Case study in freshman search syndrome
Free Online Scholarship (FOS) Newsletter
November 26, 2001
by Peter SuberWhen you run a web search on a topic you don't know well, how can you tell when you get authentic information and when you get ideology, superstition, pseudo-science, or even parody? Sometimes you can't, especially if you're downloading pages in a language that isn't your native tongue, in a discipline you haven't mastered, from a culture with a very different sense of humor. Your first-year students aren't the only ones trapped in the cloud of unknowing. Meet al-Qaeda.
When reporters Anthony Loyd and John Simpson walked through the abandoned rooms of an al-Qaeda safe house in Kabul, they found half-burned documents showing that al-Qaeda had been trying to build a nuclear bomb. When they held some of the pages up to a BBC camera, the learned folks at _Daily Rotten_ recognized one as a copy of a 1979 spoof of bomb-building from the _Journal of Irreproducible Results_. One clue to the parody was the source, a humor journal that hosts the Ig Noble Prizes. Other clues were scattered through the article itself. It cites the previous month's column on building a time-machine. It instructs the reader to buy 50 pounds of weapons grade plutonium "at your local supplier" and those who don't have one should contact their "local terrorist organization, or perhaps the Junior Achievement in your neighborhood". The completed bomb makes "a great ice-breaker at parties". For next month's column it promises to teach "how to clone your neighbor's wife in six easy steps" with nothing but kitchen utensils.
Al-Qaeda didn't have sufficient understanding of physics, English, or geek humor to catch this piece in their filters. I would have thought that a native command of English and a good general education would be enough to catch the parody. But it isn't. Anthony Loyd was also taken in --or else this London Times reporter was playing dumb when he described the parody as abstruse and confusing. This small incident wouldn't be worth more than a sentence if it didn't illustrate a problem already common and likely to become more common as FOS and drek continue to grow in juxtaposition on the internet. Every search presupposes unpredictably many variables for discriminating judgment. Without antecedent knowledge, inquirers cannot reliably distinguish new knowledge from error or deception. As Socrates said to Meno: searching for truth is pointless if I'll either find what I already know or be unable to recognize it as truth when I stumble across it. (Plato, _Meno_, 80.d.)
Taliban Thwarted by Irreproducible Result
Farhad Manjoo, Osama's Nuclear Plans Half-Baked
Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), formerly the Journal of Irreproducible Results (JIR)
The 1979 bomb-parody story from JIR(The story is not archived at the JIR/AIR site, but was apparently rekeyed by this site, among many other sites.)
More on the relevance of what Socrates said in the _Meno_
* Postscript. Our new defense against terrorism: Misinformation naturally produced by a free people speaking freely.
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