Home » Media » Wikipedia vs. facts: Someone else discovers the hard way about Wikipedia’s “facts”

Wikipedia vs. facts: Someone else discovers the hard way about Wikipedia’s “facts”

In “The ‘Undue Weight’ of Truth on Wikipedia” (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 12, 2012), historian Timothy Messer-Kruse – a specialist in the Haymarket Riot, an 1886 episode in American labour history  – recounts that he discovered the hard way how Wikipedia is not about facts but “facts.”

Briefly, Messer-Kruse encountered at Wikipedia a statement that “The prosecution, led by Julius Grinnell, did not offer evidence connecting any of the defendants with the bombing. … “, which he knew from his research to be inaccurate. For one thing, that was how he had first become interested in the Haymarket Riot:

In 2001 I was teaching a labor-history course, and our textbook contained nearly the same wording that appeared on Wikipedia. One of my students raised her hand: “If the trial went on for six weeks and no evidence was presented, what did they talk about all those days?” I’ve been working to answer her question ever since.

In fact, the prosecution did offer evidence that connected some of the defendants with the bombing (which is likely a good part of what the trial participants were talking about for six weeks).

Well, when Messer-Kruse tried to correct the Wikipedia entry he soon discovered a Textbook Orthodoxy – of the sort familiar to anyone who questions Darwintruth – to the effect that the prosecution offered no evidence. Every time he tried to post a correction, citing evidence offered, he was informed that the majority of sources (who were doubtless parroting each other, politically correctly) disagreed with him. Therefore, after ten years of detailed research into the fact base, he must nonetheless be wrong:

My improvement lasted five minutes before a Wiki-cop scolded me, “I hope you will familiarize yourself with some of Wikipedia’s policies, such as verifiability and undue weight. If all historians save one say that the sky was green in 1888, our policies require that we write ‘Most historians write that the sky was green, but one says the sky was blue.’ … As individual editors, we’re not in the business of weighing claims, just reporting what reliable sources write.”

I guess this gives me a glimmer of hope that someday, perhaps before another century goes by, enough of my fellow scholars will adopt my views that I can change that Wikipedia entry. Until then I will have to continue to shout that the sky was blue.

At least, that Wikipedian was honest about the trash the site offers.

Messer-Kruse’s article is a must-read for teachers who blithely permit students to use Wikipedia as a source and for any students who get marks deducted if they use real sources instead. Some of us hope this kind of thing  ends up in court some day – not because we wish hair-raising legal problems on anyone – but because we need to make clear that facts are external realities, not just claims that have been cited any number of times, and thus have reached the status of popular cult lore.

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14 Responses to Wikipedia vs. facts: Someone else discovers the hard way about Wikipedia’s “facts”

  1. This is an important case study of Wikipedia. It establishes clearly that “Wikipedia requires its contributors to rely on secondary sources, or, as my critic informed me, “published books”.” This leads to the tyranny of “consensus” scholarship.
    “Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that.” For those of us who regard “consensus” science as a blight on the scientific landscape, Wikipedia is a tool to perpetuate socially-constructed knowledge. This case study puts teeth into the claim that Wikipedia is a thoroughly post-modern internet resource.

  2. Yes, David, that’s spot on. Wikipedia retails socially constructed knowledge, thus eventually becoming an enemy of fact in a way that traditional media could not really be, in a free society.

    In a traditional free society, it has been okay to disagree, especially if you are the only available eyewitness – or in this case, the guy who actually looked up the old documents in the case when no one else bothered.

    It is interesting how much Darwinism relies on socially constructed knowledge to prevent embarrassing facts from coming to general awareness.

  3. Didn’t George Orwell predict this in 1984? The protagonist has to go back to his job editing Wikipedia?

  4. The thing that gets me about Wikipedia’s sources is that their second (or even third) hand. This doesn’t mean that they’re not reliable. They may be in most cases. But when explaining that the gospels are eyewitness accounts, I usually get “but they’re unreliable!”

    What’s the difference? The gospels are secondhand accounts, just like an eyewitness account reporting an incident. If one is valid, then so is the other, unless you want to start moving goalposts.

  5. We are talking about unambiguously dishonest people. Anything but uncommon, of course, among putative authorities in our world. They will peddle whatever they have to, in order to further their career.

    There seems almost no limit to the power of the large corporations to peddle their narratives in every sphere. It’s not helpful that they own the media, of course.

  6. 6

    I would expect any omnibus-type source to suffer exactly these same problems. I recall reading an analysis by a panel of experts (I don’t know how they were chosen) in a variety of fields, who evaluated Wikipedia, The Encyclopedia Brittanica, and a few others. They examined only articles directly in their specialty. And I recall their conclusion was that Wikipedia fell about in the middle, with more errors than some published encyclopedias and fewer than others. They did not notice any particular pattern to the errors. So the accusation that Wikipedia articles are written by axe-grinding scoundrels doesn’t seem to be the case.

    Beyond this, accuracy becomes problematic. Consider:

    1) In just about any field you can name, there is active dispute among the world’s leading authorities, at least in the details. The ancient question “what is truth” applies here. At best, a source can present different opinions, properly labeled as such.

    2) Different error-correction and prevention processes each have their own strengths and weaknesses. If consensus is the only arbiter, then (as in this case) intensive research which unearths facts contrary to the consensus get locked out. Conversely, if no consensus is involved, anyone who truly intends to introduce error is all too unconstrained. Best to err on the conservative side, then to let Wikipedia devolve into a morass of uninformed opinions. That’s what these discussion groups are for!

    3) Monitoring for accuracy raises the “who guards the guardians” question. Wikipedia attempts to handle disputed accounts as well as they can. In fact, the reason Wikipedia is considered (with perhaps exceptions in controversial areas) to be acceptably accurate is because those who DO know the facts, can generally get a hearing. Of course, the issue of all the texts generating an artificial consensus by copying one another is difficult to manage.

    I think it’s important to understand just how difficult a task Wikipedia sets for itself. Who among us has never seen a news story about something with which they are extremely familiar, and found no errors? One well-known author has written that he judges the accuracy of material mentioning him by how correct the statements about him are. Most such materials, sadly, he finds to be pretty lousy.

    Everything considered, Wikipedia does an excellent job, in the sense that excellent is the enemy of perfect. Certainly they are not perfect.

    As for “socially constructed knowledge”, one would have a hard time finding a better example of this than religion, which is perhaps why there are over 30,000 Christian sects, each struggling to establish their own social construction. Wikipedia might be inaccurate in lots of details, but their inaccuracies are non-denominational, and mostly correctible. Not always.

  7. Semi OT: Here is part 2 exposing the Talk Origin’s speciation FAQ i.e. ‘literature bluff’

    Talk Origins Speciation FAQ, pt. 2: Lack of Evidence for Big Claims – Casey Luskin
    http://intelligentdesign.podom.....9_41-08_00

  8. Mainly I agree with David Gibson: it’s a mixed bag, but not nearly as bad as often claimed–as I used to claim myself, in my classes. I now advise students to use it as part of their background research on a topic, as a quick way to get a sense of opinions and issues related to the topic but not to take any of it too seriously. It’s probably best for identifying the original sources themselves–which should (in most cases) take priority over the wiki for research purposes.

    Much of the generally received knowledge in a field is indeed still contested around the edges, and sometimes even in the center there are multiple views with fairly substantial support. That’s simply reality, and neither wikipedia nor the internet created that reality.

    Nevertheless, wikipedia is quite often wrong, it can indeed be difficult to get entries corrected, and this can be very frustrating in those instances when you happen to be in a better position to know this than either the editors or most of the experts they rely on. When this happens, it can be a major waste of time to try to make appropriate changes. Like Timothy Messer-Kruse, whose article I read this morning in print form, I’ve had such experiences several times, but fortunately the topics aren’t loaded with political overtones such as the one he is dealing with. In most cases, when I change things and document them (sometimes with primary sources, sometimes with secondary sources–it all depends on the situation), the changes stick in at least some form. But, not always.

    For me, the most frustrating instance of this phenomenon–having to keep saying that the sky is blue, not green–involves the authorship of an anti-Catholic tract published anonymously in 1687 with the title, Reasons Why a Protestant Should not Turn Papist. For more than a century, perhaps two centuries, that work was attributed without evidence to Robert Boyle. Many years ago I published an article about all of Boyle’s anonymous works (he did write several such) plus Reasons Why a Protestant Should not Turn Papist, showing that (a) there is no evidence at all that Boyle wrote it; (b) that there is a loud absence of any manuscripts related to it among Boyle’s papers (when there exist manuscripts related to every single work he actually did write); (c) that there is contemporary evidence that it was actually written by a Scottish physician and former Jesuit priest, David Abercromby, a man who worked for Boyle in the 1680s; and (d) that the content in several parts of the pamphlet makes perfect sense if Abercromby was the real author. In such cases “slam dunk” arguments are rare, but I think mine is close to it–a lay-up, you might call call it. Every Boyle scholar I know accepts my conclusion, but a couple of literary scholars whose arguments depend crucially on the hypothesis that Boyle wrote it do not accept it. I think they’re just being obstinate–something I don’t normally say, b/c I don’t normally believe that people who disagree with me are just being obstinate. That’s what I mean by contested around the edges.

    In this instance wikipedia includes the information in their entry on David Abercromby, which cites my article. I tried to put a sentence about this into the Boyle article on wikipedia, however, and it didn’t stick. I don’t know why–I cited the same article. Who knows? That’s not a cause of any frustration for me. But I continue to be frustrated that the Library of Congress catalog (WorldCat) can’t seem to get it right. They have my article, it’s even cited in some of the entries about that pamphlet, but there were multiple editions of the pamphlet and several different entries for it on WorldCat, some of which continue to list Boyle as the author. I just scratch my head. I lose no sleep.

  9. Hello Ted Davis. Good to see you on UD. I hope all is well.

  10. The gospels are secondhand accounts, just like an eyewitness account reporting an incident. If one is valid, then so is the other, unless you want to start moving goalposts.

    This would be true if Wiki accepted secondhand accounts as just such. But they do not. They accept only secondhand accounts that refer to other secondhand accounts that refer to themselves. It is an Argument of Circular Authority.

    Despite the term it is about a circle of jerks and not a bag of Cheetos. If it helps, picture an academic with his foot in his mouth.

  11. Hi Dr. Ted Davis,

    I agree somewhat. Wiki is a great place to start; especially with the excellent references that often accompany an article.

    However, with controversial subjects that tend to have two or more camps, they do tend to be biased towards one camp. This is particularly true when it comes to information pertaining to what ID asserts and what it does not assert. And it isn’t correctable. Recently there was a thread on UD concerned with how ID related articles are quickly “re-corrected” after someone with more knowledge regarding ID had corrected some inaccuracies.

    I can also see how interpretations of historic events can be divided into certain camps, with one interpretation gaining more preference to the other. In other words, quite often Wiki will not allow both camps to speak with equal emphasis and with equal reference.

    I use Wiki quite a bit as a starting point for my interest in classical music history; and for the most part, there’s not much controversy in that area, the articles are usually quite thorough, and often they are the best information that is available online.

  12. I have grown up knowing that the newspapers, television, movies and music are all biased towards certain points of view. Wikipedia is no different. I have trouble singling Wikipedia out from among all the others. Everyone is biased in certain ways. Every source needs to be read critically and held lightly.

  13. F/N (late to the party): First, let me acknowledge that Wiki has a Dr Jeckyl/Mr Hyde character, which can often be spotted, but may well bite those who are inclined to think along its lines (so they see what they expect and do not perceive bias), and may be unwary. (My 15 minute corrective, here.)

    Let’s get direct: there is a world of difference between inevitable errors (which one is eager to correct), and willful distortion (which one maintains in the teeth of well-warranted correction, to advance an agenda).

    Wiki has problems with both, and on topics that are ideologically charged there is no question that it is secularist left, and has an outright antipathy to design thought and the like.

    I am utterly unsurprised to see that Mr Soros is listed as a key backer.

    And with that we now know to expect astroturf, i.e. many of the “amateur” and “crowd source” contributors, may well be shamateur ideologues on someone’s payroll, or at least culture war foot-soldiers of the rage-driven type who run the hate sites in UD’s penumbra. (I guess they will not use foul language at Wikipedia, per its rules, but the underlying attitude will be plain.)

    That means that a lot of well-meaning work by genuine amateurs and public spirited people is being tainted.

    That is a big part of the tragedy of Wikipedia, which seems to be killing off old fashioned encyclopedias.

    Let me give a case in point.

    The contrast between the Wiki article on ID and the NWE one is utterly revealing on this sort of deliberate manipulation. Worse, the willful distortion is persisted in in the teeth of well-merited correction, indeed, it seems there is a thought police problem that drives out correction.

    This is where I have gone on the subject of dealing with deliberately manipulative bias that speaks in disregard of truth in the hope of profiting from being perceived as truthful.

    And, yes, there is a three letter word beginning with L that fits this description. KF

  14. TM: Pardon, but an encyclopedia — remember, classically, where kids are going to go for homework info to back up textbooks — is to be held to a much higher standard of objectivity and balance than “newspapers, television, movies and music.” That is what makes me so stringent in my response tot he willful manipulation we are dealing with at Wikipedia. Kids, almost by definition, lack critical thinking capacity and are prone to be manipulated. There is a huge duty of care issue here, similar to the blameworthiness of the man who leaves a defective ladder leaning on the wall to an orchard. KF

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