Friday, March 24, 2006

britannica comes back and bashes "Nature"

mar 24th

so one has to take "Nature" and "Science" with a large grain of salt. the following story shows criminal negligence and even wilful fraud.

after all, they were both ecstatic about the korean stem cell story, too.

take the "science in 2020" that i posted also with a large does of scepticism. i noted that the report from microsoft as usual did not give credit to india for the invention of algebra and calculus.

And wait until you see the entry on scientific journals in the next Britannica: Remember the study in Nature that concluded Wikipedia is about as authoritative a resource as Encyclopedia Britannica (see " Wikipedia vs. Britannica Smackdown ends in carrel throwing brawl")?  Turns out it wasn't the rigorous piece of erudition you'd expect from the world's foremost weekly scientific journal. In fact, it was anything but that. According to Britannica, everything about the study -- from its methodology to the misleading way Nature spun the story in the media  -- was ill-conceived. "Almost everything about the journal's investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading," Britannica's editors wrote in an annihilative bit of deconstruction entitled "Fatally Flawed" ( PDF). "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." And how could it have been anything but that with grievous flaws like these:

  • Nature accused Britannica of "omissions" on the basis of reviews of article excerpts, not the articles themselves. In a number of cases only parts of the applicable Britannica articles were  reviewed.

  • Nature failed to distinguish minor inaccuracies from major errors.

  • Nature rearranged and re-edited Britannica articles. In some cases reviewers were sent patchworks of text taken from two or more articles and pieced together in a way that made a mockery of  the original entries. The "article" on "aldol reaction" that the journal sent its reviewer consisted of passages taken selectively from two different Encyclop�dia Britannica articles and joined together with text evidently written by Nature's editors.

  • Nature reviewed text that was not even from the Encyclopdia Britannica. Several of the articles Nature sent its reviewers were not from our core encyclopedia, and in one case it was not from any Britannica publication at all.
Methodology like that isn't empiricism. It's not even a badly executed attempt at empiricism. It's inexplicable incompetence. As Nick Carr puts it ,  "If you were to state the conclusion of the Nature survey accurately, then, the most you could say is something like this: 'If you only look at scientific topics, if you ignore the structure and clarity of the writing, and if you treat all inaccuracies as equivalent, then you would still find that Wikipedia has about 32% more errors and omissions than Encyclopedia Britannica.' That's hardly a ringing endorsement."