05/15/2013 10:02 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2013

Big City Nurse: A Cautionary Tale about the Internet

Professors who remember the world before the web may scold their students who seem to have no knowledge beyond the internet. Perhaps we teachers are no different.

A colleague and friend, Reuel Schiller, recently related a story about his mother. Reuel, who holds not only a law degree but also a doctorate in history, is a raconteur who ranks among the best. He is sincere and funny, a difficult combination, and every detail is important to his self-deprecating narratives.

Before a meeting started, he recounted his mother's secret past. It would seem his talent is inherited. She was a children's book author. I think I might have read her Eric the Red and Lief the Lucky some time ago.

But under a pen name, she also published a proto-Harlequin novel. According to her son, there was once a genre called the "nurse romance."

I happen to be skeptical by nature. I don't mean of Reuel in particular. It would be cruel to doubt him, less because of his academic training than his earnest personality. It seemed unbelievable that there were a series of paperbacks set in the health care industry, dedicated to the dreamy PG-rated fantasies of female readers -- much less that this fellow's mother had produced such fiction.

Thus even as he protested that Big City Nurse ought not be called a "bodice ripper," I took out my laptop and looked up the book.

Sure enough, there it was -- its phantom presence anyway.

Seeing multiple search results listing this work, I was satisfied that Reuel was telling the truth. Yet upon reflection, I realized -- what an insult.

Rather than rely on an individual whom I knew to be unimpeachable, I preferred to confirm his claims through virtual sources. Although I am aware that much of what is to be found in cyberspace is wrong, mistaken, reckless, or misleading, I nonetheless am assured by these sites the veracity of which I could not vouch for. Probably like others, I am more impressed that an anonymous website corroborates my real-life acquaintance than vice versa.

As it turns out, Reuel looked later and discovered there were two different volumes by the name of Big City Nurse. Titles cannot be copyrighted. The one I had found, which attested to Reuel's integrity, actually was not what I took it to be. The real Big City Nurse by Jane Highmore, the pseudonym of one Barbara Schiller, was not to be confused with the apparently more lurid imposter, by Peggy Gaddis, the pseudonym of another female writer.

People talk about what the internet can do for us, but it is worth considering what it has done to us. I wonder if it would be excessive to believe the dominance of the internet causes our concept of truth to be corrupted and our personal relationships to be degraded. I prefer a positive interpretation. Our intellectual curiosity has improved: almost all of us want to learn about everything. What does Schiller's mom's book look like? How racy is it? Is it possible people still read nurse novels? Collect them? Set up websites to buy and sell them?

Every anecdote should have a point. The caution to be taken from this vignette is that we need to care about the quality of the evidence of supposed "facts." Most of what we are reading wouldn't be accepted for a term paper bibliography.

I was reminded again of how important it is to ask how we know what we know. The ancients had it right all along. The more we know, the less we know.