Desert of My Real Life

{October 22, 2010}   Original Research–Good or Bad?

I recently rewatched Julia, the 1977 film starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.  It is based on a chapter in Lillian Hellman‘s memoir, Pentimento: A Book of Portraits.  That chapter tells the (probably fictional) story of Hellman’s longtime friendship with Julia, a girl from a wealthy family who grows up to fight fascism in Europe in the 1930s.  I loved this book when I read it in high school and I went on to read nearly all of Hellman’s other work as well as several biographies.

As I watched the movie, several questions occurred to me and so, being a modern media consumer, I immediately searched for answers online.  This search led me to Wikipedia, which for me is a fine source of answers to the kinds of questions I had.  In fact, I use Wikipedia all the time for this sort of thing.  I was surprised then to find the following qualifying statement on the entry for Pentimento:

This section may contain original research.  Please improve it by verifying the claims made and adding references. Statements consisting only of original research may be removed.

As I said, I use Wikipedia a lot.  And I have never seen this qualifying statement before.  I think this statement implies that original research is somehow bad.  I don’t think that’s what the folks at Wikipedia mean.  At least, I hope it’s not what they mean.  So I decided to look into the statement a little more deeply.  There are a couple of parts of the statement that are interesting.   

First, the words “may contain” are in bold.  I think that’s supposed to indicate that the section or may or may not contain original research.  It’s clear that articles in Wikipedia should NOT contain original research but it isn’t clear why. 

I then checked to see how “original research” is defined by Wikipedia and found this on their policy pages: “The term ‘original research’ refers to material—such as facts, allegations, ideas, and stories—not already published by reliable sources.”  How would one determine whether a particular section contained “original research” or not?  Probably by looking for references to “reliable sources” in the section.  Therefore, if a section doesn’t contain references (or not enough references), it might be difficult to determine whether that’s because the author simply didn’t include references to other available sources, the work is based on “original research” or the work is completely fabricated.  Or, I guess, it could be some combination of the three reasons.  So I guess that’s why “may contain” is in bold.  The lack of references could mean any number of things.

The next part of the qualifying statement is even more interesting to me.  “Please improve it by verifying the claims made and adding references.”  This statement implies that “original research” is somehow less valid than work that has been taken from another source.  Again, I doubt that’s what the Wikipedia folks mean. 

So I continued to investigate their policies and found this: “Wikipedia does not publish original thought: all material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source. Articles may not contain any new analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to advance a position not clearly advanced by the sources.”  Because of this policy against publishing original thought, to add references to an article or section of an article does indeed “improve” it by making it conform more closely to Wikipedia’s standards for what makes a good article.

This policy against publishing original thought explains the rest of the qualifying statement.  My investigations into Wikipedia’s policies found policies about what it means to “verify” statements in an article.  This is important because Wikipedia says that included articles must be verifiable (which is not the same as “true”), that is, users of Wikipedia must be able to find all material in Wikipedia elsewhere, in reliable , published sources.  And yes, Wikipedia explains what they mean by “reliable.”  That discussion is not easily summarized (and isn’t the point of this post) so anyone who is interested can look here

My surprise concerning the qualifying statement boils down to wording and I think the wording of the statement needs to be changed.  Currently, it implies that original research is bad.  But through my investigation, I’ve decided that Wikipedia probably means that articles should not contain unverified, unsourced statements.  Such statements could come from author sloppiness, original research or outright fabrication.  In any case, they should not be part of Wikipedia’s articles. 

Of course, I haven’t discussed whether the policy of not publishing original thought is an appropriate policy or not.  I have mixed feelings about this.  But that’s a subject for another post.

{October 17, 2010}   News Media Not Doing Its Job

As I drove to the airport in late September, I listened, as usual, to New Hampshire Public Radio in my car.   Election season is upon us so much of the coverage that morning was about state politics.  Two candidates are running for governor in NH, the incumbent John Lynch, a Democrat, and the Republican challenger, John Stephen.  They had debated the issues the day before and the reporter, Dan Gorenstein, was covering that debate.

Early in the report, Gorenstein quoted a voter who said, “They probably don’t agree on what day it is.”  That’s not a surprise for two politicians from opposite ends of the political spectrum.  Gorenstein goes on to say that the two candidates presented very different numbers during the debate concerning the budget.  Lynch claims that, under his leadership, General Fund spending has gone down 7%.  Stephen claims that under Lynch’s leadership, budget appropriations have gone up 24%.  Gorenstein then told us that both numbers are accurate “as long as you cut the numbers the right way.”

I’m writing about this report because of what happened next.  I expected Gorenstein to explain to us the differences in the way the two candidates “cut the numbers.”  But that’s not what this report was about.  Gorenstein simply told us that the numbers are confusing, that voters are right to be confused by the numbers, and that most voters will probably not take the time to figure out the differences.  How is that news?  How is that helpful to anyone listening to the report?

I spent the rest of my drive south thinking about this report, about how NHPR (my news source of choice) failed me and the other voters of New Hampshire in this report.  Why hadn’t they delved into the numbers for me?  Why didn’t they explain to me how both sets of numbers could be accurate (and, as Gorenstein also said, “arguably misleading”)?  What was the point of “covering” the debate in this manner? I was (and continue to be) significantly disappointed in NHPR.  And so I planned this blog entry in my head.

As I began to write this entry, I became even MORE disappointed in NHPR.  If you check out the link that I provided to Gorenstein’s report, you’ll see that within the transcript there is a link to an earlier, related story, also reported by Gorenstein.  On August 12, 2010, Gorenstein reported on the widely different budget numbers that were being touted by the two candidates.  And he explained why they are different and how they can both be considered accurate!  WHAT?  He had already done the research and yet made NO mention of it in his coverage of the debate.  The really surprising thing to me is that the explanation is not even very hard to understand.  Very disappointing.  And a lesson to aspiring journalists about how NOT to report the news.

So I don’t commit the same error for which I’m criticizing Gorenstein (even though it isn’t my JOB to inform the public), here’s the explanation for why the numbers are so different and can both be considered accurate.  John Lynch is correct when he says that spending from the General Fund has gone down 7% in the last two years.  But notice the words “General Fund.”  Many items have been moved to their own, separate budgets.  For example, the Liquor Commission (which runs all of the state liquor stores and deals with liquor licenses) budget is no longer part of the General Fund.  I tried to determine whether the Liquor Commission is self-sustaining, that is, takes in the amount of money (or more) in sales and fees to cover the amount that it spends.  I was unable to find that information, however.  So it isn’t clear to me what it means to these numbers to say that we’ve taken these items out of the General Fund.  John Stephen’s numbers take into account ALL of the money in the state budget, not just the General Fund.  If you do that, you’ll see that our state budget increased 24% in large part because of federal stimulus funds, money that the state received from the federal government to undertake specific projects such as bridge repair.  It isn’t clear to me that it’s helpful to include these funds when looking at whether John Lynch is a good fiscal manager.  Passing up these funds would be problematic (in my opinion).  In addition, Stephen’s number is about appropriations, rather than money actually spent.  In other words, he’s looking at how much has been budgeted to be spent, rather than how much was actually spent.  In 2009, the state budgeted 12% more in spending than it actually spent.  Lynch, on the other hand, is talking about the amount of money actually spent.  In other words, the two candidates are talking about apples and oranges.

That wasn’t so difficult to understand, was it?  I think Gorenstein could have explained this in his report.  Or, if he didn’t have time, he could have simply said that interested voters could go online and find his report about this to understand the differences between the numbers.  Then he’d be doing his job.

et cetera