(fwd) coping with misinformation

Anton Sherwood (dasher@netcom.com)
Fri, 6 Feb 1998 20:02:14 -0800 (PST)

This seems like something in Foresight's line:

To: silent-tristero@world.std.com
From: Jim Propp <propp@math.mit.edu>
Date: Thu, 5 Feb 1998 10:58:57 -0500 (EST)

Is there an "Encyclopedia of Misinformation" in print, or a "False Fun
Facts" data-base on the World Wide Web, or something like that?

I know about the Urban Folklore sites, but I'm looking for something broader.

Here's a sample application: I just read that the mathematician-philosopher
Leibniz once claimed (wrongly!) that when one rolls two dice, one is as
likely to roll an 11 as a 12, because in each case there's "only one way"
(11=5+6, 12=6+6).

Now how can I tell whether Leibniz really said this, or whether it's a false
story that (say) 80% of historians of science believe because _they_ read
about it in books whose authors read about it in other books? After all,
it's such a Fun Fact that it's the kind of thing that would be repeated,
whether it was true or not.

An arduous way to show that something like this is false is to go through
the complete works of Leibniz and fail to find the quotation. (There are
shortcuts, like indexes and concordances, but let's leave that aside.)

A *quick* way to convince oneself that such a rumor is LIKELY to be false
is to find some expert who says "This is a famous legend with no basis in
fact, and the 80% of experts who think otherwise are using second-hand and
third-hand bad information." But in such a case you'd have to ask three
experts before you'd stand a roughly even chance of finding an expert who
was in-the-know.

Also, what if it turns out that the most informed 1% know that the bottom
80% are right after all, and that "Lincoln really _did_ write that speech
on the back of an envelope..."? You really want to get your information
from a public resource of some kind that is subjected to scrutiny by a
wide variety of people. Any particular edition of the "Encyclopedia of
Misinformation" would contain some errors, but one would hope that each
error would be corrected in the very next edition (or that the editors
would at least indicate that there was genuine controversy among the
seemingly equally well-informed about some particular issue). A readily
modifiable data-base would be even better than a book, since mistakes
could be rectified very quickly.

I own a book called "The Experts Speak: the definitive compendium of
authoritative misinformation", but it's not quite what I'm looking for.

Jim Propp
Department of Mathematics