Blogs > Cliopatria > Wiki-libel

Nov 30, 2005 2:24 pm


I’ve always had mixed feelings about Wikipedia. I do use it, particularly when I want a quick summary of how some technology works. I like the way that thousands of people post and correct posts on thousands of topics simply for the love of it. I guess my 1960s roots are showing there. However, I don’t allow my students to use it as a source. There’s just too much room for falsehood, particularly on the controversial topics that many of them are researching.

This USA Today op-ed has just become exhibit A for why I don’t. You may remember the author, John Seigenthaler, Sr., from the Freedom Rides episode in Eyes on the Prize. That is only a short chapter in a long and fruitful life.

He’s a good man who deserves much better. And Wikipedia is going to have to evolve some more creative anti-libel procedures if it wants to continue to grow and to remain both open and trustworthy.

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Andrew D. Todd - 12/1/2005

Well, I would say that it is precisely the positivist pretension to universal knowledge that is the heart of an encyclopedia. Absent that, an encyclopedia is just a random collection of articles. If you don't believe in universal knowledge, you institute a literature search and critically synthesize whatever you turn up. Of course literature searches are easier with modern methods, and will become still more so. However, that's not the same thing as an encyclopedia.

[parenthetically, I think you mean a Beowulf laptop, not a Cray laptop. The primal Cray is a vector processor (SIMD), and you actually do have one inside your computer's graphics adapter. It's not much use for searching and sorting, however.]

When you exclude people copying, and abridging, and bowdlerizing existing encyclopedias, Wikipedia is, I believe, the first new nonstalinist general encyclopedia since 1911. Wiki becomes a kind of test case for the general encyclopedia.


Incidentally, Wiki has a related project, Wikibooks, which is an attempt to create a set of textbooks on the Wiki principle, mostly in science and engineering. If you think about it, a textbook is basically the same kind of book as an encyclopedia, and, indeed, the closest precedent for Wiki that I can think of would be the Bourbaki series of mathematics textbooks.

A catalog of books available on the web, again, mostly science and engineering textbooks:

John H. Lederer - 12/1/2005

"Of course most libraries have much misinformation in them. With most print sources, however, there is some element of peer responsibility."

I am not sure that that doesn't cut both ways. It might make it less likely that source is misrepresenting something, but more convincing when he does.

Compare for instance the "misinformation" potential of Belleisles' book had it been merely a wikipedia entry rather than a Bancroft Prize winning book.

Or, for that matter the generation of college students who have had presented to them by their professors Equiano's book as an actual auto-biography of a slave rather than a fictional account.

Or then, we could compare the hypothetical effect of a wikipedia entry asserting that Iraq had large quantities of WMD with the effect of the U.S. Secretary of State presenting the evidence....

The point is that unless peer or hierarchial review really works all the time, it may have the effect of reducing the number of frauds, but making far more damaging those that do occur.

I think the "it's in print (or on the tv/monitor screen), and therefore believable" syndrome is one more common in people of our generation than in the younger generation. They have a much more sceptical view of sources of information because they themselves routinely put things on the screen.

Rob MacDougall - 12/1/2005

You're right, Ralph, I know. I just don't know what the permanent fix is, other than media literacy - people understanding the nature of the texts they are reading - in this case, the protean, ad hoc, anonymous character of Wikipedia. The name "wikipedia" is, I admit, misleading. It's really less like an encyclopedia than it is like a wall or bulletin board upon which people post notices and scrawl graffiti.

I admit I'm pretty torn on this question. I guess I sprang to Wikipedia's defense because I do share Oscar's affection for the idea of Wikipedia, or of wikis in general. The fact that there are ANY useful, informative entries on Wikipedia seems like a testament to something good - that this resource can fairly spontaneously emerge in a non-hierarchical, non-commercial way.
One might even read the proportion of useful entries to lies and misinformation on Wikipedia at any given time as a sort of barometer or scorecard of how the better aspects of the internet are doing against the worse. (I don't have 60s roots, not directly, but it's hard not to sound like you do when you start talking about the wiki philosophy.)

Jonathan Dresner - 12/1/2005

I didn't need the 64 dollars last year....

"Learning preserves the errors of the past as well as its wisdom. For this reason dictionaries are public dangers, although they are necessities." -- Alfred North Whitehead

I think the concept of the "universal encyclopedia" is an Enlightenment fantasy, at least in published form (come back in twenty years and see what Google Scholar and the Cray laptop have wrought), but that doesn't mean that we should not regularly attempt to produce up-to-date consensus documents as useful reference works.

I don't "propose to overcome the diversity of knowledge problem": I revel in it. While I have some sympathy for Comte's Positivistic project and believe that the disciplines are reorganizing and merging in useful ways, even the complete inclusion of all human learning into a single system will still be incredibly complex and probably incomprehensible for the vast majority of humanity. The unity of knowledge is an interesting philosophical question, but it's not a practical one.

Answering Mr. Lederer's questions at the same time, I would say that the difference between Wiki and the school library is filtration: Though many errors exist in the books in our libraries, most of those books have passed through several levels of selective discretion:
  • Publication
    • (ofttimes including peer review)
  • Purchase (often through field expert selection)
That doesn't mean that you can trust everything in the library -- the process of evaluating source quality remains the same whether it's Wiki or Harvard University Press -- but your odds are considerably better when you're in the stacks.

Andrew D. Todd - 12/1/2005

About a year ago, we had a previous iteration of this discussion:

At that time, I asked Jonathan Dresner a sixty-four dollar question, which, for one reason or another, he did not respond to. He has now had a year or so to think about it, and I would like his answer. To wit: should there be encyclopedias? Should there be general or universal encyclopedias? If so, how do you propose to overcome the diversity of knowledge problem? I should also like to propose this question to Ralph Luker.

To: John H. Lederer:

I would agree with your assessment of Wiki, for the most part, with a couple of qualifications. In the first place, social and humanistic fields are subject to long-running controversies, which there is no way to resolve. If you compare, say, Christopher Hill's and Conrad Russell's interpretations of the English Civil War (1639-1651), you find yourself in a Marxist-versus-anti-Marxist-dispute. In the second place, I am inclined to think that the Slashdot "modding system" has the same basic faults as the Wiki system. People get points by "karma whoring," that is, circumventing the reader registration systems of certain major newspapers, and apply these points in widely divergent fields. Slashdot works, most of the time, because most of its participants agree on essentials. There are hardly any technical arguments which reach the level of imputing radical evil to the other party, but this is more or less the norm in political arguments.

Closer to home, look at the level of HNN's Israel-versus-Palestine discussion, which I believe you remarked on. You can scream at a machine all you like, and the machine will simply ignore you. People do react to screaming one way or another, and this creates a role for the professional screamer.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/30/2005

It occurs to me that the truth is damaging enough in Siegenthaler's case. He was the founding editor of USA Today! I suppose someone, somewhere has done something worse than that.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/30/2005

But, Rob, that libel lay there for many months and, as you know, text has a convincing power that word of mouth, or gossip, often lacks. Once discovered, the text can be corrected, but there is no restoring the truth it defamed. As a civil rights historian, I _might_ have stumbled across that lie -- it isn't simply "an error" -- and would have corrected it if I had. But none of us has the time or interest in policing the wiki entries, even within the areas of our special expertise.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/30/2005

I think that you vastly underestimate the credulity of both naive people and impassioned partisans.

John H. Lederer - 11/30/2005

The problem is not a Wikipedia problem but an Internet problem ---extensive anonymous distribution is an aspect of the internet.

I am not unconscious of the problem of personal damage in Siegenthaler's case, though I think the misrepresentation is so over the top that few are likely to give it credence. A slyer libel would have had a far more damaging effect.

Rob MacDougall - 11/30/2005

I only have sympathy for Mr. Siegenthaler, but I can't imagine any mechanism that could prevent such occurances that wouldn't also invalidate the whole point of Wikipedia.

"So long as Wikkepedia operates as it does, there is no preventing this kind of thing from happening and no means of preventing the spread of appalling and malicious lies."

Well, the way to stop the spread of lies is to edit the post on Wikipedia. And the way to prevent this kind of thing from happening is for people to understand what Wikipedia, and wikis in general, are and aren't.

I agree that this is an unhappy story, and a fine illustration of why students shouldn't rely on Wikipedia but the story also seems to me an example of how Wikipedia is supposed to work: a post is made, an error is discovered, the error is corrected.

The most relevant comparison, for me, is not between Wikipedia and a print encyclopedia, which would not have printed the libelous statement, but to any numbers of online discussion forums where mistruths and outright lies live for years with no obvious way for those who read them to correct them.

If it's true, as Siegenthaler's metaphor of the pillow suggests, that bad news spreads faster than good, that's a universal truth about gossip, not an innovation of Jimmy Wales.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/30/2005

Of course most libraries have much misinformation in them. With most print sources, however, there is some element of peer responsibility. Libel can get both an author and a publisher sued. The sponsors of Wikkipedia take no responsibility for the accuracy of the information it presents; and, if you bothered to read the piece that Oscar cited, blind authorship makes it impossible for a subject to get to the author(s) of the libel.

John H. Lederer - 11/30/2005

I wonder whether Wikipedia would benefit from a moderation rating system like what Slashdot uses ? (there is a discussion of this in regards to newspapers in;tid=149

There is a danger in such a system -- that which is unpopular or unconventional might be heavily downrated -- how might Darwin have fared in a 1865 moderation system?

What I tried to suggest in comments above is that the question ought not be "Is Wikipedia accurate?" but how does its accuracy compare to other resources.

In doing so one must recognize its generality. When Oscar Chamberlain made the comment "However, I don’t allow my students to use it as a source. There’s just too much room for falsehood, particularly on the controversial topics that many of them are researching." it resonated with a discussion I had with my wife about how some professors discourage internet research because the internet has so much junk. What immediately ran through my mind was whether they allowed students to use the library as a resource. It has, after all, much misinformation and falsehood within it.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/30/2005

I have found, because my students use it in spite of the high quality textbooks and sources we assign, that Wikipedia is extremely inconsistent on historical and cultural matters, mostly as a result of the tendency by Wikipedia writers to overrely on single sources themselves. Perhaps they are more prone to be "hot topics" than technical and scientific material, but it isn't any more reliable than blogs; less so because the authors and sources are usually unrevealed and therefore unverifiable.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 11/30/2005

There has been quite a lot of discussion about the usefulness (or lack thereof) of the Wikipedia over on H-net. Just type "Wikipedia" into the search box and you can see the extent of the debate.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/30/2005

Mr. Lederer, Your indifference to the libel of Mr. Siegenthaler's reputation is appalling. So long as Wikkepedia operates as it does, there is no preventing this kind of thing from happening and no means of preventing the spread of appalling and malicious lies.

John H. Lederer - 11/30/2005

I find it interesting that this thread's headnote is summarized on the HNN's breaking news as:

"Wikipedia Contains Many False Entries"

when, of course, the support is for one erroneous biography entry. I don't doubt that Wikipedia has many errors, it just seems a strange way of summarizing it.

I have found Wikipedia to be extremely good on technical and scientific matters, and quite poor on much debated current "hot" issues.

Comparing it to a traditional print encyclopedia, I wonder what the comparative error rates are? What might they be if one included as an "error" failure to include recent information? Didn't the print encyclopedias have "update" volumes that came out every few years ?

P.S. I note that the online Encyclopedia Britannica avoids the possibility of an error on Seigenthaler by simply having no entry on him...