In the age of Google and Wikipedia, one can in theory find any fact at any hour of the day. But still the question remains: Can we believe what we read?
A.J. Jacobs, humorist and author of the New York Times bestseller, "The Know-It-All," a memoir of the year he spent reading all 32 volumes of the 2002 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, says that trying to figure out the reliability of information these days is a hugely confusing problem.
"I think we're all walking around in a big Saharan data sandstorm," Jacobs said.
But it wasn't always this way. People used to live in an "information monarchy," where the New York Times, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and other top publications set the standard, Jacobs said.
"Now it’s more of an information democracy," he added, "or maybe an information anarchy, which is great in some ways, since we have so much more information out there, but it brings with it a boatload of confusion and chaos and uncertainty."
Gone are the days of door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen. While the Encyclopedia Britannica is still available in print, most customers access Britannica online through a subscription that costs $69.95 per year. But even the venerable Britannica with its more than 4,000 expert contributors has been occasionally criticized for inaccuracy.
When the journal Nature released results of a study in 2005 that said Wikipedia is nearly as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica, the corporate office at Encyclopedia Britannica called on the journal to retract the study.
"This study has been cited all over the world, and it’s invalid," said Dale Hoiberg, Britannica’s editor-in-chief, but added that "we in no way mean to imply that Britannica is error-free; we have never made such a claim."
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia created by hundreds of thousands of volunteers, is ranked among the top 10 most visited sites on the Internet. Wikipedia is so popular now that companies have devised ways for people to access it without a computer. Openmoko offers the WikiReader, a handheld, touchscreen device that contains Wikipedia's 3 million topics.
However, because Wikipedia is open to contributors at large, it is subject to error. During the last election, Wikipedia made headlines when it was reported on MSNBC that Mrs. Clinton wasn’t the valedictorian of her Wellesley graduating class. An incorrect three-year-old Wikipedia entry said she was.
According to Wikipedia, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles may contain misinformation. A page history is accessible on each article page that provides a record of updates. Substandard or disputed information is subject to removal.
Unlike a paper reference source, Wikipedia is continually updated, with the creation or updating of articles on historic events within hours, minutes, or even seconds.
Mobile phone users can also get info-on-the-go using text messaging. ChaCha, the top ranked text-based search service according to Nielsen Mobile, uses "guides" who must be at least 18 years old, have a high-speed connection to the Internet and a mailing address. Guides are paid by the answer, while the service is free to users.
New to the text-for-answers market is KGB (Knowledge General Bureau), which burst onto the scene with a $2.5 million 30-second spot in the third quarter of last weekend's Super Bowl. KGB charges a dollar for each question and pays its "special agents" 10 cents per question for generating their own answer and 5 cents if they use answers in KGB's database.
Despite KGB's TV spots showing a secret facility staffed with experts, the company is similar to Cha Cha in that it uses individuals working at home from their own computers.
But many people nowadays just use Google, Bing and other search engines to find answers to their questions. In January alone, research firm comScore reported Americans conducted 15.2 billion searches – a 3 percent increase over the previous month.
Jacobs says he spends a lot of time trying to figure out what’s reliable. "I think it’s important to get two or three independent sources for each fact," he said. "I wish there was a Moody’s for information reliability."
In the meantime, Jacobs has come up with an ad hoc, and admittedly unscientific, system of his own:
• If it’s in a peer-reviewed journal, add three reliability points.
• If it’s on a website with a lot of exclamation points, subtract two reliability points.
• If it’s in a newspaper with a circulation over 1 million and not sold at grocery stores, add one reliability point.
• If it’s from a website with a lot of pop up windows for Acai berry supplements, subtract two points.
• If Mark Cuban is linked to the source, subtract one point.
• If the source talks about Truth with a capital "T", subtract four points.