On January 12, 2009, the Wikipedia website presented a front page with an account of King Arthur. Having a life-long interest in the subject–one of my several unfinished novels is based on the legends—I read it with some interest. The article was noteworthy, but mostly for what it lacked.
Following the article was an extensive field of footnotes and links. This was impressive in size, but not in content. Most of the links were to sources which were in fact drawn from other linked sources. In other words, if I wrote an article based on the sources cited, I too could become a source. This ingrown toenail of research is equivalent to using the same word to define itself.
And though I am not a scholar, only an interested party, I immediately noticed the absence of citations for original scholarly works which might contradict the thrust of the article. The Arthur legend was, by this account, a myth built on a lie–essentially that Arthur was merely a romantic legend.
One defender of the veracity of the legends, Geoffrey Ashe, is indeed there. Ashe is footnoted several times, mostly for his attempts to defend Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, a work produced more than half a millennium after the fact. But Norma L. Goodrich, who has done much greater and more interesting work in the area of original sources, is missing. I do take Goodrich’s part in the argument, but my concern is more than that.
I use Wikipedia every day. I find it to be an invaluable research tool for everything from confirmation of spelling to finding other sources I had not yet seen. But this dependence is a great handicap as well. Good scholarly research begins at home. Scholarly research is born in taking pleasure in knowing, in discovery—in grasping a mere fact and combining it with others through comprehension and imagination. Reading. If the young potential scholar is clicking their way to competence in a term paper, what does the future hold?
I have taken a great concern myself in the inherent nature of the internet as a medium which can be abused by the powers-that-be to achieve political purpose. I obviously have no problem with opinion or the free expression thereof. What I fear for is the acceptance of unvetted sources and the use of the medium to direct popular opinion.
And worse–as books become artifacts, and scholarly work is kept in the ether alone, what will be the deterrent to altering facts to suit the political disposition of the moment.
For another example, I have recently been reading the work of Amity Shlaes, the author of a wonderful book, The Forgotten Man, a new history of the Great Depression. I took a peek at the Wikipedia entry on her. It was at best an adolescent slap and at worst a Paul Krugman type abuse of fact to achieve a political put-down. I use the example of Krugman in this instance as a well known and established figure, Nobel Prize winner, and all around shite, who has spent the last twelve years of his life wallowing in his own political bile for reasons I don’t care to know. The emphasis in the Wikipedia article was clearly on certain associations and comments made by Shlaes, taken out of context, which the Wikipedia author disapproved of. And who was this critic–perhaps Krugman himself? We cannot know.
The anonymity of the source of Wikipedia articles is the problem. Anyone can be mistaken. Prejudice is natural. H. L. Mencken made a good case for that. But the hidden agenda of ‘Anonymous’ is a clear danger and warning.
It is, of course, this very anonymity that made Wikipedia grow. ‘Everyman’ might pretend to be a scholar. Like a giant ‘Facebook’ for the intellectually timid. A home for pseudo-intellectual stalkers.
Wikipedia is a great common ground of information and one of the very best developments of the internet age, but that age is only just begun, and Wikipedia is at present a sort of Central Park. By day a playground, refuge, and leafy avenue, but by night, a place where truth might be mugged and facts stolen.
As might have been said in Arthurian times, beware, ye who venture there.
College students often ask whether they can use Wikipedia as a resource when writing papers. What I (and 99% of my colleagues) tell them is that they can use it as a starting point, as a way to get their feet wet in finding out about a topic (e.g., “What was the Sepoy Mutiny?), but I know of no instructors at the college level who accept it as a scholarly resource. Students may certainly use and cite Wikipedia entries in their papers but must also use journal articles, published books, authoritative web sites, etc. to try to get in-depth and “balanced” information on a topic.