Mark Twain wrote that there were three kinds of lies: "lies, damned lies, and statistics."
The 21st century version, as L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art and some of its patrons are finding out, might be "lies, damned lies, and algorithms" -- as in Google's famous and mysterious search formulas that, like mighty mathematical genies, have made the company vastly rich.
Daniel Fink, an avid arts patron from Beverly Hills, was left damning the algorithms this week, having found out the hard way that you can't always trust what you get when you Google.
Fink had some free time on Tuesday and decided to take in MOCA's big retrospective exhibition on the L.A. artist Mike Kelley. He googled "MOCA" to check how late the museum would be open.
And then he got caught, unsuspecting, in an information-age snare. Instead of looking to the left of the results page and clicking on the official museum website, Fink saw MOCA's stylized four-color logo over on the right. Below it was lots of what seemed to be useful information, including just what he was looking for: a note that the museum's hours on Tuesday would be 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The information, it turns out, came not from MOCA but from Google, churned up without the aid of human hand or brain but by the algorithmic genie and its ability to sample zillions of search results and helpfully plunk down the most relevant bits of information.
Fink trusted what he saw and arrived downtown to find locked doors. MOCA, he learned, is in fact closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, not open seven days a week as his Google search suggested. Traffic hadn't been too bad, so the futile round trip had cost him only about 75 minutes.
Nevertheless, Fink said in an email, "I was angry and ready to yell at someone." He dialed the museum's visitor services department, and his wrath was quickly assuaged as he learned that MOCA wasn't too thrilled either.
"The nice woman told me that they have had this problem for some time and have asked Google to fix it but Google hasn't done anything. She said that people have traveled far greater distances than from Beverly Hills, with only limited time in L.A., only to learn that MOCA was closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays."
MOCA spokeswoman Eva Seta by email Thursday, "We are actively working with Google to fix this problem.
"After multiple attempts of trying to get the correct information up, we are promised that the errors will be fixed within the next 48 hours."
Google spokeswoman Katie Watson explained that the information it places on the right side of a search page is known as a "knowledge panel," and that, yes, it's the product of algorithms sifting through vast troves of information. The panels premiered in May 2012, Watson said. "It's all automatic and there's no manual intervention." She added that businesses and organizations can control what's posted by visiting google.com/mybusiness.
Knowledge panel errors need not be forever, Watson said, and anyone can help correct them. At the bottom right, below each panel, a link in small gray letters says "feedback." Clicking on it generates a query -- "wrong?" -- next to each bit of information. Click on "wrong?" and up comes a box that asks for the correct information and for a URL where proof of the error and correct information can be found.
In the case of the knowledge panel that lives next door to MOCA links after a Google search, there's a lot to fix. The panel fails to reflect that MOCA stays open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays. Another bit of dubious knowledge is that MOCA was founded by Douglas S. Cramer, a television producer and major contemporary art collector. That drew a harrumph from Merry Norris, who was in on the ground floor when MOCA was just an idea being incubated in 1979 in free office space that Mayor Tom Bradley provided at City Hall. "Absolutely not," she said. "Where did you get that?"
From Google, we said. "That's so odd," Norris said, chuckling. "Douglas Cramer? I sort of remember him from when we were raising money."
After googling "MOCA," click on Cramer's name in the knowledge panel and you come to his Google search results page, topped by a Wikipedia entry that notes he was active on MOCA's board for 13 years until 1996. The source, footnotes show, is a 1997 Los Angeles Times article that said Cramer was leaving L.A. for New York. It said nothing about him having founded the museum.
Despite those problems, it can't be said that Google hasn't done right by the museum. It provided $1.25 million in start-up funding for MOCAtv, the museum's channel on Google-owned YouTube that was launched in 2012. We're pretty sure that MOCAtv is open round the clock, seven days a week.