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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
Tags:  Alexandra Petri  
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Amen! People who swear by Wikipedia are doomed to be wrong a lot of the time. But the rest of the internet may be worse. I could start a web site and say anything I want as fact. That doesn't make it true. Hopefully we all will get smarter about that, but probably not before many more cases like this one occur.

It's sort of like the missile defense shield (Star Wars at one time). They can say it will work, but they won't know until they have to test it against an unfriendly missile.

Computer programs that control the shield may be tested many times, but software always has bugs. And one persons fact is another persons whopper.

We should not be depending on either the internet or the missile shield for anything.

Posted by: tojo45 | October 20, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Don't crap on the internet as a whole just because the vast majority of morons don't know how to conduct proper research. There are numerous examples of perfectly legitimate research websites; take EBSCOHost for example. The internet has simply made it easier for stupid people to conduct poor research. When used properly, it gets the job done just fine and in many instances ends up far more useful than a library.
Just because something has been published in a book does not suddenly make it more legitimate than Wikipedia, it just means someone saw profit in publishing it. It all comes down to proper research and knowing how to vet sources. Unfortunately, that is something to which the vast majority of the populace is completely unaccustomed. If you can't take it at face value it's too much work!

Posted by: Aashen | October 20, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Prof. Sheriff learning about the falsehoods in this book was completely accidental. Her own child happened to have the offending item as part of her schoolbooks and she perused it.

Furthermore, this is not the first time. A few years ago, some leaders in the Christian Reconstruction movement out in Idaho published a 'classical' text book that described slaves as happy and content, among other outrages. It was distributed in various schools. The SCV is constantly attempting to influence local schools by offering to 'teach' history in the South. It has also arranged field trips to its biased activities. Some principals accept because they are naive, others because they are sympathetic to neo-Confederate beliefs. One of the SCV's sneakiest pranks was to place headstones on graves in a few black cemeteries, claiming the men who were buried there fought for the Confederacy, not all that long ago. There is more to this problem the just one poorly written book. Those of us who follow hate groups know they are continually active in promoting their propaganda.

Posted by: query0 | October 21, 2010 6:35 AM | Report abuse

There are some credible sources on the Net, Like the Washington Post. But saying you found it online is more akin to saying you read it in the library or at a bookstore. A real research book or paper will give a source with an author and Book name, or a URL and date.

Posted by: glenglish | October 21, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

One need only study the state of prehistoric horses in textbooks starting in the late 1800s to appreciate how delicate truth is. I read the referenced Gould essay years ago and recommend it today. The gist...

"In his classic essay, The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone (collected in Bully for Brontosaurus), the late Stephen Jay Gould tracked the occurence of the phrase "about the size of a fox terrier" through several biology textbooks in the first half of the twentieth century. This phrase was and is a persistent descriptor for Hyracotherium/Eohippus, the earliest and smallest member of the horse phylogeny. A combination of popular memorability, creative apathy, and naked plagiarism has kept this metaphor running since the 1920s though many people ninety years on won't know what a fox terrier looks like." == Rice, genes, and fox terriers on ortholog (by Zac Hanley)

Why a fox terrier? It has a saddle.

Posted by: NancyNaive | October 21, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

1) BTW, for those who condemn it... Wikipedia is an EXCELLENT starting point. Taken with a grain of salt, it will give the user a jumping off point for primary source documents.

2) Check out textbook publisher McMillan's "DynamicBooks"... be afraid. Be very afraid. Wait until the Creationist home-schoolers, southern-, stalin-, and hitler-apologists get ahold of that...

Posted by: NancyNaive | October 21, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

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