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Published: Friday, 5/15/2009

Trust, but verify

EVER since Al Gore invented the Internet, students have flocked to the Web as a convenient source for completing classroom assignments, especially research papers. Teachers, for nearly as long, have been warning students to be wary of information found online because it is sometimes good, sometimes bad, and frequently undocumented.

The relevance of that admonition for the general public was brought home recently by an Irish college student, leaving journalists with egg on their faces

When French composer Maurice Jarre died in March, Shane Fitzgerald, a sociology major at University College Dublin, took the opportunity to insert a fictitious quote on Jarre's page on Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, to test his private theory that the media were relying more and more on unreliable online sources.

Wikipedia administrators quickly recognized that Mr. Fitzgerald's Jarre quote lacked attribution and removed it from the site, but not before a number of blogs and newspaper Web sites from around the world had inserted the scurrilous passage into their obituaries of the two-time Oscar winner.

The lesson, according to Mr. Fitzgerald is that "once anything is printed enough times in the media without challenge, it becomes fact."

With apologies to Mr. Fitzgerald, while his generalization is correct, the problem is by no means a media preserve.

The recently departed Bush administration, for example, operated for years on the theory that if you repeat something often enough it becomes true.

And psychologists - as well as our young college student's fellow sociologists - know that when a lie is followed by a denial and the truth, it is the lie that tends to persevere.

Misattributions are not uncommon and have been around longer than the written word.

Mark Twain, for example, was not the author of the quote widely attributed to him that "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics," although 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli apparently was.

And despite its usefulness to Second Amendment enthusiasts, Thomas Jefferson, as nearly as the Jefferson Library can tell at least, did not write that "the strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."

The real lesson is that students - and former students - need to listen to their teachers. The Internet contains a vast amount of information on every conceivable topic. Some of it is even accurate and the only hope one has of telling the difference is to verify using secondary sources.

And about Al Gore: He didn't really invent the Internet, no matter what you might read on the Web. And he never said he did either.

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