Tomatoes, the High Court, and Internet Information Finding

Although the news has been (and still is) pretty much dominated with Katrina coverage this past week, another interesting story is the death of William H. Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the United States. This post isn’t about Rehnquist, but an interesting (to me at least) story about the Supreme Court and the Internet as a source of information.

Many of you may know that the tomato, while normally considered to a vegetable, is technically a fruit. But did you know that the United States Supreme Court once ruled that they are indeed vegetables? I first came across this little bit of trivia around four years ago, on some website I used to follow at the time. The problem was that, like many websites, they provided the useless fact, but not any proof or documentation that it was actually true. Knowing how fast and easy urban legends spread online, I decided to check this one out for myself, and see if it really happened or not.

I did a quick google search for “Tomatoes Supreme Court” which resulted in hundreds if not thousands of pages, all of which provided the exact same story, but not one of which backed it up with anything. Obviously, most of this sites had copied the information from other sites, who read it on other sites, and so on and so on. After reading through dozens of these pages (which were everything from garden sites to recipe books to your classic useless fact pages) I finally found that a few of them provided one piece of documentary evidence: a date, 1893, the year in which this case supposedly was heard. Still, it wasn’t enough to prove if it actually happened or not.

So I went looking on findlaw.com, where I knew that all the Supreme Court cases since the beginning of the union would be listed. I don’t remember how long it took me, but I eventually found the correct case (Nix v. Hedden, from May 10, 1893) where an importer of tomatoes had sued saying he shouldn’t be required to pay the vegetable tariff because he was actually importing fruits, not vegetables. The court ruled that although tomatoes might officially be fruits to a botanist, they are most certainly considered vegetables to most Americans, and it was this common definition of vegetable, not the official botanical one, that had to be used when interpreting the tariff laws. So it really did happen; the Supreme Court of the United States really did rule tomatoes to be vegetables.

Now, fast forward four years or so to last week, when I was unpacking an old box of random stuff and come across the little slip of paper on which I had written the case details from the tomato case when I had first found it online. Just out of curiosity, I did another google search for “Tomatoes Supreme Court” and found—to my great surprise—that four of the top five results all included at least the case name, Nix v. Hedden, from which this information could be verified. There was even a three-page wikipedia article devoted to the Nix v. Hedden case.

So why am I bringing this up here? Well, something happened in the last four years so that while it originally took me several hours to find the details of this case (and only managed then because I knew to look on findlaw) it can now be brought up in half a second with a simple google search. Now, this might be an isolated incident, but I’m thinking that it represents a more global trend, that finding real documented information on the Internet is a lot easier to do now than it was a few years ago.

What might be the cause of such a change? Google’s ranking algorithm might have improved, so that it is somehow better able to put the more professional pages (more likely to include details and not just stories copied from other pages) up front. Also, there are more web pages now than there was then, so the documented pages might not have existed four years ago. (The Wikipedia article, for example, was only written last November).

If anyone knows of a serious scientific study or research project done on this subject (that of the availability and accessibility of reverent accurate information on the Internet, and specifically tracking the same over time) let me know. I don’t have time to do any more detailed work on this myself right now, but I’d love to know if anyone else already has.

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