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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wikipedia and Truth

Are Wikipedia entries truthful? In a recent article in The Chronicle Review, Timothy Messer-Kruse, history professor, asks this question and explains how the site's rules about data verifiability have trumped his desire to correct an inaccurate statement. An expert on the Haymarket affair, Messer-Kruse attempted, over the course of many years, to correct, on the Haymarket affair page, a detail that his research revealed was a common misconception about the trial. Wikipedia's army of volunteer editors stymied his efforts, time and again:
I tried to edit the page again. Within 10 seconds I was informed that my citations to the primary documents were insufficient, as Wikipedia requires its contributors to rely on secondary sources, or, as my critic informed me, "published books." Another editor cheerfully tutored me in what this means: "Wikipedia is not 'truth,' Wikipedia is 'verifiability' of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that."
Although the issue at hand in this story is rather small, the case reflects a tension inherent in the democratization of historical authority.

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