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Textbook error: Virginia's Confederate troops and the perils of online research

There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damn Lies, and Facts I Found Online.

That seems to be the lesson of the recent debacle over a Virginia textbook's depictions of thousands of black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy. As Kevin Sieff reported today, popular historian Joy Masoff, author of "Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty" and "Oh Yikes! History's Grossest Moments" "relied primarily on an internet search" when she noted in a textbook distributed to Virginia fourth graders that thousands of black soldiers had fought for the Confederacy. Omit the thousands, and this could be plausibly argued and even supported by research. But the facts that Masoff marshaled, about the troops' having served under Stonewall Jackson? Far thinner, on inspection.

Internet research is to research as online dating is to dating. It's more efficient, but you wind up with some pretty bizarre specimens. It's deficient in the same ways that Gchat is flawed in contrast to conversation -- easier and faster, but you miss out on all the subtleties. In real conversations, you can usually be pretty confident that everyone you're talking to is wearing pants. Online? Hardly. Even the people you know can be doing strange things -- say, concept art, or sitting trapped at the bottom of a mine. It's impossible to tell! And the people you don't?

It's the same in internet research.

The reason this Virginia textbook has been caught with its pants down, so to speak, is the fact that we increasingly delegate our information to outside sources. The Internet is the vast, much-lauded hive mind into which we eagerly scan all our knowledge, learning, and -- without much success -- wisdom. "I don't need to clutter up my mind with the capitals of Europe," we observe, twiddling our iPhones. "It's on the Internet somewhere."

But it might be worth considering that having emptier heads is not, in fact, a sign that we've advanced. Because we theoretically possess all kinds of knowledge, we don't actually know much of anything.

And it's dangerous.

We're using iPhone apps to diagnose medical conditions! Machines fly our planes! Soon they'll drive our cars! Apps even exist to tell us if we're ugly or not. These are things we should be able to do ourselves. If you're not certain whether you're ugly, please, ask me, and I can inform you! Another hint is that people will keep mistaking you for an angry coatrack.

Yet in spite of the vast attrition of knowledge, life continues. And somebody will have to write a textbook. And somebody will have to be president.

Look at the people running for office. Based on the debate yesterday, many have concluded that Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell doesn't even have non-trivial knowledge -- say, the contents of the First Amendment. Her public appearances have largely featured her shambling from one blatantly erroneous statement to another -- remember mice with human brains? But she's only the tip of the iceberg. Even Al Gore's made memorable flubs: "E Pluribus Unum -- out of one, many." These are the sort of things to which we are becoming increasingly prone. Look at Rich Iott, the reenactor candidate who can don an SS uniform and spout irrelevant facts about unprecedented German military prowess.

Without much of an education, it's easy to mistake facts for truth. And sometimes they're not even facts.

And that vast online repository of information? Largely, it's either dull or wrong. If it's colorful, it's not unbiased. If it's unbiased, it's strung together in the sort of drab, flaccid, link-heavy sentences that only a machine could love.

In light of this, I think it's time to clear up a significant misperception. People -- inside and outside the classroom -- frequently laud the benefits of Internet research. But the promise of the Internet for research isn't the research you can conduct on a site like Wikipedia. It's the fact that the Internet enables you to access traditional resources like books and articles from all over the world, without, say, driving to the Museum of Confederate history.

What bothers me most in the story about the Virginia textbook that cites the service of black troops for the Confederacy is not the conclusion but how it was reached. The state of Virginia has always faced challenges in commemorating its participation in the Civil War, bound up as its narrative inextricably is with the institution of slavery. This could have simply been one more controversial sentence in a century and a half of such sentences. The problem is that it's a controversial sentence based on online research.

This is akin to the Wikipedia feedback loop in constant fear of which all journalism exists. If you use a fact from Wikipedia, assuming its accuracy, in an article that goes to print, Wikipedia users can cite your article to substantiate the fact you cited. It's a vicious cycle -- call it the misinformation economy. But this can't be the only time it's spread to a textbook, and it won't be the last. We're just fortunate that, in Virginia, the issue was hot enough that it drew our attention.

Maybe the saying should be: those who do not learn history are doomed to rewrite it.

By Alexandra Petri  | October 20, 2010; 1:10 PM ET
Categories:  Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  History, reenacting  
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