“Undue Weight of Truth” — Not just Wikipedia but peer review as well? 2

There is a very interesting article in the Chronicle Review today about the fact that Wikipedia explicitly is not designed to provide correct information about a subject, but rather only present the majority “weight” of viewpoints. His field and subject of this wikisode was the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886. Timothy Messer-Kruse has published his work in peer-reviewed journals and has at least one book on the subject. He corrected the Wiki-P entry with copious supportive evidence (so he recounts) and yet within seconds his correction was taken down.

“Explain to me, then, how a minority source with facts on its side would ever appear against a wrong majority one?” I asked the Wiki-gatekeeper. He responded, “Youre more than welcome to discuss reliable sources here, thats what the talk page is for. However, you might want to have a quick look at Wikipedias civility policy.”

I tried to edit the page again. Within 10 seconds I was informed that my citations to the primary documents were insufficient, as Wikipedia requires its contributors to rely on secondary sources, or, as my critic informed me, “published books.” Another editor cheerfully tutored me in what this means: “Wikipedia is not truth, Wikipedia is verifiability of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that.”

This is a good and stark reminder of the problems with The Wiki-P (I image “it” goes around with a big, gold and diamond encrusted Wiki-P necklace hanging round its rather corpulent neck) but it also occurs to me peer review has a habit of working on the same principle. I am not quite so cynical as some and I do believe, for example, that the current majority view regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls provenance is correct and not conspiracy, yet if we are honest we know that it is very hard to get a new and challenging paper into an SBL session or a journal. Of course we hope that the approach on a journal board would be something like, “I disagree with this article, but she has done her work, it is well documented and I look forward to rebutting it with an article of my own.” Too often I suspect that the response is rather “Nice try but we all know X to be true. Reject.”

So I wonder,  do our journals reflect “truth” (or at least the quest for it) or do they reflect the “verifiability of reliable sources”? Or as another Wiki-cop told Dr. Messer-Kruse

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.’

via The Undue Weight of Truth on Wikipedia – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.


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