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The majority has spoken

A historian named Timothy Messer-Kruse has been doing research on the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886 for the past ten years. He was prompted by a student question about the orthodox version of the trial, which was that the prosecution did not offer evidence connecting any of the defendants with the bombing.

 One of my students raised her hand: “If the trial went on for six weeks and no evidence was presented, what did they talk about all those days?” I’ve been working to answer her question ever since.

I have not resolved all the mysteries that surround the bombing, but I have dug deeply enough to be sure that the claim that the trial was bereft of evidence is flatly wrong. One hundred and eighteen witnesses were called to testify, many of them unindicted co-conspirators who detailed secret meetings where plans to attack police stations were mapped out, coded messages were placed in radical newspapers, and bombs were assembled in one of the defendants’ rooms.

So “no evidence” turns out to mean the testimony of 118 witnesses. I’m reminded of theists like Nick Peters who claim that Dawkins simply makes assertions about theism, without defending them, when in fact there’s a whole thick book that defends them.

One day Messer-Kruse read the Wikipedia entry on Haymarket and found it repeating the orthodox version, so he made a correction.

I removed the line about there being “no evidence” and provided a full explanation in Wikipedia’s behind-the-scenes editing log. 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.”

There is something fascinating about that. I do get the reason – there are always going to be more cranks and monomaniacs wanting to publish their “original research” than there are genuine historians and people who know how to do original research, so Wikipedia errs on the side of caution – but it does mean that mistaken conventional wisdom trumps accurate new research.

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.”

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.”

Again, you can understand the reasoning – not everyone knows how to use primary sources, and academic secondary sources have been peer-reviewed. The result however is that what you get at Wikipedia is the existing conventional wisdom, and not the new research that corrects or expands it. We knew that, but the example is interesting.

Comments

  1. says

    Years ago I found that Wikipedia, contrary to its written policy, was actually very conservative. I would make very small changes to things like subarticles on Nazi stuff that implied or stated that Nazis were atheists and would get marked as a vandal. And people would stake out their pet articles with a vengence and pounce on anyone who attempted to reorganize the article or break it into discrete articles or clarify specific sections. Running into that asshattery a couple of times made me throw up my hands in frustration. There is clearly a bureaucratic wall there that is very hard to penetrate. It’s a wonder Wikipedia works as well as it does.

  2. julian says

    Weird. If the concern were verifiability wouldn’t first hand accounts carry the most weight? Especially after their authenticity had been determined.

    Ah well, Wiki’s mostly for the links anyway.

  3. says

    Ah well, Wiki’s mostly for the links anyway.

    I like it for links plus direct quotes, jargon, associations with other people and things and events, quick and dirty definitions or outlines or images, and probably other things I can’t think of right now.

  4. Pteryxx says

    julian, good point… one would think Wikipedia would at least put “However, this researcher has found that…” and put both interpretations out there, citations and all.

  5. unbound says

    It is unfortunate, but even a reality in some scientific fields as well. It took many, many years for Dr. Marshall to get traction that bacteria could cause peptic ulcers because the common wisdom of doctors at the time was that bacteria couldn’t survive stomach acid.

    Even today, the overwhelming majority of doctors still press the myth that fat and cholesterol cause heart disease. There is only a small minority of scientists that know otherwise (Dr. Ravnskov has led the charge on that area).

    Not easy to change what the majority feel is true in a subject area.

  6. Stewart says

    Read the article a few days ago – made sure to save it for future reference. My wariness regarding Wikipedia fully vindicated. It is what it is, but too many people don’t understand what it is. Not that I never, ever make any use of it, but I have strict internal rules about trusting it. I don’t think I’ve ever taken anything from it without verifying elsewhere – and even there one must be wary, for many other sites have simply copied from Wikipedia.

  7. says

    I say publish an article on this in Skeptical Inquirer, making all the points you make here (more efficiently perhaps) and include all the documentation and authorities properly cited regarding all the evidence, so your article becomes the “go to” piece on the trial. Then change Wikipedia and cite this new article in SI. I’ve seen this done (my articles on Hitler’s Table Talk and Vardaman’s microletters have become cited evidence in Wikipedia articles on them). So it works. And you’d be contributing to the essential body of scholarship on this. Which as a historian I am always fond of nudging people to do. :-)

  8. Grendels Dad says

    Hmm, resistance to change, even well documented, reliable change. What do we need conservapeadia for?

  9. Roger says

    Perhaps Wikipedia should change its name to Dictionary of Received Ideas (thank you, M. Flaubert).

  10. says

    I wonder what would have happened if, instead of trying to correct the wiki entry, he had added it as a minority viewpoint.

    In a way, I do see the point of why wikipedia works this way. When I look up something, I expect to see the consensus view.

  11. says

    Richard – actually that’s what Messer-Kruse did, in the CHE. I forgot to include the link, so it became a secret that I was basing my report on his article! Funnily enough though, he had published an article (just not a book yet), peer-reviewed at that, but the Wikipedia eds were unimpressed.

    Wikipedia often does say “this is contested” and give different versions – I wonder why the eds didn’t suggest that in this case.

  12. thecalmone says

    I amended the Wikipedia article on St Mary bloody McKillop to include the little known fact that she had worked briefly as a stripper, but it only lasted a few minutes before some meddling fascist corrected it.

  13. Rrr says

    Funnily enough though, he had published an article (just not a book yet), peer-reviewed at that, but the Wikipedia eds were unimpressed.

    They must have been very deeply unimpressed, if it took less than ten seconds to refute it. (Without citation… ) Chinese whispers. If this sort of debate permeates Wikipedia, as seems to be the case too often, is it any wonder they are having funding problems?

  14. dirigible says

    “Again, you can understand the reasoning”

    You can, but the reasoning is often deployed to pursue a hidden non-wiki ideological agenda. Or by people who understand every letter of the rules but not a single iota of their spirit.

  15. Greg Tingey says

    Parallel case:
    How many people lived in classical Rome?
    Everybody – including Wiki says 1 million +
    Professor McEvedy (I may have mis-spelt that) says otherwise, and “much smaller”, looking at the area of the city then, and how big it was (1930-ish) when it DID pass 1 000 000.
    Prof M is a respected author, but there is no questioning the ,majority vote.
    Interesting, that?

  16. rbh3 says

    I’m reminded of Lord Dorwin in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, whose research into the location of the home planet of the human race consisted solely in weighting the relative persuasiveness of secondary and tertiary sources, denigrating doing actual research on the question himself.

  17. avh1 says

    I’m quite fond of it for doing research when I’m GM’ing an RPG, when accuracy isn’t vital. My biggest problem with it is the anonymity – the person who wrote or edited that article *might* be an expert. Or they might not know any more about it than I do – and that’s a catch-22; either I know the material and therefore don’t need Wikipedia or I don’t know the material and thus have no idea whether what’s there is true or not.

    I must admit I also like the April fool edits. Seeing the Conservative party in the UK described as a think tank which supplied New Labour with policies made me howl with laughter.

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