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Friday, December 02, 2005  

Internet: What's wrong with Wikipedia

Pajamas Media recently published comments from several bloggers about the Internet's foremost free, 'independent' encyclopedia. Wikipedia is a collection of material, some quite good, some godawful, contributed by volunteers. Unfortunately, the inability to distinguish fact from opinion is rampant, particularly on the Internet. Facts are, of course, provable, or, at least, the information closest to being confirmable. Opinion is whatever someone thinks, whether he has a rational basis for those thoughts or not. A roll-your-own encyclopedia encourages the distribution of opinion masquerading as fact.

My most recent bout with Wikipedia occurred after fact-based information emerged about New Orleans during the tragic first week following Hurricane Katrina. By the time that information became available there were already entries about the situation at Wikipedia. They embraced the sensationalist claim that thousands of people were rioting and looting, and that numerous assaults, rapes and murders had occurred. It was said that prisoners had been released from penal facilities and were running amok. As you know, only a handful of violent crimes occurred among the estimated 30,000 people who were stranded in the Superdome and civic center for as many as five days. Claims of looting were also exaggerated and there weren't any riots. Prisoners were either moved to higher levels of facilities or transported out of the area. They were not released.

I edited a couple of Wikipedia entries to replace the conjecture and wild speculation with the newly established factual information. For example, once the coroner confirmed the number of deaths in the Superdome and civic center, I posted those figures. Each time, for about a month, the editing I had done was replaced by people who took the entry back to the scenario of violent blacks rampaging. One would not have guessed that there was actually nominal violence or that there were issues of significant economic, social and political substance involved. After all, we are talking about the greatest natural disaster in the history of the country leading to the largest migration of American citizens ever. Eventually, I stopped editing the entries, allowing them to revert to 'the savages ransacked New Orleans.' The tenacity with which that viewpoint was being pushed confirmed that on an 'independent' encyclopedia opinion will often silence fact.

Letting anyone contribute to the site guarantees that result. Consider an excerpt from a Wikipedia entry about the League of the South, a hate group that promotes white supremacy.

The League of the South is a nationalist and secessionist organization headquartered in the Southern United States with chapters and members in a majority of states nationwide. Its leader is Michael Hill. It advocates for the South and Southern heritage in the realms of political and social discourse and over time the League hopes to achieve greater autonomy for the South either within a revived constitutional federalism in the United States or as an independent nation. Secession is openly discussed as leverage in order to secure many of the same rights Quebec has won through its own secession movement in the federation of Canada.

Politically, the League of the South defies normal definitions of Left and Right, being further right than Edmund Burke and further left than Karl Marx. Despite this paradox, it may be best characterized as Southern traditionalist, advocating both for greater political and cultural autonomy for the South against the dual onslaught of centralized government and global capitalism. The League proposes to build a new society on a foundation of government centered in communities, accountable to the people, and with an economy of self-sufficient farms and small businesses.

Read the rest of the entry and you will discover it continues in the same vein. An uninformed reader might think that the LOS is a group seeking a bucolic, agrarian future. There are only hints that the LOS seeks to divorce the South from the rest of America so that a white, Christian theocracy can be established. In that new nation women, nonwhites, and non-Christians would be deprived of civil and political rights. Considering that the League is one of the largest hate groups in the country, one would expect a more objective description. Instead, Wikipedia readers are treated to an entry written by Michael Hill, the president of the League of the South.

Wikipedia can be considered an acceptable source for basic information. I would trust it to tell me the difference between Fahrenheit and centigrade or to explain the metric system. But, a reader would be foolish to take a source with no safeguards to prevent bias seriously in regard to complex topics. Nor is the quality of much of the writing at Wikipedia equal to even the eigth-grade education standard of most newspapers. Reasonably priced encyclopedia software is available for both Windows and Macintosh computers. Encyclopedias also offer some access online, as do most mainstream newspapers and magazines. If you care about the accuracy of the information you disseminate, those fact-checked, usually reliable sources should be first among non-equals.

Reasonably related

This entry is not an endorsement of Pajamas Media. I believe it is intended to be another source for disseminating Right Wing opinion on the Internet.

3:30 PM