Wicked Little Wiki

At work, it was a rather contentious issue. In writing our research papers, should we or shouldn't we make use of wikipedia? One colleague was strongly supportive of the on-line one-click dictionary. I, for one, demurred. I instinctively dislike wikipedia.

It feels like cultural dictatorship. I tried it out a few minutes ago. Typing "wikipedia" on my startpage search engine, what did I get? Out of the first ten results, eight were wikipedia-sourced. The two others were Google & Apple app's linking back to wikipedia. See what I mean? This is pure Orwell.

The Munich affair

I came to think about it when reading a spy novel by Jan Guillou. Funny guy, that one. It's not often that you encounter, in that genre, a superhero with a marxist-leninist background who feels and acts strongly for the Palestinian cause. To boot: he's depicted as a Swedish nobleman employed by the national security. Well, in this book, published in 1987 and called the "Democratic terrorist" (of all things), he recounts shortly the Munich Olympics 1972 fiasco, when a hostage-taking Palestinian commando was thoroughfully shot down by German police. As Guillou tells it, the massacre started because of a dumb policeman who pulled the trigger out of sheer stupid nervousness. Geez! Was it that way all started? Let's see what wikipedia has to say about it.

It says: As the Palestinians ran past the control tower, "Sniper 3 took one last opportunity to eliminate Issa, which would have left the group leaderless. However, due to the poor lighting, he struggled to see his target and missed, hitting Tony in the thigh instead. Meanwhile, the German authorities gave the order for snipers positioned nearby to open fire". Not quite the same story.

If you check with the BBC, on-line that is, you'll find that "witnesses at the airport said the shooting began when police snipers opened fire on the militants. (..) Bavarian Minister of the Interior Bruno Merk confirmed Munich's police chief had given the order to open fire." Not a word about the dumb hick who started the whole thing by mistake. A left-leaning trotskyite web site (www.workers.org), for its part, states that "the West Germans flew the Palestinians and their Israeli hostages to an airport on a NATO base, as sure a deathtrap for both the Jewish athletes and the Arabs as a bed of quicksand. West German police and military forces had surrounded the area before the helicopters carrying the Palestinians and Israelis even landed. Almost immediately the police fired directly into the vehicles containing both Arabs and Jews, and in the end 15 persons had been killed.” Case open-and-shut. No one will know what really happened. Is Guillou right? Or the wiki crowd? Hard to say.

Information out of joint

Sometimes, though, it's easy. A dear twitter-friend by name of Petter Malmberg (lives in Malmö, reads a lot, real books, and writes about them) recently wrote about an item that found its way in a catalogue which stated that Anna Kavan's book Ice had received The Brian Aldiss Science Fiction Book of the Year Award in 1967. The problem, Petter remarked, is that the Prize simply doesn't exist. And added: this what may happen when "you use wikipedia as a source when writing news pieces". (I've translated @PetterMalmberg from the Swedish, it was posted on September 8th, 2016).

So it goes. Another instance is John Milton. If you look for the French translation of his Paradise Lost by Chateaubriand, you'll get it easy via wiki, a charming photostat reproduction of the 1861 edition, a 257-pages long PDF version. But a reference to my copy, published by Belin in 1990 and reproducing the original bilingual edition (you get both the French and English!), is nowhere to be found. On wikipedia, that is.

Yet another instance is the Ghetto uprising, Warsaw, 1943. One of the finest books on the matter is John Hersey's The Wall, published in 1950 (my copy is the Pocket Book Cardinal Giants series from 1961), translated into French in 1952 and published by Gallimard with a preface by Joseph Kessel: one of this century's great books, he wrote, which is true enough. On wiki, though, Hersey is reduced to a seven-word off-the-cuff passing shot and, on the French version of the same, it's a one-liner curiously dating the "novel" to 1979... Not a single word on Kessel's superb preface, of course.

Scholarly words

What do academics say about the thing? Well, there's a 2008 study by L.H. Rector, containing a "Comparison of Wikipedia and other encyclopedias for accuracy, breadth, and depth in historical articles." (Source: Reference Services Review, 36(1), 7–22.) It actually revealed "inaccuracies in eight of the nine entries and exposed major flaws in at least two of the nine Wikipedia articles. Overall, Wikipedia’s accuracy rate was 80 percent compared with 95-96 percent accuracy within the other sources." (On-line, it's here http://libguides.canisius.edu/wikipedia/accuracy ).

There's also a rather amusing "Open letter to Wikipedia" that Philip Roth published in The New Yorker on September 6th, 2012. It deals with a wiki entry discussing his novel "The human stain" that puts forward a "serious misstatement" grounded not on facts extracted "from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip—there is no truth in it at all." What happened, do you think, when Roth asked an official wikipedia administrator to correct the error? The reply was: no way. Roth, this wiki bureaucrat told him, is not reliable, he's not, quote unquote, "a credible source". (If you wish to read this piece in full but rather prefer not to run down the stairs to the cellar in order to check this back issue of The New Yorker, you can read it here: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/an-open-letter-to-wikipedia ).

The same New Yorker (excellent under Harold Ross & William Shawn, who was forced to leave when mogul Condé Nast took over in 1987) carried another interesting piece on wikipedia, this time by Stacy Schiff, published on July 31st, 2006. It has some interesting tidbits. On the wiki founder Jimmy Wales, for instance, he's our natural All-American Boy, quite impressed in his youth by Friedrich Hayek. The paper records the spat between Wales and Jorge Cauz, president of the Encyclopedia Britannica. According to Cauz, if Wikipedia went on without some kind of editorial oversight it would “decline into a hulking mediocre mass of uneven, unreliable, and, many times, unreadable articles.” Wales' comment was that, in his view, Britannica would be "crushed out of existence within five years.” So it did. Its last print edition was in 2010. Another tale of US supremacy? One of many. (No wish to run down to the cellar? Here it is http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/07/31/know-it-all )

Better go to an ol' book

Time to wrap it perhaps. What definitely bothers any educated reader is the absence of bylines, you just don't know who authored anything on wikipedia, or when. Oh! you can, of course, if you prepared to spend a whole day, maybe a week, researching the numerous people hiding behind the texts. Aaron Swartz did that back in 2006. He sifted through the identities of more than 30,000 corrections made on just one entry (there are some 60 million so called authored "edits" on wikipedia as a whole) and found out that there are quite a few crazy loonies at the job. (If you want to read it in full, Swartz is here http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/whowriteswikipedia)

To conclude. We'll do that with the advice given to students by the Williams College Libraries. It's titled: "Should I use or cite Wikipedia? Probably not." It goes on to say that "Wikipedia may be useful as a primary source on popular culture, or for subjects that have not been addressed in the scholarly literature. For more academic topics, however, it cannot compete with the library's specialized encyclopedias and online resources." It's full of good references. Read it: http://library.williams.edu/citing/wikipedia.php