Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Reproduction of Error: Online "Stemma" and Fact-Checking

In the good ol' days (if we may adopt the cranky voice of the codger, as the following may be news to some of the youngins) books, whether scrolls or codices1, used to be copied by hand, and it was possible for scholars to create family trees of manuscripts based on the errors in a parent manuscript and the history of subsequent copies, or "children," made from that parent manuscript. This has been important especially for Greek, Roman, and Biblical authors and our desire for authoritative texts. Such a tree is called a "stemma" - just like the stems of a tree branch out from the main trunk.

The very same thing is visible online. Indeed the speed and ease with which online errors2 get reproduced is astonishing, and this accounts for much academic crankiness with wikipedia and other open-source intellectual endeavors. (At the same time, errors are much easier to correct in collaborative environments, as we will see.)

Anyone who reads this blog is almost certain to also read Virginia Green's SHINE blog. It's a heroic endeavor to create 150 year-by-year snapshots of Salem to celebrate the sesquicentennial of its charter.

Back on February 17th Green posted this note about Sam Adolph in 1878.

She wrote:
The Adolph house on State Street is completed with Sam and Lottie Adolph as the first owners. Mr. Adolph was secretary-treasurer of Rostein and Adolph, Inc., a property and casualty insurance company formed in 1931 by Mr. Adolph and his brother-in-law, Mr. Rostein. Lottie Adolph resided here on the 5-acre estate as a widow and was followed by her son-in-law, Isadore Greenbaum.

Four months later, in the June 13th Sunday Statesman, she wrote the same:

Since "5-acre" was changed to "five-acre," the column passed through some amount of editing.

What did not get edited, either by Green or by a Statesman fact-checker, is that two Sam Adolphs are confused here, father and son. The error is easy to make, but it is worrisome that the errors aren't getting caught before or at the Statesman.

Sam Adolph senior built the Adolph house on State street in 1878. Note the similarity with the Bush House. Adolph also built the Adolph block in 1880 and had earlier been involved in several breweries, appearing often here in our posts.

Sam Adolph's son, also named Sam, built a different house on Commercial street in 1927. This Sam married Lottie and partnered with Edward Rostein in an insurance company.

On internal grounds alone, an editor ought to see that a person building a house in 1878 might not also be forming an insurance company in 1931. An adult in 1878 is more likely retiring in 1931 than starting new companies! At the very least the dates raise a flag.

Why does this matter? Because online information gets reproduced very quickly - and we're sure sixth graders are already using these resources for their history reports! Soon, the conflation of the two Sam Adolphs will create a stemma of articles based the error introduced on SHINE. (We spend time, for example, unwinding some of the errors that Ben Maxwell has introduced and others have reproduced.)

We've also said before - complained, if you must - that the local history community is missing and silent. It's one thing for them not to be paying attention to some wacky beer & vice blog (though we hold ourselves to the highest standards and believe we are in a few cases uncovering hitherto unknown or forgotten stories in Salem history), but for them to be ignoring Green's enterprise, since we believe she is an established figure in local history circles, is ridiculous. There should be a lively back-n-forth of correction, commentary, and addition to the SHINE blog! (We also think that Green might be more collegial about linking to other sources, but that's another matter.)

So why are folks silent? Why isn't there a creative, collaborative ruckus? The silence means that the Statesman is reproducing errors! Aren't there people out there who care about this sort of thing??? Is anybody home?

1Now, before you say of that top image "looks like Greek to me", bear in mind that it is Greek! It is, in fact, the end of the Gospel of Mark from the Codex Sinaiticus, perhaps the oldest complete text of the Bible, a 4th century manuscript. Sinaiticus ends with Mark 16:8. Many Bibles, however, continue with Mark 16:9-20. Not all manuscripts differ with alternate endings, however! Other differences in manuscripts might be a single word, a repeated line, even a single letter. Though we want to think of texts as very stable, especially sacred texts like the Bible, they are in fact liable to significant variation. On the internet copy-n-paste can make text stable, but if an error is in the copy-n-paste, the error spreads easily.

2Internet memes, too!

No comments:

Post a Comment