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Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History


How Do We Know What We Know?

History as a "Collective Hunch":
Trudy and H-Bot

Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.

Trudy the bag lady in Lily Tomlin's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life
in the Universe

Trudy's line is funny but telling. It can illuminate how we view history and conduct research in a web-mediated age.

Researchers at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University developed "H-Bot", which they describe as a History Software Agent. This fascinating and talented 'bot is extremely competent at guessing important dates, and identifying historical figures. It scored 82% on the 4th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. History exam.

H-Bot is not concerned with "facts." Instead, it combs sites in the Google database and arrives at a consensus opinion on when certain events happened, or what a certain person might have done. In other words, to H-Bot, historical facts are a collective hunch!

But H-Bot is not perfect. Some of its limitations are spelled out in a great article written by a co-developer. For example, H-Bot has difficulty differentiating among people with the same name. H-Bot can also reflect true uncertainty over certain dates, such as the birth date of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

More interestingly for our purposes, it turns out that H-Bot is quite susceptible to widely published pseudo-facts. If you ask it when the aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico, H-Bot "correctly" answers 1947. Of course, not all pseudo-facts smack you in the face quite as vividly as this one.

My favorite example of how H-Bot (or other seemingly careful research) can go badly wrong occurs when different sites on the web tie back to a single, suspect source. For example, I asked H-Bot "when were jews expelled from spain" and it replied 1491, though the actual year is 1492. The error had been cloned across the websites that H-Bot drew upon that day. (You will likely get different results if you search now, since the underlying Google corpus changes constantly. To paraphrase Heraclitus (1), you can't step twice into the same H-Bot search.)

H-Bot search

H-Bot search, November 15, 2006

When pseudo-facts are combined with cloned or plagiarized content, it makes for some very authoritative-looking misinformation.

Mobile, Alabama to the Ohio River

Here's a simple question, drawn from our earlier investigation into the Drinking Gourd song: How long would it take a slave to escape from Alabama to the Ohio River? According to all these sites (ca. early 2007), the answer was a year.

• "Since it took most escapees a year to travel from the South to the Ohio..." 

• Madison (WI) Metropolitan School District (taken offline in February, 2007)
• University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point
• Delta College, MI
• University of California, San Diego
• Utah Educational Network
• New York State Council for the Social Studies

• "A slave who left...southern Alabama or Mississippi in the winter would arrive at the Ohio river about a year later" (appears in the following sites)

• Iowa Public Television
• Oklahoma Baptist University
• University of Kansas

So if websites from NASA to the University of Wisconsin to Iowa Public Television agree, then it must be true. H-Bot would probably love these sources. But how do the authors of these websites know? And how to account for this amazing unanimity of opinion?

100+ Years in the Life of a "Fact"

Factoids are stubborn things

With apologies to President John Adams, who said no such thing. (Factoid: An invented fact believed to be true because of its appearance in print – Webster's)

The estimate of a year's travel time is drawn from the account of exactly one slave, first published in James Freeman Clarke's Anti-Slavery Days in 1883. Clarke writes, "I was once, with my wife, in Columbus, Ohio, and having a day to spare, we employed it in visiting the public institutions. Among other places we went to the Penitentiary, and were introduced by the warden to a colored man who had escaped from Alabama. He had taken a whole year in coming from Alabama to Cincinnati."

But Professor Loren Schweninger wrote me: "My guess is that the story of a one-year journey to the North is apocryphal. A slave who…had some idea of the terrain could make it to the North in a matter of weeks, as a direct northerly route would be only a few hundred miles. A daunting undertaking at that." (2)

An account in Alexander Milton Ross's Recollections and Experiences of an Abolitionist supports Professor Schweninger. Ross tells of two slaves who left from Columbus, Mississippi, in the upper watershed of the Tombigbee. They made it to the Ohio River in 17 days. The distance from Columbus to Paducah is 256 miles, or just over half that from Mobile to Paducah.

Desperate slaves on the run in hostile territory would aim to cover as much territory as possible. The pair of escaping slaves described by Ross managed 15 miles per day. The subject in the suspect Clarke account covered roughly 1.7 miles per day (assuming a starting point of Mobile, the distance to Cincinnati is 618 miles, divided by 365.) According to the Educator's Guide, slaves managed to advance northward only about 1.2 miles per day (440 miles, divided by 365.)

Factual or not, the Clarke account was cited in Larry Gara's The Liberty Line and then used in a history book for juveniles by Shaaron Cosner. As shown in the table below, this "fact" was transformed into a conjecture, into a qualified fact and last, into a completely new "fact."

(We) "were introduced by the warden to a colored man who had escaped from Alabama. He had taken a whole year in coming from Alabama to Cincinnati." Clarke, James Freeman. Anti-Slavery Days. A Sketch of the Struggle which Ended in the Abolition of Slavery in the United States, 1883. p. 92 The original "fact."
"One fugitive took a year to go from Alabama to Ohio..." Gara, Larry, The Liberty Line, The Legend of the Underground Railroad, 1961, p. 46 Accurately recounts the original "fact."
" took one slave a year to get from Alabama to Ohio." Cosner, Shaaron, The Underground Railroad, 1991, p 71. Accurately copies the Gara account.
"We know one slave traveled for a year from somewhere in Alabama to the Ohio and one may assume that most slaves fleeing the Deep South needed at least a year to reach the Ohio." Rall, Gloria D., The Planetarian, 1994 Starts with the original "fact" and then conjectures that this proves a general case.
"Since it took most escapees a year to travel from the South to the Ohio..." Educator's Guide to Follow the Drinking Gourd, 1995 Drops the original fact, but keeps the conjecture.
"Since it took most escapees a year to travel from the South to the Ohio..." Madison (WI) Metro. School District website, 1998-2007 Online version of the same (Page removed in February, 2007.)
"It took slaves about a year to escape from the deep south." Maryland Public Television website, 2004 to September, 2007 Dropped the qualifier "most." (Page modified in September, 2007.)

The transformation is now complete: the questionable account of one slave now stood for all escapees from the Deep South, on many important (and credible!) sites on the web.


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