Friday, March 4, 2011


We spent the day preparing, among other things, a handout for the workshop we are giving at a high school teacher's conference next week on the ethics of computing. On the handout we have two references, one is to the so-called "Heinz dilemma". Lawrence Kohlberg proposed this in his Essays on Moral Development. 

I just copied and pasted the footnote with the dilemma and the reference into the handout from an older one and kept going. During proof-reading one of the grad students noticed something odd: "It says here that the woman lives in Europe, but the medicine costs $2000. That can't be!" Harumpf.
So we googled. We searched our hard disks. We only came up with this exact quote, and the book was not available in Google books. Another book was that had a very different wording in German, and was also in quotation marks. 

Luckily, we had the footnote. I checked our library - praise be, we actually have two copies! But they are at the other campus. Even though it is a Friday afternoon, the library is still open until 6 pm. So we ordered the book, cleaned up the coffee cups and cookies, packed up the computers and I raced to our other campus by car. The rest of Berlin was already on vacation, so I made it in good time.

I got to the loan desk at 5.45 pm and there were six (6!!!) people ahead of me in line. To get books. For the weekend. Three cheers for our students, who still read real books! The book was waiting for me, I sat down at the next desk and flipped to the page that was given in our footnote. 

And there it was: Europe and dollars. The quotation is exact, even if confusing. 

So for the handout we will elide the "in Europe" with [...] to make it less confusing. Was it worth the hour's worth of work just to check a footnote? Absolutely. This could have been from someone entirely else. The book might not have existed, although the Wikipedia was sure that it did. It could have been taken out of context. And since most of our discussion depended on this, the quotation should be exact. 

A lot of science has to do with checking what you are doing, doubting yourself at all times. And taking one small step, hopefully in the right direction.

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