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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2008/04/23
by David Steinberg

The End of the Tall Tale

One of the underreported ways the Internet is having on the world is that it is changing the method in which information is disseminated from top down to bottom up. Primary sources used to be difficult to procure and even when you had them, it wasn't easy to find the data you needed. The filters of newspapers and television colored the facts and even those lived largely in people's memories where they got distorted. A politician could say something about the 1932 election and few would be bothered to hunt through the microfiche to find the New York Times and double-check their information.

Now though, everything is out there and easily findable with a Google search. For the most part this is fun, useful, and rather empowering. The political world hasn’t yet adapted to this change, which gives many of us a chance to have fun. There’s an army of millions of people who are bored at work and have access to all of the information that humans have produced. What do they do with that? Challenge the gatekeepers of information.

I am writing this on the morning after the Pennsylvania primary. In any other year (with the possible exception of 2004, but even that probably was too soon), the statement, "Clinton won Pennsylvania by 10 points," would be accepted and we’d move on. This though is the era of infinite experts and nothing is that easy. The first thing I learned when I fired up my computer is that Clinton didn’t win by 10, she won by 9.4 if you compute the percentages with the actual numbers. The double-digit lead doesn’t exist. Then I saw an argument that if you go directly to the PA official results page, Clinton is up by 8.6. "Oh that’s a mistake," said the response to that. Lancaster County reported one set of results on their website and that’s what the news sources are using but the Pennsylvania Department of State page has different (probably erroneous) information. Not only was it instinct for people to check primary sources, but they even knew where the primary sources got their information and people bothered to fact check that to find the discrepancy.

Details of the political process used to be denied to us due to the not unreasonable assumption that the vast majority of the population just didn’t care about the details. Now though, the combination of a tightly contested primary and curiosity means that even the media is finding themselves talking about superdelegates. Not only do we know the difference between pledged and unpledged delegates, but the difference between general unpledged delegates and add ons [1] is out there too.

I have to confess that I too got into this game. At the height of the Reverend Wright kerfuffle, a New York Times columnist claimed that Obama was at one of the controversial sermons. Obama said that he wasn’t there, so evidence that he was present would give the scandal new legs. There was only one slight problem with this. There were primary documents, complete with video, showing that Obama was in Florida about 90 minutes after the service got out. It was logistically impossible. Armed with that information, I started a push back movement on an activist site. An ally found contact information for the paper and they were flooded with calls. The reward? Not only did they put a correction on the top of the page above the column meaning that no one could ever use it as a primary source without noticing that, but we all received an email from the Times saying, "You are correct, he was wrong." Now that’s the power of information.

While breaking the monopoly of information is wonderful, something is lost. I was watching Big Fish the other week and lamenting this. The movie is largely about the tall tales that the protagonist’s father tells and his quest to find out what among that was the truth. The father was raised in a world of myths and legends where an abandoned house became haunted and a circus could come to town and promise you wonders. Those days are gone.

Legends form out of a gap in knowledge. We don’t know what’s going on in a situation, so we make up a (somewhat) plausible tale to try to fill in the gap. Only now, if you’re wondering why something is true, the debate and theorizing can only last for so long before someone grabs their Internet enabled phone and finds out what the real story is. The ethos of the early 21st century is debunking. Mythbusters tries to find out which urban legends are true, and the fans argue back at them if they think their experiments are flawed; not even the skeptics are immune to having their facts challenged these days. Rob Neyer recently wrote a book researching the truth behind old baseball stories. And, of course, Hillary Clinton couldn’t tell a reasonably innocent story about facing sniper fire without the rather tamer video surfacing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d much rather have a world of knowledge than one where wondrous legends are spun for the masses while only the elites have access to true information. It’s great to have both access to any fact we would want and an easy way of searching that. Just every now and then when you’re loading Google to find out the details of the contested 1876 election [2], raise your glass to the passing of an era. To a time of myths and legends. May we find a way to believe in you still.

[1] Unpledged delegates or superdelegates are elected officials or party leaders who get to go to the convention and cast a vote for whomever they want. Add ons are delegates that are chosen by the state parties’ conventions in ways that are usually reflective of the delegate count as a whole. In an election where Clinton needs a vast supermajority of these delegates to flip to somehow secure the nomination, discovering that about 30% of them will largely mirror the state selections where Obama was already leading was important news.

[2] Seriously, read that page. Can you imagine the riots if something like that happened today? If you ever want to be reminded about the advantages of a high information society, that shows you what happens when people don’t understand the process.

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html

He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.

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