February 19, 2012

Jim Ruzicka

Even genuine authorities hit a wall when they try to correct errors on wikipedia:

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… If all historians save one say that the sky was green in 1888, our policies require that we write 'Most historians write that the sky was green, but one says the sky was blue."

I understand why, in a collectively edited project like wikipedia, you'd want to try to ensure at least some degree of neutrality (though this particular editor seems to have his own agenda for maintaining the "no evidence" line about the trial of the Haymarket "martyrs.") But this notion that popular understanding trumps expert analysis with documentary proof is truly perverse. And it explains quite eloquently, I think, how it is that wikipedia articles tend to seem quite all right on subjects you know only a little about, while full of errors when it comes to topics you know well. Of course, that should call into question the quite-all-right-ness of those in the former category. Yet that doesn't deter me, at least, from consulting wikipedia as though it were a real encyclopedia, and taking its pronouncements to heart without quite knowing why, as with folklore or tales learned at my mothers knee.

Maybe it's years of conditioning in encyclopedia use that leads to this irrational deference. In spite of myself and all indications to the contrary, I instinctively assume that the authors and editors of these articles have some authority. And many of them, I'm sure, are quite knowledgeable. But in the individual case it's just as likely to be some crank who, for his own dark reasons, is committed to preserving, say, the view that no evidence at all was presented at the six week Haymarket trial. I've read several articles like the one linked, and they all make attempting to edit wikipedia sound like an argument in a bar with a belligerent drunk guy who wants you to know that the moon landing was a hoax. And the fact that that analogy undoubtedly works both ways only makes it worse, really.

A mitigating, and paradoxical, factor in all this, though, is that this misplaced impression of authority is greatly undermined when the articles are poorly written, which is, to be frank, usually. So the well-written articles are potentially, in that sense, all the more misleading since they arouse a lower level of skepticism. I remind myself to be especially wary of these, but I always fail to take my own advice. Well-written assertions that the sky is green work on me, while poorly-written ones about the sky being blue have less staying power. I could, of course, check by looking it up in a real encyclopedia; and, of course, I almost never do. This understandable laziness gives the Haymarket guy quite bit of power, but as with the moon landing guy, it's not his fault: it's ours. For listening to him.

I have my own, perhaps rather trivial, example. In the wikipedia article on my band, the drummer has, for many years, been listed as Jim Ruzicka. Jim's actual last name is Pittman. In other words, the drummer of my band is not this guy. I believe this error first appeared on allmusic.com, and it wasn't, I don't think, a malicious attempt to googlebomb Jim so he'd be associated with a serial killer, though I suppose it could have been. Since we never listed last names on albums and there was a second engineer at one of the studios we worked at named Jim Rizucka (also not the serial killer) some allmusic.com person put two and two together, incorrectly. This conventional wisdom spread, eventually taking up residence in wikipedia, and all over the internets. Essentially, then, the established popular view with regard to the last name of Jim Pittman is that it is actually Ruzicka, while the minority view (mine, and, presumably, Jim's) is that it is Pittman. It never seemed worth trying to correct, and after reading this article I'm not sure I'd have much of a leg to stand on. It's 281 to 2, after all. The sky may be blue, but if the consensus says it's Ruzicka, it's Ruzicka.

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 19, 2012 06:12 PM | TrackBack

Years ago, it was the MTX page that made me realize wikipedia was not to be relied on. I'm not sure who changed it, of course, but I wish I was still Bobby Jenkins.

Posted by: Bobby J at February 19, 2012 07:16 PM

Hey Frank. I'm a longtime fan & also a longtime Wikipedian; I've been actively editing there for almost 6 years. I wrote or rewrote many of the MTX-related articles there back when I first got started editing. I remember trying to track down full names for some of the members, but some were already listed so I can't say for certain where this particular error originated. I'd hate to think that it was with me, but I have to admit it's possible. On the one hand it does highlight some of the flaws in Wikipedia: Because we want info in WP to be verifiable, we have to rely on what's already been written in other sources, and thus if a factual error is particularly widespread among secondary sources, there's a good chance it'll be reflected on Wikipedia as well. Typically this isn't malicious: Most regular editors at WP are acting in good faith and trying to find correct info from various places, but in the internet age it's easy for info to be widely circulated and accepted as fact, even if it's wrong.

On the other hand, it demonstrates one of the biggest challenges I've encountered in my WP writing: I write mostly about bands and albums, and I've collected a good number of books from which I often cite, but the fact is that a lot of bands just don't have decent biographies written about them already. Thus those of us trying to write decent articles about them on WP have to scrape for info from what sources we can find, which are often sparse or not of the caliber we'd like. Personally I do my best to ensure the sources I'm using meet a threshold of reliability, but sometimes I come to find that -- as in this case -- even the sources are wrong. I'd like to go back to those MTX articles and give them another going-over, now that I've had several more years' experience with WP's ins and outs and have gotten much better about sourcing.

Posted by: Pete at February 19, 2012 09:47 PM

And it explains quite eloquently, I think, how it is that wikipedia articles tend to seem quite all right on subjects you know only a little about, while full of errors when it comes to topics you know well.

Depends on the subject; on, for instance, computing and technical subjects Wikipedia is remarkably accurate.

It's where politics gets involved (as in the example given) that it gets most hairy.

(On the MTX note, now that you've made this post, someone can change the Wikipedia entry and it won't be "original research"!

Wikipedia needs a good smacking, sometimes. "Encyclopedic content", my ass.)

Posted by: Sigivald at February 20, 2012 06:44 PM

Just like Stephen Colbert said "if you make something up and enough people agree with it - it becomes reality".

Posted by: liam at February 21, 2012 08:50 AM

Though the original encyclopedia's were objectively better as sources of literature and had articles written by persons of historical note, I think you would find the same phenomena you describe if you consulted Britannica, or a typical high school textbook. At least wikipedia is certain to *mention* evidence that the USSR was going to attack Germany.

Posted by: josh at February 23, 2012 02:55 PM