Monday, February 20, 2012

An example of a Wikipedia fail?

Great little essay this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a professor named Timothy Messer-Kruse who uncovered new information about the Haymarket riot and trial in Chicago in the late 19th century, and proudly tried to add this new information to Wikipedia, only to be thwarted:
Within minutes my changes were reversed. The explanation: "You must provide reliable sources for your assertions to make changes along these lines to the article."
That was curious, as I had cited the documents that proved my point, including verbatim testimony from the trial published online by the Library of Congress. I also noted one of my own peer-reviewed articles. One of the people who had assumed the role of keeper of this bit of history for Wikipedia quoted the Web site's "undue weight" policy, which states that "articles should not give minority views as much or as detailed a description as more popular views." He then scolded me. "You should not delete information supported by the majority of sources to replace it with a minority view."
The "undue weight" policy posed a problem. Scholars have been publishing the same ideas about the Haymarket case for more than a century. The last published bibliography of titles on the subject has 1,530 entries.
"Explain to me, then, how a 'minority' source with facts on its side would ever appear against a wrong 'majority' one?" I asked the Wiki-gatekeeper. He responded, "You're more than welcome to discuss reliable sources here, that's what the talk page is for. However, you might want to have a quick look at Wikipedia's civility policy."
It gets more absurd from there.  Read the whole story if you like, and tell me what you think.  (P.S. If you're curious, I stumbled across this article through one of my own media diet spices, the text-heavy design abomination but culture-laden Arts & Letters Daily.)


  1. This is actually really funny, if not a little unpleasant. I find it interesting that people keep the gate that tight as to not let real facts come through.

  2. I think Wikipedia's policy is just a reflection of most of our society today. The majority often overpowers the minority in many cases. It doesn't mean its right, but I don't feel that we should just start putting all the blame on Wikipedia. My guess is that, for the most part, this policy works. I tend to believe the majority myself because I can't help but think that the minority beating the majority is not as frequent. I do agree that there should be changes to Wikipedia's site so that it can accommodate the very possible chance that the minority is correct.

  3. This is quite amusing, but I feel like this is just one of many examples of someone not getting his or her way on Wikipedia. Or possibly this is just a case of the gate-keeper having a bad day and took it out on the author. Even though these instances happen, I still think Wikipedia does a pretty good job at moderating considering how many people post each day on a vast amount of topics.

  4. I think this is the one time where Wikipedia's fact checking and desire to have high quality sources goes a bit too far. When facts come straight from sources like the Library of Congress how can Wikipedia say that these should not be expressed simply because they are not the majority opinion... even if the information is brand new and may, in fact, become the majority view soon! There may be such thing as being 'too careful' when it comes to Wikipedia - these key ideas are completely lost to the site. Perhaps one day they will be the 'majority opinion' and appear on Wikipedia, but for now they are lost. Very interesting stuff that few people realize when using Wikipedia!!

  5. I completely agree with Kenneth. In most instances the majority does indeed beat out the minority, so it is no surprise this idea is reflected in Wikipedia's filters. We've spent the last few weeks discussing how in the world Wikipedia is actually able to manage the vandalism and incorrect information that people try to incorporate into certain entries. Well, although I don't believe it's right, I can definitely understand how this would be one of the ways Wikipedia does that. Yes, the facts may be true, but it's a lot harder to fact-check them when there's no majority to back them up.

  6. There's more on this story at MetaFilter tonight. Folks might find their comment thread interesting.

    My own reaction is different from the commenters above. I believe that the point of research and reasoning -- and art and literature and philosophy, for that matter -- is often to overturn the majority view and the conventional wisdom. Wikipedia is not set up to evaluate evidence, only to parrot the assumptions and assertions of others. It relies on internet-based evidence that is easily citable within wikipedia, and it relies on the wisdom of crowds who can quickly do minimal web searching for "facts" but don't put forth the time and labor that new discovery requires. That is its greatest limitation versus other sources of professional research, analysis, and journalism. It's great to have a wikipedia to refer to when we want to know "what everyone thinks." But it's quite sad if that deludes us into believing that "what everyone thinks" is always right. That's when we lose the ability to think for ourselves.


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