Friday, March 02, 2007

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Conservapedia bills itself as (and we'll bet you had already guessed this) the conservative answer to Wikipedia. It looks very, very, similar. Similar enough that a semiliterate term-paper writer at a B-list school could mistake one for the other when trolling for stuff to plagiarize. Worse yet, the said young author might deliberately choose Conservapedia, as a salubrious antidote for Wikipedia's notorious liberal bias.

First off: we never thought that Wikipedia -- a colossal, user-edited online encyclopedia -- had any particular bias. How could it, we reasoned in our naivete, with so many contributors from all over the world? Fortunately, the Conservapedia editors set us straight. Their homepage features a clear analysis of Wikipedia's bias, including what they consider the obvious smoking gun: many articles feature English spelling. (You know: tyre, saviour, judgement).

Never mind that England, under Labour no less, has been Bush's closest, and indeed only, ally in Iraq. Never mind Edmund Burke and George Orwell and Maggie Thatcher. English spellings are a sign of liberal bias because, well, they aren't American.

And "conservative," in the mind of the Conservapedia editorial staff, seems to equal two things: American and Christian. In fact, virtually nothing else seems to matter to them. We at the Egg know this, because we checked. We searched for a few of our favourite -- omg! favorite -- things, and here's what we found.

Thomas Jefferson: The first two sentences describe his life and work. The rest of ther article, which is not long but still fourteen or so sentences -- is devoted to Jefferson's religious convictions, and especially to the thesis that although TJ is often called a Deist, he described himself on at least one occasion as a Christian. Whether this is true or false, we at the Egg are willing to gamble our immortal souls that Jefferson considered his role in founding the United States, doubling its geographic size, and exploring the continent more important than his religious convictions. Heck, he probably considered gardening, wine and Sally Hemmings more important too, and none of them gets a shout-out.

Benjamin Franklin: Flew a kite, invented a stove. And in the second sentence, we learn that he, too, is called a Deist but wasn't really. The rest of the article is devoted to his religious convictions, and the strong, but astonishingly ill-argued, assertion that they were not Deist.

George Washington: ran a country, won a war. From the second sentence, the article is devoted to proving that he was a Christian.

Do you see the pattern? (There are rather bad articles on Luther and Aquinas, but at least the editors didn't feel any need to prove that those two were Christians.)

As for the figures you might expect in something called Conservapedia: there is no article on Barry Goldwater. Or Patrick Buchanan. Or anybody named Buckley.

But all this would be okay if the articles were thoughtful, well-written and well-sourced meditations on the spiritual lives of great Americans. In fact, we would welcome such a wiki. But so far, this ain't it. Despite constant urging to cite sources, the articles are full of opinions, often ill-informed ones. And the prose rises, at its very best, to the level of a middle school expository essay. Consider this beautiful and apt instance, from the rousing conclusion of the entry on a well-known medieval poet: "The account of Hell is known as 'Dante's Inferno,' and it is frightful."

Frightful indeed.

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