Friday, 18 February 2011

Definitively inaccurate?

In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitch-Hiker's Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom ... though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate...

(from Douglas Adams' foreword to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

It's not a remotely new or original thought, but  Wikipedia really is the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy for our age. For some people it has become the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom and it certainly has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate. Where accuracy matters you'd best fact-check the Wikipedia entry.

Where the subject matter is controversial or politically contentious, you'd probably best go elsewhere or at least be aware that the page you are looking at is a battleground littered with biased, sometimes malicious edits and counter-edits from obsessive (mostly male) wonks engaged in a partisan point-scoring contest. I'm not sure that the net result of all these competing axes being ground is any worse than the version of reality served up by the mainstream media, with all those recycled press releases, puffing advertorials, propaganda for the political interests of billionaire media oligarchs and ridiculous salaries paid to pompous, puce-faced, unreliable, reality-challenged columnists with a chronic inability to check their facts or acknowledge any errors caused by their sloppy attitude to the truth.

When it comes to uncontroversial general knowledge and entertainment value, though, I'm way more relaxed about Wikipedia. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy contains the wonderful disclaimer that the Guide 'cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters' but 'does make the reassuring claim that where it is inaccurate, it is at least definitively inaccurate.' That's how I feel about the following passage from Wikipedia, recently mined by one of the good folk at Boing Boing. It's from an entry about the larger-than life astronomer Tycho Brahe and it's so entertaining that I almost don't care whether it's true or not. As fiction, it would do credit to one of the more eccentric academics in Terry Pratchett's Unseen University. If fact, it's just splendidly, life-affirmingly bonkers:

Tycho was said to own one percent of the entire wealth of Denmark at one point in the 1580s and he often held large social gatherings in his castle. He kept a dwarf named Jepp (whom Tycho believed to be clairvoyant) as a court jester who sat under the table during dinner. Pierre Gassendi wrote that Tycho also had a tame elk (or moose) and that his mentor, Landgrave Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel, asked whether there was an animal faster than a deer. Tycho replied, writing that there was none, but he could send his tame elk. When Wilhelm replied he would accept one in exchange for a horse, Tycho replied with the sad news that the elk had just died on a visit to entertain a nobleman at Landskrona. Apparently during dinner the elk had drunk a lot of beer, fallen down the stairs, and died.

Link to Boing Boing here and link to Wikipedia article here. True or false? As Douglas Adams wrote of the Hitch-Hiker's Guide, 'though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does make the reassuring claim that where it is inaccurate, it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it was always reality that's got it wrong.'


john b said...

I'm absolutely delighted that I get the opportunity to:
a) agree 100% that Wikipedia is H2G2
b) mourn the fact that although Douglas Adams saw many aspects of Internet life-changing-ness, he never saw Wikipedia;
c) hate the fact that, thanks to the despicable bastards who're distressingly in charge of the UK at this point, H2G2, which is similar to, much less useful than, but much funnier than Wikipedia, and was saved by the BBC after Douglas Adams' death, is now going to be axed on the altar of CUTS FOR ALL.

(captcha, brilliantly, is 'FECKS'. Sorry for partisanship. When people cut arts & culture funding, I become unpredictably angry.)

Andrew King said...

I'm not opposed to all cuts in arts funding in all circumstances - the size of the pot is finite (as it is for everything else). Having said that, I agree that watching this shower of self-righteous ninnies wielding the axe is a particularly rage-inducing sight.

I was watching that Eric Pickes on the telly the other night pontificating about how Birmingham council had been wasting public money on a particular piece of sculpture. He was being filmed standing in front of the art work in question which seemed to consist of a number of rather graceful figures frozen in the act of diving, dancing, swimming or doing something equally sinuous.

The visual contrast between the shapeless wibbling Pickles and the dynamic, ethereal figures in the background validated the art for me - mere words couldn't have better have expressed the irony of Pickles, a man seemingly created to make John Prescott look like a vegan marathon runner, harrumphing around the country lecturing world + dog on how they need to get leaner and fitter.

Come to think of it, if the coalition wants better value public artwork, maybe they could donate Pickles for recycling. After all, Joseph Beuys made pieces of conceptual art out of little more than bits of fat. If the councils were allowed to peel all the blubber off Pickles, hey presto, conceptual art for all! Very thrifty, very Big Society, what's not to like?