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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