Thursday, February 16, 2012

Facts and Opinions

No reader is likely to be surprised by the assertion that Wikipedia is not -- to put it mildly -- a reliable source of facts. Oh, you can start there, of course; but if you are even a little bit serious, you move on quickly.

Here's why. Timothy Messner-Kruse, an historian at Bowling Green, is the author of two books and several articles on the Haymarket Riot. But when he tried to correct some errors in the Wikipedia article on his subject, he found his changes reversed, not because they were wrong but because they didn't reflect the consensus of opinion. And the opinion solicited here is represented by secondary sources, since Wikipedia (albeit for understandable reasons) discourages the use of primary sources.

The problem is, or course, that facts don't depend on a consensus of opinion. They depend on sources, which in the case of historical writing are original documents that can be examined and cited -- things Messner-Kruse had done, in some cases making him one of the first researchers to do so. But until his findings are more widely disseminated, they won't count so far as Wikipedia is concerned.

Honestly, we can't get too upset with Wikipedia. If they didn't have some policy like this one, they would be flooded with obsessive-compulsive cranks, swamping their servers with "evidence" for alien abductions and Fortean phenomena. But that doesn't mean we actually trust their second-hand facts, either, and neither should you.


Nestor said...

Wikipedia is - if that much - a reference... as you said, a way to start to get acquainted with something you know nothing about... It is more or less like the first guy on the street whom you ask how to get to some place, far away... Knowing that the hint can be - at times - completelly wrong.
We just have to keep remembering that consensus IS usually stupid.

Nestor said...

About Fortean phenomena, Wikipedia says: "...As to whether Fort believes this theory, or any of his other proposals, he gives us the answer: "I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written." Writer Colin Wilson suspects that Fort took few if any of his "explanations" seriously, and notes that Fort made "no attempt to present a coherent argument"..."