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Accepting new ways of acquiring information

By January 12, 2009current affairs

Whenever people talk about the perils of using the Internet to do research I cringe. Generally, people who disdain using the Internet cite Wikipedia as a main problem. Of course, Wikipedia has some inaccurate information. But then, so does the Encyclopedia Britannica and any other source which is subject to typos, incomplete research, and human bias.

As a lawyer, I'm perfectly comfortable with conflicting information. The remedy for conflicting information is not to try to eliminate "flawed sources," but to think critically about all sources of information that you encounter. In some areas, Wikipedia is superior to traditional sources. For example, consider the definition of the word "puce."

The Visual Thesaurus describes this word as follows: 

"This low-frequency color word follows the pattern of its peers: the less frequently used a color word is, the less agreement you'll find about what color the word actually represents. All dictionaries agree that this one is a dark color, but list red, purple, or brown as its near relatives."

As you can see, we learn that the word "puce" is some kind of color, and that there is some controversy about exactly what this color is. The best definition for a color like this would be something exact. So how does Wikipedia define this word?

It begins with a "traditional" dictionary type definition: "Puce is a color that is defined as ranging from reddish-brown to purplish-brown, with the latter being the more widely-accepted definition found in reputable sources." But then, he goes on to provide a very precise definition using the RGB description that is used by computer programs to specify a particular color. Wikipedia defines puce as: R 204; G 136: B 153.

And this is what that color looks like if I enter that 'forumla'  into a computer program (and then screen capture it):

Picture 1

Now, that doesn't mean that this is an exact replica of the color puce. Perhaps the Wikipedia definition is not actually a precise definition. Or, even if it is, maybe your computer monitor is not properly calibrated. Or, maybe my computer monitor was not properly calibrated when I took a screenshot. There are many reasons why this could possibly not be an exact replica.

But, at least Wikipedia provides an attempt at an exact definition, using a method that lends itself to precision — as opposed to the dictionary which simply says the color might be some variant of red, purple or brown.

In other words, the Internet and Wikipedia open the door to information that would otherwise be hard to describe in print. Of course, a dictionary could also provide a visual representation. But how many printed dictionaries are going to take the trouble to define every possible color by creating a visual representation?  Not many.  It costs too much.  

The Internet and Wikipedia, by contrast don't hardly cost nothing.  But that doesn't mean that the information provided is less valuable.  Unless you insist on denying the power of an emerging reality. Which is, of course, what many people are driven to do.

P.S. If you appreciate these kinds of observations, you might want to read this as well.


  • SMSF says:

    I see no problem with using the internet for research as long as no one source it credited as the be all and end all.

  • Casey says:

    I teach courses at a community college. One of the problems I see with students using the Internet for their research is that they cannot discriminate amongst their sources. You and I, as attorneys, may be able to discern what might not be trustworthy or what may need further verification. My students, though, consistently lack that skill. The Internet is a marvelous tool. Yet, I think we need some sort of way to vet the junk from the jewels. My mind is too limited to figure out how that process might look.

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