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Tilting at Windmills

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June 21, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DIGITAL BUFFOONS....I'd be willing on general principle to link to any essay that denounces "neo-Luddite quasi-Mandarins," but I'm especially willing to do so when the target is Michael Gorman, dean of library services at CSU Fresno and, for the nonce, useful idiot for the Encyclopedia Britannica empire. Jeebus. This guy was a nitwit when I first ran into him three years ago, and apparently he's still a nitwit. I mean, does it even occur to him that it's possible to use the internet and read books as ways of learning and doing research? It remains unclear to me why he seems to find this combination so unlikely.

This is via Henry Farrell, who has a PhD but nonetheless has the good taste to agree that Gorman's attack on the internet is shallow nonsense, much of it little more than "an extended rejoinder to our old friend, Some Dude in a Comments Section Somewhere." Sez Henry: "I can see why the Encyclopedia Britannica has an urgent interest in pushing this line, but I don't understand why the intellectual standards of argument among its appointed critics is so low."

Indeed. There really are some interesting things to say about credulous overreliance on Google as a way of performing research, but Gorman isn't the guy to pull it off. Better attack dogs, please.

Kevin Drum 5:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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The only legitimate attack on the internet is that it may make individuals dumber even as it makes the culture on the whole smarter.

Any other anti-net premise is learned nonsense.

Posted by: ROFLMLiberalAO on June 21, 2007 at 6:17 PM | PERMALINK

Books and the hard-copied media don't offer the best sources in every case either. When I was an undergrad, I was writing my senior thesis in the field of Chinese history, and when consulting an encyclopedia for some definitional clarification, I went to the first Chinese History encyclopedia that I came across, from the Greenwood Press, I believe. I don't want to knock on Greenwood, but there is a Cambridge University counterpart which is just a better resource. Of course, I went back and used the better source for the definition when its existence was pointed out to me. Were I writing a review on the American welfare system, I would consult all kinds of sources, but I wouldn't consult pieces by Ann Coulter, or William Buckley - duh, they're not academic sources. The internet poses the same problems, and also offers many benefits. Many scholastic journals and academic societies provide vast amounts of information on the internet. The International Labour Organization, the IMF, the OECD, the UN, and the EU all offer pots of statistical gold online. Journalists, scholars, and students have nearly unlimited access to these sources. Then again, there's wikipedia, which is great, but not academic. It would be inappropriate to cite wikipedia, just like it would be inappropriate to cite a book by Michael Moore, Coulter, or Gore - they're not peer reviewed, they're not academic, they're not held to that higher standard. The internet has not changed that, and a regression toward print only media would not change it either. It comes down, as it always has, to personal judgement, common sense, and peer review.

Posted by: Everblue Stater on June 21, 2007 at 6:24 PM | PERMALINK

Google is great place to start scientific research. You have to know what you are looking for and block out all the crap (patents, japanese pharmaceutical journals, etc.), but it's a decent way to find active research groups. You sometimes even find paper drafts and internal NASA proposals you'd never find otherwise. Not to mention the batshit crazy stuff put out there by schizophrenic insomniacs. I wish I had downdloaded a few humorous websites discussing termites and their role in mass extinctions.

But then again most scientific journals or poorly written chaotic assemblages of information one has to weed through with diligence. You pretty much have to have ADD to survive in science, or find yourself a calm little field with little going on.

As an aside, if a journal doesn't make itself widely available electronically it is going to take a serious hit in terms of citations.

Posted by: B on June 21, 2007 at 6:32 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not sure I fully reckon the nub of your gist, Kevin, but if you are saying both the Internet and hardcopy books have their place in the world of learning, I wholeheartedly agree. I certainly use both. My experience suggests people who use only or the other do not have the breadth and depth of knowledge of people that do.

In fact, my casual observation is that some of the people who post here haven't cracked a book in years and act as if because they can't find a piece of information by doing a Google search, it doesn't exist. Fools.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on June 21, 2007 at 6:35 PM | PERMALINK

...educators now devote the better part of their day to teaching students to shove pencils up their nose while Googling for pornography.

I guess I took all the wrong classes when I was in school, all those years ago. I wasted my time reading actual books, on the way to my degree in English.

Today, of course, I'm just puzzling with a pencil up my nose.

Posted by: bigcat on June 21, 2007 at 6:42 PM | PERMALINK

I agree that the greatest weakness of the internet is that everything is equally accessible -- the gems as well as the crap. Of course, this is also the internet's greatest strength, and one cannot rationally talk of the weakness without acknowledging the strength.

Btw, I also share Gorman's dislike of Google search, which has really deteriorated over the past year or so. Now on practically any search term one of the top three results is the wikipedia entry (totally redundant) with the majority of the remaining first page results consisting of inane blog posts.

There is a huge opportunity for some enterprising entity to bring relevancy back to inet searching, like Google did to Yahoo not so many years ago.

Posted by: Disputo on June 21, 2007 at 6:45 PM | PERMALINK

My take:

Google is a great place to reach out and find research in other disciplines that may be relevent to your study. Some people like Gorman probably don't know how to use google efficiently or add phrases like "-hardcore -teen" to limit their searches.

Once you are on the scent, more traditional research is in order. This involves journals, books, and actually talking to people.

A few weeks ago I discovered another researcher via google. I am now writing a grant proposal with them.

Posted by: B on June 21, 2007 at 6:46 PM | PERMALINK

hint to google-foes:
Google is not the only web search service out there.

It may be the best - if you're in a hurry for a quick answer. But it's foolish to use it as your only source for hardcore research. There are services that specialize in various research fields, academic paper databases, libraries, and even (gasp) lexis-nexis.

When you steal from one source, it's called plagiarism. When you steal from many, it's called research.

Posted by: osama_been_forgotten on June 21, 2007 at 6:54 PM | PERMALINK

disputo: "Now on practically any search term one of the top three results is the wikipedia entry (totally redundant) with the majority of the remaining first page results consisting of inane blog posts."

You'll get markedly better results once you stop using the terms "egbert" or "Al" as part of your Google! search parameters.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on June 21, 2007 at 7:08 PM | PERMALINK

"It would be inappropriate to cite a book by Michael Moore, Coulter, or Gore" because "they're not peer reviewed, they're not academic, they're not held to that higher standard". Agree for Moore and Coulter, but to categorise Gore's works alongside those two is untenable. Gore is held to a standard higher than anyone should be - the fictional standard of Maureen Dowd, Chris Matthews et cetera, where the truth becomes fiction. See the review based upon Gore not having footnotes for references, when he had endnotes instead.

Second - and entirely unrelated - Kevin writes:

"for the nonce"

What does this mean in American English? In English English, "nonce" is a slang prison term for a sex offender...

Posted by: Philip Cornwall on June 21, 2007 at 7:39 PM | PERMALINK

Why doesn't this remember my personal info?

Anyway ... this is a question of power. A certain group of librarians loved to be the gatekeepers. Confused and sad people would come to them for guidance and they got off on it. The Internet means a loss of control for them and they're mad about it. It's been going on for years.

Several years ago I went into a local library to use the Internet. To do so I had to sign my name, give my identification and agree that I had been warned that "not everything on the Internet met the rigerous quality standards" that real, rootin' tootin' librarians imposed. I sat down at the terminal, glanced across to the magazine rack and saw that they subscribed to ... Cosmopolitan. So it wasn't about quality of information was it?

Libraries contain romance novels don't they? How did that pass quality standards?

This is all the usual distane of the elites for the masses making decisions on their own.

What a librarian needs to do now is educate people on how to find things and teach how to discern quality from crap. If anything - over time, not right away - the open nature of the Internet will enhance the pressure of ordinary folks to actually learn something about how to tell crap from quality - since no big brother will do it for you.

Posted by: JohnN on June 21, 2007 at 7:49 PM | PERMALINK

Someone who views himself as the guardian of the gates of Western culture might be irritated both when students pull up misinformation via Google, and, especially, when students find cutting-edge and arcane scholarly information via Google that they then ask the librarian to verify. They use Google Book Search to find unusual books and then maybe find that the UC Fresno library doesn't have these books. Gorman probably feels threatened and that his turf looks backward.

"For the nonce" is equivalent to "for now" and is a rather pretentious, old-fashioned usage.

Posted by: sara on June 21, 2007 at 8:30 PM | PERMALINK
Btw, I also share Gorman's dislike of Google search, which has really deteriorated over the past year or so. Now on practically any search term one of the top three results is the wikipedia entry (totally redundant) with the majority of the remaining first page results consisting of inane blog posts.

What, exactly, is the Wikipedia entry redundant with? Anyhow, while Wikipedia entries tend to place highly, I haven't experienced lots of highly placed "inane blog posts" except with really odd search queries (usually, search queries where I'm looking for a blog post I remember seeing.)

Posted by: cmdicely on June 21, 2007 at 8:41 PM | PERMALINK

The use of the word "Mandarin" puts the finger on the core problem. There was a time when, to be considered educated, all one needed to know was the Bible, and not all of it at that. Then, one needed to know Homer and Plato (in the Greek), Virgil and a few of the Roman greats (in Latin). Then, you have Shakespeare, and Milton, and then a positive explosion of literature starting in the mid-19th century -- but it was still possible for someone like Joyce to be accused of Mandarinism because he used lots of allusions and latin puns, not to mention a difficult style, in Ulysses. But there were enough people educated along the lines of Joyce, in the '20s, to understand what he was doing -- most educated people at that time shared an intellectual lineage, that of the public school education stressing Greek and Latin and the classics.

What, today, would be a "Mandarin"? Some guy whose job description includes setting fines for overdue library materials? Knowledge has exploded, even since the 1920s, and there are media in existence now that didn't exist then. You can't be considered "educated" now because you've read a dozen or so classical writers -- there's just too much to read. Nowadays there's a list of "100 books every educated person must read" (no two people can agree on the books, but we can leave that alone for now); in the time of Shakespeare there weren't 100 books to read, period. But that's just the books, and even then, I'm only talking about literature. What about science? What about the social sciences? Mathematics? And then we get into film, and television, and radio, and so on. Something like Wikipedia was bound to happen, because there's just too much out there to know: we need the hive. There are no Mandarins left, only pygmies dwarfed by the forest of knowledge that surround us, who have chosen to focus on just one tree to shield themselves from the clutter of information. The dumber ones don't even know they are pygmies.

Posted by: Martin Gale on June 21, 2007 at 9:35 PM | PERMALINK

Michael Gorman, dean of library services at CSU Fresno and, for the nonce, useful idiot for the Encyclopedia Britannica empire...

It's got to be hard to sell a set of encyclopedias like the Britiannica when Wikipedia is there for free on theInternet. Sure Gorman talks about Google but I thing he's got Wiki on his mind

Posted by: beb on June 21, 2007 at 9:37 PM | PERMALINK

Hahah, the three years ago link is hilarious. Gorman's arguement seems to be that information on the internet isn't scholarly or trustworthy enough so we should... stop Google from scanning adding scholarly and trustworthy works to it?

Posted by: Patrick on June 21, 2007 at 10:04 PM | PERMALINK


More specifically:

The characteristics of the researcher are conserved under internet research.

Now to come up with the Hamiltonian matching that conservation law. :)

Posted by: sherifffruitfly on June 22, 2007 at 1:59 AM | PERMALINK

The Britannica "empire"?


Gorman's not Britannica's attack dog. He's a tweedy academic given space to vent on their blog. Britannica is also running counter-essays by people like Clay Shirky who are pointing out Gorman's many errors.

Henry should probably read than just Gorman's post before he goes off half-cocked.

Posted by: Jon H on June 22, 2007 at 2:22 AM | PERMALINK


If nothing else you should know that Gorman's posts are part of a larger forum at the Britannica blog on the Web 2.0 movement generally, and that it includes people who disagree sharply with him, such as Clay Shirky, danah boyd, and Matthew Battles, as well as others who disagree with him by degree, such as Nicholas Carr. (McLemee neglected to mention this.) If you and Henry think Britannica is "pushing a line" by publishing Gorman's opinions under his name, it follows then that we are also pushing the lines of these other people. Since Shirky's posts, among other things, have some strong criticisms of Britannica, we are therefore pushing criticism of ourselves. What our motives for this might be I’ll leave it to you to divine, but you might consider an alternative explanation: that we’re simply having a debate among people with different views.

By the way, if you really think the intellectual standards are low, please take a look at what Shirky, Battles, and Carr have written. (danah hasn’t posted yet; she’ll be with us next week.) If, after that, you still think the level of discourse is substandard, please feel free to raise it by adding your own comments.

Best wishes,

Tom Panelas

Posted by: Tom Panelas on June 22, 2007 at 7:11 AM | PERMALINK

I never really understood the "books make for better research material" stance. Books have all the flaws of the internet, and then some. They are every bit as full of inaccuracies as the internet is. They are all heavily biased by the writers opinions, and often, their lies. Very few of them ever have to go through a scientific process like real studies do. Most books are also old and outdated, and unlike the internet they can not be updated with new information. They can publish new editions, but that's not going to remove all of the inaccurate ones.

To me, this is just another example of the elite trying to hold onto their power and ability to dispense information. Plenty of academics sit in their offices publishing random crap that isn't at all accurate. Look at Glenn Reynolds. Nobody does anything to police them, and that renders most of their arguments void.

Posted by: soullite on June 22, 2007 at 9:03 AM | PERMALINK

Generally speaking from the posts above - y'all seem to better than the average library user when it comes to critical thinking skills and research methods. Y'all seem to better at consciously/unconsciously descering the good from the bad from the ugly. As a librarian who works in a library that is public but not too public, those qualities are often not present. The concept of questioning the source is often something the user has even bothered to consider much less do.

And frankly students/people aren't any better a research methodology today than they were when I was in college in the late 1980's. It's just that today they can stay in their dorms/homes log into the computer system at the public library or university library and limit themselves to the databases that their library subscribes to. They are fine with what they can get via the computer either though general Internet sources or through those databases. If it requires getting up of the a** many simply won't do it and they are fine with that. Yes as a librarian I know that there are many books that may be of a huge benefit for them. Yes as a librarian I can give them some assistance so as to how to better use the tools they do have. Unfortunately, they have to come to the library to do that. Yes, I know that not everything people need is on the Internet much less free, but to get that point across - in a nice way of course - I have to have them in front of me, on the phone, or corresponding with them electronically. Many will never bother to ask. They are satisified with what they found.

I use those sources that can best answer a specific topic and are best for that situation. To ignore one (no matter the one) because of a personal bias is cutting your nose off to spite your face, and from this librarian's perspective possibly doing the patron an extreme disservice.

As for Google ... When asked what sources consulted - Google is often the answer. Google is they way you find information on the Internet, not the sources themselves - meaning they don't really understand the difference between Google and the Internet.

Posted by: ET on June 22, 2007 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

Gorman is an embarrassment and in no way represents the library profession. He's an out-of-touch academic who should have retired years ago. Modern librarians use the internet (among other sources) for research, and also teach people how to be better searchers. And we read books.

Posted by: Comfortably Numb on June 22, 2007 at 11:45 AM | PERMALINK

But blogging counts as legal scholarship! (at least according to Reynolds).

Posted by: James G on June 22, 2007 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

"For the nonce" = This post is written for Mark Foley.

Posted by: "Coach" Denny Hastert on June 22, 2007 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

I think the Internet is cool, because a discussion I started in 2000 about photons comes up first in Google search for "quantum measurement paradox."

Posted by: Neil B. on June 22, 2007 at 9:36 PM | PERMALINK

Not that it matters really but:

Fresno Bee, The (CA)
January 8, 2007

Michael Gorman, keeper of more than 1 million books, is checking out -- of Fresno, that is.
After nearly 20 years as dean of library services at Fresno State's Madden Library, he retires in February.

Gorman and his wife, Anne Reuland, are moving to be near family in Chicago, his favorite American city. In retirement, he plans to -- what else? -- write books.

Fresno, CA

Posted by: Tom on June 23, 2007 at 1:43 AM | PERMALINK

I find Gorman loathsome, but agree with your central observation. How weird it is for Britannica to have selected him for this task.

Posted by: K.G. Schneider on June 26, 2007 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK



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