Issue No.05 - September/October (2007 vol.9)
Published by the IEEE Computer Society
Francis Sullivan , IDA Center for Computing Sciences
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MCSE.2007.102
Contributing editor Francis Sullivan explores the phenomenon of phoney email scams and the "reality" of Wikipedia entries.
Is there anyone who hasn't received email that goes something like the following?
Dear Honored Friend,
Allow me to introduce myself. I am Mr. XYZ, ESQ, and I find myself in a situation which, I am sure you will agree, is a delicate and discomfortable one for an individual such as myself. Our President has recently fled our sacred Republic of Zembla, taking with him our entire National Treasury, except for the sum of $85 Million USD. This last sum, the remaining proceeds from our productive bat dung enterprise, has been deposited to my account here at the National Bank of Zembla. In order to move these funds to a safe haven, I desperately need the assistant of an honest and trustworthy individual, such as yourself.
I know you to be a person of the maximum integrity so that I can trust you to help me in this transfer. There is absolutely NO risk to you and no possible illegality. I ask only that you supply me with two (2) bank account numbers, the first to deposit the Bat funds and the second to place funds due to you for your help in this matter. For this you will receive $3 Million USD. I will need ability to transfer funds between these two accounts. Also necessary will be your social security, merely to verify that you are the person to whom I am intending to write.
Your Humble and Obedient Servant,
Mr. XYZ, Attorney at Law
It's safe to assume that CiSE readers would find such a letter obvious and crude—not least because it's full of typos and uses English in a strange and artificial way. Nevertheless, many such letters go out, so at least some must get responses. One possible explanation is that some people take the compositional errors and oddities as evidence that the letter is genuine and that Mr. XYZ, ESQ, really is going to deposit $85 million in their bank account. My guess is that two things keep this scam going: the clever people behind it have a good model of who will respond, and ever-evolving spam technology makes it easy to send out millions of such letters. This isn't a good thing—it's definitely one of the Internet's evils—but it's not a reason to stop reading email.
Numerous publications have recently expounded on the evils of technology, some claiming that expert judgment is in danger of being replaced by popularity or "the wisdom of the crowd." Wikipedia pages come in for special criticism, especially by those who publish "real" encyclopedias. Even the Wikipedia logo contains errors, for heaven's sake! However, despite the fact that entities like Wikipedia are prone to error, I think they ultimately have a better chance of getting it right simply because they're constantly checked and updated.
Every society, including scientific ones, has a collection of shared beliefs that all members accept without question or further examination. Sometimes these seemingly axiomatic truths turn out to be false—in 1921, for example, Theophilus Painter claimed, based on his observations, that human sex cells had 24 chromosomes each, giving humans 48 chromosomes total. As it happens, this is false but was accepted as fact for more than 30 years. It wasn't until the 1950s that someone checked and found the number of chromosomes to be 23. (I got this information from Wikipedia, by the way.) Such an error would be cleared up much sooner today because its mere appearance—say, on a Web site—would stimulate people to check it.
It's interesting to see how different fields respond to Wikipedia. My personal bias says that the physics community embraces it; I find the physics articles range from good to really excellent. Articles on literature, as you might expect, are more varied in tone and more contentious. Responses from computational science are very diverse and seem to share no common ethos (this, too, is to be expected, I suppose). Those on theory and complexity are long and thorough, whereas pieces on numerical analysis are shorter and less discursive, at least according to my own small sample. I don't dare to speculate on the reasons for this.
I'm anxious to hear what others think about the wild wiki frontier and its relation to information about computing. But if you decide to write to me on this subject, please remember to include the access code for your bank account.