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.