Friday, March 24, 2006

If you look it up you'll get cramps

Well, Glicken says the encyclopedia must be wrong—When I was a lad I served a term as a reporter at a Newark newspaper [you thought I was going to break out in song, didn't you?] learning the trade. I had an editor, Lloyde Seymour Glicken, who specialized in taking young fools like me and turning them into reporters. Many of us did very well in journalism. There even was an alumni association. He was a one-man journalism school and we loved him dearly. One day I used a word in a story that Glicken objected to. I, being a smart ass, immediately ran up to his desk, pushed a dictionary in his face and pointed out I had used the word correctly.

"The dictionary is wrong," Glicken said. End of argument.

Back in December, Nature published a study on the accuracy of encylopedias, mainly concentrating in the upstart Wikopedia, the cooperative web-based reference. It concluded that Wikopedia was surprisingly accurate and pointed out that the hoary Encyclopedia Britannica actually was not a lot better.
Nature's investigation suggests that Britannica's advantage may not be great, at least when it comes to science entries. In the study, entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature's news team.
Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.
You can imagine the dyspepsia this caused at Brittannica. According to a newspaper in San Antonio, the Britannica folks have fired back with a fairly damning letter to librarians and researchers.
Those reports were wrong... because Nature's research was invalid. As our editors and scholarly advisers have discovered by reviewing the research in depth, almost everything about the Nature's investigation was wrong and misleading. Dozens of inaccuracies attributed to the Britannica were not inaccuracies at all, and a number of the articles Nature examined were not even in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The study was so poorly carried out and its findings so error-laden that it was completely without merit.

Since educators and librarians have been among Britannica's closest colleagues for many years, I would like to address you personally with an explanation of our findings and tell you the truth about the Nature study.
It goes on with chapter and verse of Nature's apparent screw-ups. Media that covered the initial Nature report, need to revisit the issue, methinks.

If you want to see how bad the Nature story was, click here.

[Glicken, who covered high school sports with uncommon attention when he wasn't being a tutor, died in 1999. He was my first mentor. And the dictionary was not wrong. Lloyde].

You can blame it on your ancestors, none of whom could play the piano—Among the genetic price you pay for being an Ashkenazic Jew is dystonia, a disorder that cramps muscles or causes involuntary movements. It isn't fatal, but it can be a pain in the career. Ask Leon Fleisher, the concert pianist whose career was diverted by the nervous disorder. Until Fleisher regained use of his right hand, he wound up playing mostly one-handed concerti. There are some, believe it or not. Botox apparently cured the camps and he's back playing the usual repetoire with both hands—and very well indeed. We can now guess something about his genealogy he didn't know before.

It turns out, Leon can blame his genes. Judy Siegel in the Jerusalem Post reports that a genetic mutation among a small group of Jews from Belarus in the 17th century is probably the source of Fleisher's problem—and that of other Ashkenazim. They were among the survivors of pogroms at the time and their small number produced a genetic bottleneck. Someone among them had the mutation, LRRK2 G2019S, and because of the circumstances, passed it on to others in the group. In the 18th century, the Jewish population of the area exploded and so did the mutation, the reason why one in four of the Jews who can trace their ancestry to that area, have the gene.

The work was done at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and is based on work at UC San Francisco.

Interestingly, the gene is also found among a group of North African Arabs, further evidence that the Ashkenazim have Middle Eastern origins. They probably moved into Europe after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E., and somebody, gasp, intermarried.

No comments: