidence and do the best research I can. Unscientific for sure, but it is all I have. I am forced to follow public dissemination of knowledge.
It is a problem we all have, academics or not, trying to sort the wheat and the chaff, and even if we have the resources, we don't have the time to check everything. My problem is with the big websites, such as Wired, and Answers.com, that never do any original research, but simply pass on stuff that they find on other websites.
This knowledge verification is a terrible nightmare and there will come a time with the Internet when truth and fiction become blurred. This issue extends beyond the current verification as I have just discovered. I have spent a good portion of my life "doing" photography [the aesthetic, historical, and physical] and even worked in films. I am currently doing some research on the horror film genre from 1950 to 1970 and have discovered many obscure films that have resurfaced with a cult following. This particular one, The Manster, has been given three dates of release [1959, 1960, and 1962]--all from reputable motion picture sources including the United States Copyright Office and the popular online IMDb [Internet Movie Database]. Where is the true release date verification? Who is one going to believe? Now, granted my research is silly, but what about a person doing solid academics and writing a Ph.D. paper. Advisers and review boards are not going to take the time for verifications. It's a no win situation. This may well be the Achilles' heel of the Internet when it comes to academics.
Incidentally, I do have issues with journals that charge exorbitant subscription and article rates. There are a few like HYLE that are free and there is arXiv for preprint papers.
It's kind of a vicious infection of misinformation that somehow perpetuates itself. In the first case of the Newsletter item, verification was not revealed through my or William's search capabilities...and he has far more access tools than I do. It's not that the event didn't happen, but that no source proved that it did happen. Scholarship such as this is dubious. Primary sources did not indicate verification of the statements. In the second case, no definitive answer was discovered.
The conclusion to be drawn is that the Internet is filled with knowledge and very difficult to determine accuracy...one cannot assume that all sources provide accurate data.