28 Nov 2005 - 12 Nov 2020
Older Entries: Nov. 2004-August 2005
Among the many indignities imposed on Brian, someone once tried to turn him into a woman
, but it didn't take. That illustrates an interesting characteristic of Wikipedia. Once a fact has been incorporated into the encyclopedia, people protect it from vandalism. Thus, it can sometimes be easier to insert a false fact than to remove it. In general, I've noticed that Wikipedia is self-correcting when someone changes a fact because a change looks like a dispute and a self-appointed moderator will consult a reference source to see which is correct. However, a brand new fact is usually believed at face value. In short, a fact is accepted as true as long as no one challenges it, unlike other media where a fact is considered false until someone supports it.
The inventer of the Brian T**by was also responsible for trying to give Joseph Mengele his nickname.
The fame of Brian T**by has spread to 118 sites across Internet. Now, in theory, since Brian T**by didn't exist until Wikipedia invented him, once Wikipedia deletes him, he should also vanish from the offspring sites, right? Let's check back in a couple of months.
13 August 2005: List of place names in English with non-intuitive unpredictable pronunciations
The difference between a teacher and a student is more than simply who does the talking or who gets paid. The real difference is the assumption of who knows more than the other. A teacher talks down to an audience that knows less; a student talks up to an audience that knows more.
When a student writes a report, he assumes that his audience (the professor) knows more than he does. This means that student is free to use jargon and skip the basics. His purpose in writing is to show off the vast range of his knowledge and impress the experts. A student is never afraid that he might be confusing his reader; he's more afraid that his reader will spot a mistake. A student writes to cover his ass.
A teacher on the other hand, assumes that she knows more than her audience. She explains using terms that her audience understands, and she's always willing to backup and repeat if this will help clarify matters. A good teacher assumes that if her readers leave ignorant, then the teacher has failed to teach, not that the readers are stupid. A teacher's purpose is to bring the readers to a higher level of knowledge -- not to the highest level possible -- just higher than where they started.
Interestingly, I found two Wikipedia articles that cover the same ground, but one is written by students
, and one is written by teachers.
And no, I didn't mix up the links. The more detailed article reads like Students wrote it, while the quick overview reads like Teachers wrote it.
The difference starts with the titles: "Non-Intuitive" versus "Unpredictable". They aren't exactly synonyms, but they're close. They even follow the same etymological pattern: [negation]+[means of foretelling]+[relating to]. The main difference for a reader is that "Unpredictable" gets 7 million Google hits and "Non-Intuitive" gets a hundred thousand, so the reader is more likely to recognize "unpredictable" as a meaningful word. I'm sure that upper level Philosophy of Knowing classes teach a more official difference between these words, but how many of your readers took those classes?
Notice that the title of the Student's article specifies that we're only dealing with names "in English", while the Teacher's article assumes that since the article is written in English, we're going to be discussing English pronunciation. I suppose, in theory, the title of the Teacher's article leaves the door open for a list of Arabic place names that use the Egyptian pronunciation even though the actual place is in Syria, while the Student's article politely avoids any Anglocentric presumptions as to the reader's native language, but really, isn't "in English" a tad redundant?
Gosh. Two paragraphs complaining about the title? But how does the content of each article measure up?
Compare the opening descriptions:
- Teacher's article: This is a list of place names that have pronunciations that are not obvious from the way they are spelled. [20 words]
- Student's article: This is a list of personal and place names that are pronounced in a way not easily deducible from the spelling or in a way at variance with a better known name of the same spelling. [36 words]
Just for fun, let's play fill in the blanks: This is a list of _(1)_ place names that _(2)_ pronounc_(3)_ not _(4)_ from the _(5)_ spell_(6)_ _(7)_
- (none)/personal and
- iations that are/ed in a way
- obvious/easily deducible
- way they are/(none)
- (none)/(long redundancy)
How about the list itself. The Student's article wins on size, but I like to think that size doesn't matter. Let me start with an example that neither article includes. There's a city near me -- birthplace of Woodrow Wilson -- spelled Staunton. Using the conventions of the Teacher's article, I can tell you that it's actually pronounced Stan-tun, and now you'll be able to pass as a local next time you stop and ask for directions. Using the conventions of the Student's article, I can tell you that it's pronounced ... oh, wait, I can't tell you, because the Student's article doesn't even use the freaking alphabet. My keyboard doesn't have those symbols.
Yes, I know the IPA is the official standard for recording pronunciation, and that's exactly how a student thinks. A student doesn't care how informative the article is to a casual visitor. He's more afraid that Noam Chomsky or Henry Higgins or some other famous linguist will pop by and catch him being unprofessional.
A teacher would think, how many people know what these symbols mean? Is it really useful to force the reader to memorize a chart of weird symbols before he's allowed to read our list of oddly pronounced names?
Most popular references shy away from IPA. My Webster's Ninth New Collegiate, for example, indicates that Chicago is pronounced , which most readers would find easier to decipher than IPA's .
A student's biggest fear is being wrong, and he's willing to surround a simple statement with hedges, dodges, equivocations and qualifications to avoid it. He wants to ward off all challenges right from the start. Yes, technically, Staunton isn't pronounced exactly "Stan-tun". The "-tun" is more of a grunt and not three distinct sounds. Also, the word isn't cleanly broken between the "n" and the "t". And writing the first vowel as "a" might not usefully instruct every reader in every part of the Anglosphere to use the same vowel they would use for "cat" or "back". Rendering the word into IPA more precisely captures the true sound.
A teacher's biggest fear is that she's not being understood, and she's willing to file off the rough corners and ignore fuzzy borders and definitional problems if that makes it clearer. The key difference between the expected and real pronunciation of Staunton is that the "u" is silent. Do I really need incomprehensible sigils to explain that? Can't I just say "Staunton is pronounced Stanton"?
The scary thing is that once Wikipedia realizes that there are two articles covering the same ground, one of them will be deleted. Want to guess which one?
Here's an article with enormous potential for abuse: Wikipedia's List of LGBT couples. The first categories have some semblance of objectivity as they list only publicly consecrated unions, but after that, they abandon all standards. Eleanor Roosevelt? According to Mrs. Roosevelt's Wikipedic biography, that's still being debated. You might as well list Abe Lincoln and Joshua Speed, or William Shakespeare and Francis Bacon, or Tom Cruise and whoever that guy in the lawsuit was. Since proof isn't necessary, we could probably add Bert and Ernie, or George Bush and Saudi Prince Abdullah
, or George Bush and Tony Blair
In fact, since Eleanor Roosevelt was such a lightning rod to the American Right Wing, it's best not to believe anything anybody says about her. For example, Wikipedia's claim that "The Pan-American Coffee Bureau, which was supported by tax revenues from eight foreign governments, paid Mrs. Roosevelt $1000 a week for advertising. When the State Department found out that the First Lady was being paid so handsomely by foreign governments they unsuccessfully tried to cancel the deal.[John T. Flynn. THE ROOSEVELT MYTH. pp. 247]" might have a grain of truth to it, but as the given source is a book that was published 57 years ago by a man who made a career out of opposing everything Roosevelt did, my questions would be:
- How have biographers who have actually been alive during my lifetime treated this claim?
- Who in the State Department tried to cancel the deal? The Secretary of State? Or some guy in the Second Floor of the Annex?
- How hard did he try? Did he just write a suggestion in a memo that was ignored? Or did he threaten a trade embargo if his demands weren't met?
- Does it matter?
- Even if it matters, why is Wikipedia giving 25% of its discussion of Eleanor Roosevelt's career as First Lady to it?
Another question I have about The Roosevelt Myth is "Why is this book the only source listed for Wikipedia's article on Elliott Roosevelt?" Admittedly, I haven't read the book, but is it really the definitive biography of the President's son and the source of the article? Or is it just stuck in there to boost the book's visibility and get more people to read it? Or did the article's author only consult hatchet jobs when writing the article?
[*FN1] "LGBT", by the way, is a bit of jargon that a general purpose encyclopedia would either avoid or explain, and if they don't fix it soon, I'll tell everyone that it is pronounced "lugbutt" and stands for Let's Go Bugger a Texan.
24 July 2005: List of countries by system of government
Until May 2005, the list was arranged by civil rights. Now the list is arranged by constitutional structure.
For example, in the old list, democratic countries like the United States, France, Sweden and Japan were set off from authoritarian governments like Pakistan and Zimbabwe. In the new list, presidential republics like the United States, France, Pakistan and Zimbabwe are set off from constitutional monarchies like Sweden and Japan.
Is one classification system better that the other? Ultimately, it's a judgement call, but ask yourself this. Which is a reader more likely to want -- a list of democracies or a list of parliamentary republics? Which are you more likely to debate -- whether your country's foreign policy supports constitutional monarchies over presidential republics, or whether it supports authoritarian over democratic regimes? If your company is going to transfer you to another country, which would you rather know -- whether their President has symbolic power rather than real power, or whether your native coworkers will go to jail for speaking indiscreetly?
Wikipedia's old way of listing countries was subjective, biased and useful, while the new way is accurate, neutral and useless.
I'm fascinated by the way the unnamed Hoax Article I mentioned last week has been thoroughly Wikified. It has spawned satellite articles that are just as spurious. It has real Wikipedia articles linking to it. It has been edited about 30 times by about a dozen authors over the past year, and many of the editors are unsuspecting. They've corrected spelling and grammar, and added links without ever checking on the veracity of the article.
It has thoroughly infiltrated Internet as well. When I search the topic in Google, I get over 100 hits, and as near as I can tell, all of them are derived from the original Wikipedia article.
Faced with all this corroboration, I'd be tempted to believe that it's a real subject, except that when I searched the keywords in a major news database I found absolutely no mention of the topic whatsoever in any article in any news source over the past 25 years. Let me emphasize that. The two key words have never appeared together in any news story. Ever.
Sometimes, when you criticize Wikipedia, defenders will point out that all information sources are suspect. It's fashionable to mistrust the mainstream media, and Wikipedians often point to recent frauds and errors at the New York Times, Newsweek or CBS News as proof that no one is beyond reproach. On the other hand, here's one mistake that the news media have been too careful to fall for.
I don't want to make a habit of revisiting old topics. Slash and burn, that's my motto.
It's quite fun to watch. The article changes daily. The participants in the debate have far more energy than I, and tempers have frayed. If dueling were legal, I'm sure one or both would probably be lying in a pool of blood on the field of honor. I'm hardly unbiased, but of the two principles in the fight for the future of the article, I have to say that one is a wise and eloquent scholar and the other is a dipweed.
But that's just my opinion.
If I were the editor, I'd establish a few rules:
- 2000 words max. It's an encyclopedia, not a treatise, so all you need to do is explain the basics and point the reader to more detailed sources.
- Since the article is supposed to explain an idea, I would allow most of it (2/3 or 1333 words) right up front to describe the theory and the supporting evidence without interruption by dissenters. If you go over the limit, I'll just lop off the end.
- I would allow 1/3 of it (666 words) for critics to have their say, without interruption, in a separate section called Criticisms. If you go over the limit, I'll just lop off the end.
- Because the proponents of the theory get the beginning of the article, the opponents will get the end. Fair's fair.
- No one will be allowed to edit the opposing viewpoint. Period.
- Once the article reaches 2000 words, nothing can be added without taking away an equal number of words.
- This include links and bibliography.
(One more thing. The article is entirely abstract and theoretical. Isn't it also significant that several recent presidents of the US have stated or implied that the DPT is a major part of their foreign policy? Don't practical, real-world applications count for something?)
I was trying to find out if Tsar Paul I of Russia was crazy.
So I Googled "paul I" russia (insane|crazy|mad) and the first hit was Wikipedia's bastard clone at answers.com. My experience is that these bastard sites have even less quality control that Wikipedia, so I clicked on the second hit -- Wikipedia itself. I don't know enough about the subject to judge the article's content, but it was detailed, dry, academic. Of its twelve paragraphs, three dealt with whether Paul was insane, and the conclusion is, no, of course not. In fact, the article seemed rather insulted that I even brought it up. Tsar Paul's sanity was firmly established by a panel of crack psychohistorians in the 1970s, so stop asking, dammit.
Okay, fine, but I wanted a second opinion, so it was back to Google.
Unfortunately, most of the other Google hits were bastards as well. On the first page were hits at answers.com, absoluteastronomy.com, laborlawtalk.com, teachersparadise.com, russiancorner.com plus two hits inside Wikipedia itself. In short, of the top ten Google hits, I got only 4 unique articles because Wikipedia is cluttering the datastream. Adding -wikipedia -wiki should weed out the clones if they admitted in the small print that they got the article from Wikipedia. Unfortunately, not every clone does that, so I still got 3 bastard articles.
Do you see the problem? Wikipedia is becoming the sole source of knowledge on the Internet, and even if WP has the best damn article on the subject ever written, I still would like to occasionally see what someone else has to say.
Anyway, what's the verdict? Was Paul nuts? Despite Wikipedia's total, absolute certainty, Google pointed me to a History Today article that had a tantalizing 1800 quote from the British minister in St. Petersburg that "the Emperor is literally not in his senses,... his disorder has gradually ... " but then the article shifted to pay-per-view. The Google blurb for a Britannica article calls him "A capricious, somewhat unstable individual ..." but Britannica won't tell me any more for free. In any case, it looks like the issue is more complicated and less dogmatic than Wikipedia suggests. Stories of his madness predated his assassination, and still persist among historians who are in a position to know.
I suppose I could go to an actual library to find out the truth, but it's not that important to me.
A correspondent has informed me of a hitherto undiscovered hoax article on Wikipedia.
I'm not going to tell you what it is today. I want to study it awhile. In fact, it's gotten so that my blog has a kind of Heisenburg Principle working against it. As soon as I report my observations, someone changes the Wikipedia article in response.
10 July 2005: [Mu/Bo]mba[
Here's an interesting break in Neutral Point of View. Most international maps nowadays would either show the heavy outline of India's border falling at the Line of Control or discreetly stopping when it gets to Kashmir and becoming a broken line along the LoC. The location map for Mumbai, on the other hand, shows Kashmir as definitely belonging to India. Sure it's just a line on a map, not a big deal, except that 60,000 people have died over it. In fact, Kashmir is such a sore issue that Wikipedia has abandoned its policy that "anyone can edit", in favor of "... but not you.
They do the same thing for all the other Indiancities. I see two NPOV ways out of this bias. Either have a non-committal location map for all cities of the Indian subcontinent, or allow Pakistani cities to have location maps that attach the whole of Kashmir to Pakistan. One problem -- Wikipedia doesn't even have location maps forPakistani cities
-- except Peshawar, and Pakistan only gets half of Kashmir on that map.
Here's a list of war heroes from the Indo-Paki-Bengali War that gives us their names and ranks, but skips right over which side they were on.
It makes for a confusing eulogy: Yes, these brave young men made the ultimate sacrifice to protect, uh, some country against, well, some other country, and we will probably be inspired by their courage, unless it turns out that they were the bad guys, in which case, never mind. Now let's rise for what is either their proud national anthem, or else just a song that would make them really, really angry.
The list was added three months
ago, and has spread to six sites
. It looks like that specific section of the article was edited 8 times
without anyone thinking to specify which country they died for.)
16 June 2005: Björk and the 1931 Statute of Westminster
This will make for a boring entry, but sometimes I come across Wikipedia articles that seems to be pretty good. This morning, I had to check something on the Statute of Westminster, and last week I had a question about Björk. I checked WP, got my answers, and nothing bad jumped out at me.
(I'm just trying to fair about this.)
I am fascinated by recent attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Genghis Khan
. The way I figure it, in 600 years, they'll be trying to say nice things about Hitler.
From Wikipedia: "The Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan saw the advent of many new laws and customs, such as freedom of religion, meritocracy, cultural diversity, extensive trade, tax break/abolishment of taxes for certain sectors, capital punishment, and patriotism that several democratic societies use today."
Are they saying that no one had any of these things until the Mongols? I thought the Roman Empire had freedom of religion, and the Chinese civil service had meritocracy. Cultural diversity has existed wherever any two cultures meet. Extensive trade? The Silk Road predated the Mongols by centuries, and Roman merchants showed up in India and China. Tax break/abolishment of taxes for certain sectors? According to the Republican Party, that's in the Bible. Capital punishment? Patriotism? Yeah, no one had those before.
"The Mongols introduced most of Asia to the abacus [according to Wikipedia, the abacus was independently developed in both Rome and China] and the compass, [according to Wikipedia, the compass arrived in the Arab lands the century before Genghis] and brought to Europe the explosives that were first created in China, as well as high-powered siege engines." [On behalf of Europe, let me say, thanks.]
"In the Middle East, people have mixed views about Genghis Khan and his descendants because their armies conquered and destroyed Baghdad."
Much as the people of Hiroshima have mixed views about the atom bomb.
"... many Chinese revere him as the founder of the Yuan Dynasty."
This is one of those statements that I'm tempted to answer with "name four".
"However, much of the European historical record about Genghis Khan and Mongols were recorded from the viewpoint of the victims of Genghis Khan."
That's probably because most people who interacted with Genghis Khan ended up as his victims. If he left behind anything other than victims, I'm sure we would have heard from them.
"In terms of savagery, barbarism, and enforcement of discipline, there is very little difference between Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan..."
Golly. The best that they can say about him is that he's no worse than a guy who destroyed Thebes, Tyre, Persepolis and Gaza, and murdered his best friend.
"...yet the former is referred to as "the Great" (even on Wikipedia) while Genghis Khan has a far more butcher-like image."
According to my Webster's Ninth, the first meaning of "great" is "notably large in size" which certainly refers to Alexander's reputation and impact. Possibly more appropriate is the third definition of "great" -- "remarkable in magnitude, degree or effectiveness."
Calling Alexander (or Peter, Cyrus, Catherine or Alfred) "great" doesn't mean we like him, only that  he doesn't have any other name to distinguish him from all the other Alexanders (Peters, Cyri, Catherines, Alfreds) out there, and  this is the most noteworthy person of that name, so  if we only refer to "Alexander" (or Peter, Cyrus, Catherine or Alfred) without any other appellation, we probably mean him. Generally speaking, people with distinctive names (Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, George Washington, Winston Churchill) don't get called "the Great".
In fact, I get the distinct impression that much of this article is written by people who are not fluent in English: "Their incredible ability to ride a horse and fire arrows made them even more dangerous to fight."
"Incredible" means "too extraordinary or improbable to be believed", but in all honesty, I have to say that I have no problem whatsoever believing that they were skilled riders and archers.
Unfortunately, I can't pick on the authors about "firing" arrows because the second to last definition of "fire" is "to emit or let fly an object" (Damn you, Webster!). However, there's a quite common and far more appropriate word in English that doesn't originally mean setting fire to gunpowder. It's right at the tip of my tongue... Oh, shoot, I can't think of it.
"The European expansion came to halt when high-ranking members of Mongols returned to modern day Mongolia to participate in selection of the next Great Khan."
They returned to modern day Mongolia? Aiee! Time-travelling Mongols!
"In recent times, Genghis Khan has become a symbol for Mongolia's attempts to regain its identity after many long years of Communism under Russia."
I say screw 'em. If a country can only regain its identity by worshipping the devil and whitewashing history, they don't deserve a seat on the UN. Have the Mongolians maybe considered finding someone nice to idolize? Surely they've got at least one holy man in their history who did not take part in indiscriminate killing.
"Particularly in Central and East Asia, and certainly in Mongolia where Genghis Khan is a national hero, there is much concern about the negative bias in historical records about Genghis Khan which emphasize his assaults, barbarism, and butchery. There is a feeling that his military and administrative genius is undervalued, as is his undisputed status as the conqueror of the largest empire in history."
My philosophy is that if you kill 15 million people, leaving behind tens of millions of refugees, cripples, widows and orphans, and improve the lives of... how many? one million people at most, you're running a deficit, morally speaking.
The article closes with this point: "Foucault points out that more important than the truth or falsehood of this narrative is its effect on future generations. As Edward Said has suggested, these historical biases, having been repeated often enough, have become true."
In other words, "History is a set of lies agreed upon." (Napoleon) But if that's true, why even maintain a pretence of accuracy? Why not just say that Genghis Khan was 100 feet tall and could fire laser beams out of his eyes? He discovered America and then conquered Mars.
30 May 2005: Slavery among Muslims
One reason I find Wikipedia so fascinating is that there are some topics that simply will never be allowed to rest unvandalized for even a few hours.
A few days ago, the paragraph on slavery in Medieval Arabia was a reasonable little summary of authenticated history. Well, of course, no proper God-fearing Muslim could allow that slanderous accusation to stand, so one energetic fellow had a go at rewriting history the way he would have like it have happened.
I'm sure they'll fix it by the time you read this. Even so, it's an interesting window into the worldview of some people out there.
The second thing that strikes me is how one-sided it is. It starts by describing the theory, its history and the supporting evidence -- so far, so good. Then you come to a topic called "Criticisms". You'd think that Criticisms would, this is just a guess, criticize the theory, maybe even by giving equal time to the theory's critics, but no, Criticisms is devoted entirely to refuting criticisms. There are nine paragraphs under Criticisms. Two paragraphs describe the opposing viewpoint in vague, jargony terms. Four paragraphs begin by detailing specifics of the opposing viewpoint, but end by pointing out why this objection is wrong [*FN1]. Three paragraphs of Criticisms offer only support for the theory with no criticisms at all.
This article highlights the Darwinian nature of Wikipedia. Articles are written by competing viewpoints, but the winner is the most energetic writer, not the most informed or accurate.
The only reason I even bring this up is that I myself think the democratic peace theory is wrong. More importantly, I think blind trust in the Democratic Peace Theory is one of the reasons the US invaded Iraq, and it's probably not wise to be invading countries based on half-assed political theories.
[*FN1] One of my objections to the DPT is that they apply a double standard to supporting and dissenting examples. For example, notice that Wikipedia offers 6 wars between Communist countries as support for the DPT, yet 4 of these would not be counted as interdemocratic wars if the exact same events had occurred under democracies. Prague Spring fails to reach the 1000 death minimum required to be considered a war. Afghanistan (1979), Hungary (1956) and Indochina (1979) involved relatively young regimes, even though DPT insists that a democratic government would have to had existed several years before they'll count it as a real democracy. Thus they may be measuring the relative aggression of unstable vs. mature, rather than democratic vs. not.
Also, for another double standard, notice that the DPTs offer the Swiss Confederation and the Iroquois Nations as democratic federations that maintained peace between associated democracies, but if you suggest the United States as a counterexample (You do remember that small war between the states in the 1860s, don't you?), they'll fall all over themselves explaining why wars within federations don't count.
It sometimes seems that DPT tailors its definitions precisely to include or exclude specific cases. For example, they define democracy as having voting rights for 3/4 of adult males. Why 3/4 and not just "most"? Because that keeps the American Civil War out of the running. Why only men? Because DPT likes to count Switzerland as a peaceful democracy, and the Swiss didn't give full voting rights to women until the 1990s.
Speaking of military dictatorships (as I was earlier today
), I just noticed that for the past five months (or full semester), Wikipedia has been listing the Confederate States (after the war, under Union occupation) as a military dictatorship. Not only does this easily fit with the pro-Confederate bias I noted in Wikipedia's articles on Spotsylvania
and Fort Pillow, it also makes me want to shake them by the shoulders and scream GET OVER IT!
Anyway, let me try to explain the difference between military occupation and a military dictatorship:
By adding the former CSA, they've destroyed whatever standards the rest of their list might have had. The inclusion of the Confederacy is not only inconsistent in definition, it's inconsistent in era. Notice that none of the other examples ended earlier than the Cold War. The second oldest example on their list ended in 1957.
Basically, the inclusion of the Confederacy is pure propaganda.
I'm afraid I have a confession to make. I just ruined an excellent opportunity to make fun of Wikipedia.
So basically, the Athenian Plague was whatever the trendy disease of the moment is. A best-selling history of smallpox will swear it was smallpox. When terrorists hit us with anthrax, the Athenian Plague becomes anthrax. If Ebola threatens to break out of Africa, then Pericles died of Ebola. The Plague of Athens might very well have been the first recorded outbreak of boogie fever for all we know.
However, rather than ridiculing Wikipedia for their scattered, divergent certainty, this morning I consolidated all their observations into one cut-n-paste article, and pointed all the other articles to it.
I know. I'm sorry. This means they win this round.
I tried not to blink. Back in February I started to make a bunch of changes to their history of smallpox, until I decided that the article was just hopeless, so I gave up and reversed all my changes. Unfortunately, it's been nagging at me ever since, so I finally broke down.
[UPDATE from mere hours later: They didn't like my change to the smallpox article, so they reverted to the previous version. This means that I can make fun of them all I want, and they can't trot out their usual defense of "If you don't like it, fix it". On the other hand, doesn't it strike them as unwise to have the second longest description of a specific smallbox epidemic be an epidemic that probably wasn't smallpox?]
4 May 2005: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
20 April 2005: Vietnam War - Tracking an error through the datastream
On Sept. 2, 2002, Wikipedia's article on the Vietnam War declared that the government of Vietnam "released figures on April 3, 1995 that a total of one million Vietnamese combatants and four million civilians were killed in the war." On Sept. 3, 2002, someone added "The accuracy of these figures has generally not been challenged," just in case we considered doubting them.
Unfortunately, the figures released by Vietnam in 1995 really
said that 2 million civilians were killed in the North and South (altogether), which somebody misinterpreted as 2 million in the North and 2 million in the South. Anyone familiar with the war should have immediately suspected some sort of mistake. After all, how could a war fought almost entirely in the South have killed an equal number of innocent bystanders in the North? The only possible explanations could be A) it didn't, or B) the American bombing of the North was a holocaust. Naturally, many commentators have used these mistaken numbers to prove Point B.
The mistake was finally (after over 1,500 revisions to the article as a whole) corrected on April 8, 2005 -- just barely missing the tenth anniversary of Vietnam's official announcement. Wikipedia, however, still assures us -- without a trace of irony -- that "The accuracy of these figures has generally not been challenged." I'm sure that when someone challenges these numbers, they will continue to assure us that these numbers have not been challenged. Meanwhile, in the 2 years, 7 months and 6 days that Wikipedia assured us that 4 million civilians were killed, the mistake has spread to 455 different sites
across the web.
Prediction: Because the mistaken death toll of 4 million civilians has become so widely reported, the sheer pervasiveness of it gives it authority, and at some point in the future, Wikipedia will change back to it.
Just to be thorough, here are a few articles around the Web concerning Wikipedia. Unfortunately, most are high on theory and low on content. One of them actually uses the word heuristic. Another uses metric as a noun.
- Freedom To Tinker
- I think it's noteworthy that of the six Wikipedia articles he decided to quality-check, the purely factual ones (Princeton University, Princeton Township, etc.) succeeded better than the one requiring analysis (Microsoft antitrust case). With a town or university, you can succeed by simply listing inarguable facts (date founded, county, population, landmarks), but with a court case, you need nuance and balance (Points of law, background, precedents, arguments on both sides.)
- Also noteworthy: "My only criticism of these entries is that they could do more to make the concepts accessible to non-experts. But that's a quibble." Actually, that's not a quibble. That's the purpose of an encyclopedia.
This is probably the most fascinating article of the bunch, not so much for what it says as for the frenzy of comments it provoked -- many of them frightening, moronic, or incoherent.
- Dan Gillmor
This article provoked a generally better class of comments.
- Alex Halavais
I like this comment, and this one. (I'm tracking a few errors that I've discovered. I'll let you know how long it takes for them to be corrected.)
- Smart Mobs
FWIW: I first noticed the dangerous potential of Wikipedia last fall, when I was investigating the truth behind a common e-mail of Social Security myths, and discovered that Wikipedia was among the vectors. The myths had been added to the opening paragraphs of Wikipedia's article on Social Security on August. 11, and remained unchallenged for about five weeks (at the height of the presidential campaign mind you) until I pointed out the error on Sept. 20th. In fact, because Wikipedia's many offspring don't update very often, two
are still spreading the myth.
I do sometimes contribute to Wikipedia, but my first rule in such matters is never tackle a subject in Wikipedia that I can do better on my own web site. After all, why should I knock myself out writing a brilliantly crafted article that some flat-earther will butcher two hours later? No, I limit my participation to tweaking topics like shipwrecks and Egyptology, things I have a passing, limited interest in, but not subjects I'm willing to sign my name to.
So naturally, I've tried not to go barging into a subject like their List of Massacres, as this is my field of expertise. Their article is too long for me to critique in detail, but scroll down a bit, to the 1940s and let's see how they handle all the terrible things that happened during the Second World War. Obviously, they can't list every single massacre that occurred during this busy time in history. They have to be selective, but how well did they select?
I've charted the 28 massacres that they list for that phase of history according to who did what to whom. This includes a few that happened just before or just after the war, but are still connected.
Oddly, the traditional bad guys of the war, the Axis nations of Germany and Japan, are only blamed for 14 of these massacres. That's only half. According to Wikipedia, half the massacres of WW2 were perpetrated by a motley collection of nations usually considered either the victims or the heroes of the war. The most noticeable among these is the United States, which easily comes across as second to Nazi Germany in terms of pure evil. In fact, of all the horrible things that happened during World War II, Wikipedia is claiming that the United States was responsible for a quarter of them.
The Holocaust, on the other hand, is almost an afterthought, and you can tell their heart isn't really in it. Babi Yar is included as a formality, but no one has bothered to describe it. Wikipedia ignores at least a half dozen enormous Einsatzgruppen massacres that any decent Holocaust site would list. Sure, they've got Ponary -- also without description -- but if you follow the link, you get to an article that describes it as a massacre of Poles (mostly Jewish) by Lithuanians (German-led
In fact, according to this list, the Germans are only one massacre short of being equal to the Jews in their quantity of suffering. In fact, I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustlaff, as this would then equalize the victimhood of the Germans and the Jews.
This is the big problem with purely volunteer activities. You only get people working on things they care deeply about. In this case, we've had Polish nationalist contributors wanting to show how badly their country has suffered at everybody's hands. (Not just Germans, but Lithuanians, Jews, Ukrainians and Soviets have kicked the Poles around on this list.) We've had neo-Nazi contributors trying to prove that Germany was surrounded by big bad enemies, so of course the Nazis were justified in invading them. We've had anti-American contributors wanting to show that the USA is (and always has been) worse than almost everyone else in history, even worse than the Soviets (7 massacres by Americans versus 1 by the Soviets.). Meanwhile, no one really cares what the Japanese did in Singapore, or what the Italians did in Yugoslavia. ("Whatever. It was a long time ago.")
In any case, this Wikipedia article has been online for two and a half years and gone through about 280 rewrites. Variations of it have been reposted at 111 mostly commercial sites.
Here, by the way, is an honest
chart of the relative evil
and suffering of the participants of World War Two, listing how many millions of people were killed by whom outside of battle. I have ignored any death toll under a quarter million as small change. Numbers don't add up exactly because there's overlap and a lot of unknowns.
And the great thing about this chart is that no one can change it but me.
Concerning a Washington Times article that cites Wikipedia as a source: "How lazy can you be and still show up to work every day?" [DCSOB via Wonkette] Well, I went online looking for a biography of Thomas Bulfinch, and wouldn't you know it, I kept hitting the same damn article posted at a couple of dozen different sites. What do you suppose the odds are that it originated with Wikipedia?
A quick glance reminded me of what I dislike about Wikipedia:
Firstly, it's pedantic. For example: "Compare these to the matter of France, the matter of Britain and the matter of Rome, respectively."
What does that mean?
I'm a moderately educated person, but I haven't the foggiest idea what's the matter with France, the matter with Britain and the matter with Rome, respectively. Let's have a show of hands: how many of you out there already know what "the matter of France" is? You see, Wikipedia forgets that the purpose of an encyclopedia is to explain a subject to people who are ignorant of that subject. You should always define your subject using words and examples that are more widely known and understood than the topic under discussion. For example, don't define a bunny as an "unfledged lagomorph."
Take another look: "Compare these to the matter of France, the matter of Britain and the matter of Rome, respectively."
But why should I? That's your job, Wikipedia. I'm not just being a wiseguy here. I'm serious. If there is a comparison to be made, you, as the writer, should make the comparison. Don't tease me. Tell me what I need to know. That's what I'm paying you for.
Second problem -- it plagiarizes extensively -- excuse me, it quotes extensively. It has ten lines lifted directly from Bulfinch's preface. Out of 26 total lines of text. That's 40%.
"Thus we hope to teach mythology not as a study, but as a relaxation from study; to give our work the charm of a story-book,"
But I already have a copy of Bulfinch. I already read the preface. I went looking for an online bio because I wanted to learn something the book didn't tell me, from someone who has read more about Bulfinch than I have.
Third problem -- Wikipedia is just so damn superior to its subject matter.
"The Bulfinch version of myth, published for genteel Americans ...
Odd word, genteel. It's not really an insult, but it doesn't quite rise to the level of a compliment. It's certainly not neutral. In fact, my thesaurus lists four distinct meanings of genteel, two good, two bad:
- cultivated, cultured, polished, refined, urbane, well-bred
- affected, la-di-da, mincing, pretentious, stilted
- civil, courteous, polite, mannerly
- bluenosed, priggish, prim, prudish, stuffy, puritanical
"... published for mincing, pretentious Americans, just as the first studies of mythography were appearing in Germany, presents the myths in their literary versions, without unnecessary violence, sex, psychology or ethnographic information...."
- I would suspect that one of the reasons that Bulfinch left out ethnographic information is that he lived several generations before this became a well-developed field of study. After all, "the first studies of mythography were appearing in Germany" around that time. Also I suspect another reason Bulfinch left out ethnographic information was because he "hope[d] to teach mythology not as a study, but as a relaxation from study; to give [his] work the charm of a story-book". But that's just my guess.
- Also, he probably left out psychology because Freud hadn't been born yet. In fact, while we're listing all the things that Bulfinch left out, we could add car chases, wise-cracking robots and dance-hall girls with a heart of gold; however, as a general rule, it's probably more instructive to describe what an author puts in, rather than what he leaves out. Unfortunately, Wikipedia doesn't do that.
"The Bulfinch myths are an indispensable guide to the cultural values of the American 19th century..."
They make it sound like The Age of Fable is the 19th Century version of Xena the Warrior Princess, like he just made it up out of thin air, and anything you read in Bulfinch has no relationship to the original Greek and Roman stories.
"...yet the Bulfinch version is still the version being taught ..."
Why "yet"? Yet implies that what follows is contrary to common sense.
"...yet the Bulfinch version is still the version being taught in many American public schools."
Foolish school boards. Why are they teaching mythology to 4th graders as a relaxation from study with the charm of a story-book, when they could be teaching ethnography instead.
"Bulfinch was the product of Boston Latin School ..." He doesn't even't qualify as a human. He's merely a product. He was nothing more than what these schools made of him.
"... the product of Boston Latin School, Phillips Exeter Academy, and Harvard College ..." which are, no doubt, genteel (prudish, stuffy, puritanical) institutions.
Now you may be tempted to defend Wikipedia by pointing out that it's a work-in-progress with an amateur, volunteer staff, but let me counterpoint out that this article has been online since October 2002 (that's 2 years and 5 months) and has had 15 authors working on it. I daresay that anyone with two and a half years and a research staff of fifteen should be able to put together a better article than that. 5 March 2005: Battle of Spotsylvania
Wikipedia prides itself on having a Neutral Point of View (or NPOV as they call it). Their desire is that all sides of a controversial topic be described accurately. Unfortunately, bias always creeps in.
Let's have a look at the Wikipedian article for the Civil War Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. If any historical topic is a prime candidate for NPOV, this is it. I could understand why an English-language article on D-Day might put more emphasis on the Anglo-Americans instead of the Germans, but with Spotsylvania, we're discussing a civil war where both factions emerged from -- and then blended back into -- the same country. We don't have language barriers or a vast cultural chasm that prevent us from understanding the enemy. If you can research one side, you are perfectly capable of researching the other.
Also aiding the NPOV should be the fact that Spotsylvania was a clash of the titans -- Grant versus Lee. Neither general is intrinsically more interesting or capable. It's not like the Seven Days, where Lee had the initiative from Day One, or Vicksburg, where Grant planned and acted and attacked while his opponents scurried to catch up.
So how N is the article's POV? Just by straight word count, Lee is mentioned 22 times, Grant 13 times.
More interesting is what these two generals are doing in the article. In the nine sentences where Lee is the primary subject by name or by pronoun, he anticipated, deployed, recognized, began to lay out, was able, felt, did not come out, lost, and never did. Meanwhile in his eight sentences, Grant responded, decided, had, had fewer, had lost, sent, shifted, and chose not to retreat. Lee "deployed" while Grant "responded"? Lee "anticipated" while Grant "chose not to retreat"? It certainly sounds like Lee is the more dynamic of the two, setting the agenda while Grant merely responds. This is especially odd considering that Lee was entirely on the defensive.
The article is just as lopsided when we start looking at what the other soldiers are doing when their commanders are not the grammatical subject. "Lee's tactics inflicted"; "[Lee's] men realized"; "the Confederates won"; "the new [Confederate] line was ready"; "the [Confederate] army was taking heavy losses"; and "Lee's army would never regain." On the Union side we see only that "II Corps took", "Upton's attack won", "they actually broke", and "Sedgwick was killed". In fact, the Yankees are so completely outclassed that the authors seem authentically surprised when "they actually broke the Confederate line."
To fill out the count, the remaining 15 sentences treat the battle as an entity independent of the players -- "the fighting was significant"; "the battle lasted"; "the breach was complete"; "men fell", etc. Significantly, even here Grant is a chump, as the object of two sentences where he is "saved ... from a disaster" and "convinced" by a "bloody repulse". Meanwhile, in a nearby subordinate clause, Lee prevails "as the Confederates ... won back".
I'm not suggesting that an editor parcel out sentences -- "OK. You can only mention Lee 15 times and Grant 15 times". I'm just pointing out that an article can fail to be neutral without calling Grant a butcher or Lee the savior of Southern womanhood. Although the battle was a tactical draw, it is usually considered a strategic victory for the Union. In fact, it could be argued that this was the war's most important Union victory in that it established once and for all that the Confederates would never be able to win the war militarily. Shouldn't the emphasis, therefore, fall equally on the victor's thoughts and actions?
Wikipedia's article on the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse has been reposted at 158 different sites
. It has been online since April 2002 and has had 23 authors. Just consider for a moment what 23 researchers should have been able to accomplish in 3 years.
With 300 suspected kills, Pedro Lopez
at the top
of every list of serial killers
, yet Wikipedia
is the first source I've ever seen to seriously question his right to this honor. At first, I figured that this was just another Internet blowhard with half-assed theories (No insult intended. That description fits me too.), but when I looked more deeply into it, Wikipedia was right! There's no corroborating evidence for the Lopez story. And furthermore, when I went looking to see who else has publicly doubted the full mythic reach of Pedro Lopez, it seems that Wikipedia is the first and only.
Anyway, if a student or reporter out there wants a topic that needs research, I've gathered all the evidence of Pedro Lopez for your perusal. For example, in a large, popular news database, I found exactly two (2) articles written about Pedro Lopez prior to 1982. That means that during his supposed reign of terror, his arrest and his trial, the collective news media wrote a total of 277 words about a man you'd think would be the most sensational criminal of our times. Many articles followed in which Lopez was ranked against whoever was the latest serial killer caught by police, but Lopez only appeared as a name in what had now become a standardized list. When I searched for detailed articles that mentioned him more than 5 times, I found only two, in rather obscure newspapers. (At least, I've never heard of them.)
It looks like everything ever written about Lopez comes from these four sources. Nothing else is known about him, like, for example, the names of his victims, the dates of their disappearence, the investigating officers, or any details of the evidence against him.
A typically noncommittal article from CNN ("Well, these guys have a point, but then, these other guys have a point too.") has reminded me that it's time once again
to remind people not to blindly trust Wikipedia.
For example, it's now been over a month (Nov. 5) since I pointed out a significant factual error in the Wikipedia article on the Vietnam War. [They accidentally doubled the death toll of the war.] Although the article has been edited 80 times since then, no one has yet taken my advice. I suppose I could just jump in and edit it myself, but now I'm curious to see how long it will take for someone to notice. Normally I approve of collaborative volunteer Internet projects, but it worries me that Wikipedia is spreading like kudzu across the Internet, choking off all competition. I'm sure the good folks at Wikipedia are not directly responsible for this spamming of the Net, but they are promiscuous with their copyrights, and many commercial sites have learned that they can cheaply bulk up their content and increase their search engine visibility by looting Wikipedia. Thus has Wikipedia shifted from an ornamental shrub to an invasive weed. For example, when I Google a random phrase from Wikipedia's Vietnam War article, I get 301 hits. That's disturbing enough, but that phrase was removed from their article on October 19. This means that even after Wikipedia fixes a mistake or improves an explanation, they've left a trail of error all across the web. (To prove it's not a fluke, let's Google another random phrase ... Apparently, this one has been reposted at 236 different sites.) Wikipedia frequently has lopsided priorities. In their list of 20th Century events, they devote a full paragraph to the the 1953 coup in Iran and nothing at all to the arguably more important 1979 revolution in Iran.... Well, now that I look again, they don't even list the Wars in Vietnam and Korea as significant 20th Century events
It's also a bit odd that in their biography of Robert E. Lee, they devote (by my count) 31 lines describing his death and 32 lines to his career as leader of the Army of Northern Virginia (much of which is taken up by a picture). If he were, let's say, the Black Dahlia
or Sharon Tate, I would agree that how he died would be an important part of his historical significance, but, frankly, by the time he died, Robert E. Lee was a has-been. His importance was earned in the war, and they should be putting the emphasis there.
Although Wikipedia sometimes gets criticized for giving too much credibility to, for example, holocaust deniers, that's not the biggest problem because a solid core of Holocaust admitters continually hover over vulnerable topics, re-edit the relevant articles and keep the truth of the Holocaust in plain sight. Less widely known atrocities, however, can disappear without anyone ever noticing. Six months ago (June 12), an anonymous neo-Confederate revisionist simply removed all mention of the Fort Pillow massacre, and no one has bothered to fix it. (I certainly can't, because that's not my job. All I know is that the current article as it stands isextremely wrong
(Because of WP's ever-changing nature, by the time you read this, it might have changed. Click the WP article's "history" tab if you want to see how it looked when I wrote these complaints.)
I know I shouldn't pick on Wikipedia, since I generally get good press from them (and I do occasionally contribute) but they are an endless source of irritating entertainment (and entertaining irritation) for me. See, for example, their discussion [scroll one click down] over how valid Stalin's "million deaths" quote is. Rather than, you know, looking in a book or something, they argue about whether anyone can remember hearing the quote any earlier than the Red Alert computer game in the mid-nineties.
(And remember: 80% of your students, peers, children or future senators (as the case may be) are probably getting all their homework answers from Wikipedia.)
On the plus side, the desire to accomodate every point of view-- no matter how eccentric -- creates some unique perspectives on the world. For example, where else would you find a list of the world's countries that includes 8 de-facto independent countries despite the objections of the Chinese or the Greeks? Or an up-to-date list of countries by political system that doesn't call Afghanistan a democracy or Israel fascist just because someone wants to prove a point?