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The Dangers of Trusting Wikipedia

I use Wikipedia a lot. It’s one of my main sources of information while researching information related to each of the books I read.

But I always take an extra step. If Wikipedia doesn’t have a source, if it doesn’t link out to some other respectable site that provides the same information, then I won’t use it in that case.

So there are definitely dangers in trusting Wikipedia, and here’s a great example why:

Recently, Philip Roth (read my review of American Pastoral) wrote “An Open Letter To Wikipedia” in which he spelled out his experience trying to change a piece of faulty information in an entry about his novel, The Human Stain.

Roth says, “The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip—there is no truth in it at all.” The point of dispute was this statement–that The Human Stain was “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.”

Roth petitioned Wikipedia to change the entry, and here’s how he explains the results:

Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor—that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”

Let’s talk about that for a second. How ridiculous that Wikipedia “requires” Roth to provide a secondary source, other than himself, on what inspired HIM to write a novel, to create art. Amazing.

That’s like someone asking me, “What prompted you to write this post?” Well, I saw a tweet about it on Twitter. “No, I think you saw it on Facebook.” Yeah, that’s not true. I saw it on Twitter. “No, no, no, you allegedly saw it on Facebook. If you want us to believe you saw it on Twitter, we’ll need someone else’s account.” Insane.

Roth goes on to explain the actual inspiration for The Human Stain (an event in the life of his friend, Melvin Tumin), and sums up the letter this way:

Finally, to be inspired to write an entire book about a man’s life, you must have considerable interest in the man’s life, and, to put it candidly, though I particularly admired the story “What the Cystoscope Said” when it appeared in 1954, and I told the author as much, over the years I otherwise had no particular interest in Anatole Broyard. Neither Broyard nor anyone associated with Broyard had anything to do with my imagining anything in “The Human Stain.”

Bam! Shut your face, Wikipedia. Shut it.

The author IS the source. You don’t need any other source than that.

You can read the entire letter over at The New Yorker.

Do you trust Wikipedia?

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35 Comments Post a comment
  1. Zen #

    I do trust Wikipedia, but I think I will have to reconsider after this… I mean seriously, where else could you get a more credible source? Jeez.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  2. Allie #

    I have a fair amount of skepticism when it comes to things written on Wikipedia. I must admit that I distrust information that often relies on what someone remembers about a subject, or what someone heard from so-in-so. Your example shows exactly what’s wrong with how they decide what is a good source or not. I agree, I think the author should be the foremost source in explaining what inspired him. If all you need is two sources that agree anyone could post any untruth and have it appear to be ‘fact’.

    Call me old-fashioned, but I would rather sit down to a real encyclopedia or go to more direct sources for my information. (For example, I recently came down with pneumonia and needed information. Where did I look for said information? Wikipedia? No. I turned to the Mayo Clinic and National Institutes of Health.)

    Wikipedia is tempting since it’s often the first thing that shows up in our searches. It’s fine if people want to use information there, just be sure (like you do) to double check the sources. Like my dad always said, don’t just blindly believe what you read, check your facts.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
    • Yeah, I think it’s a good starting point, but you have to verify the information elsewhere.

      Like

      September 19, 2012
  3. I always take it with a grain of salt. Many of their ‘sources’ are questionable. I do love the idea of crowd sourced knowledge and human knowledge, but it definitely always needs to be questioned.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  4. Great article.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  5. I like the part in this post where you argue with yourself about your source, twitter or facebook. I wonder if you spoke that dialogue as you wrote it.

    What I like even better is that Roth took the time to read an entry about his work. We should all be so lucky as to garner a little wiki-attention, factual or otherwise.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
    • I talk with myself more often than I would like. The above argument still hasn’t been resolved.

      Like

      September 19, 2012
  6. Ryan #

    I usually have trouble accepting a wikipedia entry that pretends to know the inspiration or background to many things – novels, movies, songs, etc. They usually sound like a fan who has discussed random ideas with their fanboy peers on some obscure message board.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
    • That’s my take also. For awhile, Wikipedia was spreading malicious RW lies about a voting activist friend of mine. I attempted to right the record of his life – as he was dying from cancer and could not do so on his own behalf. Wikipedia’s management treated me the same way that Roth was treated. When I continued to argue with Wiki management about the situation, they decided that this person didn’t deserve a WIki mention at all (In other words, if we at Wiki cannot do a RW smear job, than we won’t consider the person important enough have an entry.)

      Like

      September 19, 2012
    • Yep, you can always tell when a biased source wrote the material. It sounds more like marketing copy.

      Like

      September 19, 2012
  7. writersgastronomy #

    Oh, Wikipedia. I spend at least three hours every semester telling my students NOT to cite Wikipedia on their essays. Wikipedia is the reason behind 9 out of 10 college instructors’ headaches!

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  8. I trust it as far as I can throw it and as I understand it, it is not something you can throw

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  9. I confess I turn to it for quick bits of information – sort of the broad strokes on a topic. But I am skeptical about trusting it for anything too particular – and now I will be even less tempted to do so!

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  10. There’s been quite a lot of misunderstanding about the case. Wikipedia said that a professor has publicly stated The Human Stain was inspired by Broyard. That is true even if his statement isn’t. Now that we know it isn’t, there’s no point of leaving that information, but before it was the most trustworthy information about the subject.

    Roth’s previous letter to Wikipedia couldn’t be used in the article, because it was private. That’s just how encyclopedias work – the sources have to be available for everybody to check (and, for wikis, to correct the article if it’s found to be misinterpreted).

    Now that the information about the source of Roth’s inspiration has been published online, so the entry has been changed. I don’t understand the mini-outrage.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
    • I understand there’s been some further clarification. But regardless of what was said in the past, when the author himself writes you and tells you that you’re wrong, then it should be changed without flinching.

      Like

      September 19, 2012
      • But public figures can lie about themselves, and about their own lives and actions. Wikipedia is meant to be a reference text, not a personal PR page for any celebrities who may be on there. The figures themselves are not necessarily the most reliable source about what belongs in their biographies.

        When it comes to WRONG information, yes, it should be removed if the wiki editor can’t provide a source. But the disputed fact here is an interpretation. Roth can deny it, but if somebody said it, it exists.

        What it should say on the page is “Some literary critics believe the book is based on the life of Anatole Broyard [link to proof of a critic saying that here], though Roth has denied that as a source of inspiration [link to Roth’s statement here].”

        Like

        September 20, 2012
  11. What I love about Wikipedia is exactly what you’re bringing to our attention. I just checked out Anatole Broyard, and ended up learning so much about him, whereas before I knew nothing. He has a daughter Gala that was not mentioned in his obituary that he fathered with his first wife. I go on learning sprees that begin with Wikipedia, but never end there. Thanks!

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  12. Yeah, I find myself slightly siding with Wikipedia here. If the word of the author of the book, in this case, or the director of the movie, or the public figure in question was always accepted without references to any other sources, then we’d have an even more inaccurate wikipedia than we already have.

    In this case, the discussion is somewhat trivial because it only has to do with an author’s inspiration for a novel, but imagine when a public figure tries to explain away a scandal by editing his wikipedia page. In that case we’d be glad for the appeal to secondary sources.

    But, like the person who posted before me mentioned, since this topic has now been publicly discussed, it now qualifies as a secondary source and worthy of being mentioned in the article about the novel.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  13. I do not trust Wikipedia and if I use it at all it is only along with other sources.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  14. I think this is a problem that goes beyond Wikipedia. It’s too easy to simply cite a secondary source, without verifying ad infinitum. Mistakes can be perpetuated in almost any medium, and once they become established in a critical source, they are often get cited, and re-cited, with no one going back to verify the origin of the information. And how can one go to an original source which is lost, or perhaps dead? And this raises further questions about how we know what we know. Nonetheless, with such a reliable source such as Philip Roth, it becomes a ludicrous adherence to rules not to accept his testimony regarding his own intentions.

    For the most part, I trust the information I get on Wikipedia, but this also depends on the consequences of getting something wrong. If it’s really critical, I prefer to have as many reliable sources as possible.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  15. thestoryofmoney123 #

    i generally trust wikipedia – but it makes sense to be discriminating. i think we all understand that wikipedia is fallible, or we SHOULD understand that. i was talking to a college student recently and at the school she is at she said they weren’t allowed to write papers using ANY online sources as a reference. she said this was very, very difficult and made writing papers take a long time. i could appreciate that the school was saying online sources weren’t necessarily credible. it’s something we all have to consider.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
    • dste #

      Not being allowed to use any online sources as a reference sounds harsh to me. I understand it in the case of sources that aren’t necessarily credible, but I think this is a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

      I’m in college now, and the first example that came to me was online articles from academic journals. Through our library website, we have access to thousands of articles from well-established academic journals in PDF format, journals that the library itself frankly doesn’t have the shelf space for. If I couldn’t use resources like this or other sources well-established to be credible, say a news article from the New York Times website, I would have to either go out of my way to find the actual print sources or severely limit the scope of the information I could gather.

      In my opinion the internet is a tool that can be used poorly or well. Instead of saying “No online sources” or “No wikipedia”, let’s all focus on how we can use these resources correctly.

      Like

      September 19, 2012
    • Exactly, dste. I’m friends with some librarians, and the “no internet sources!” rule is the bane of their existences. A lot of reputable sources are fully online now: encyclopedias, academic journals. Many of those things are more up-to-date than books which take years to be published. Saying “no internet ever!” is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

      Like

      September 20, 2012
  16. bba #

    I trust Wiki enough to know I can change what it says to win bets with bloggers.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  17. Kim #

    My friend once edited the entry on Thesaurus to include “the Thesaurus is widely recognized as the least popular of all the dinosaurs.” She went on and on, ending with “due to the lonesome existence of the Thesaurus, it is the only known dinosaur to have chosen extinction.” It lasted for all of 25 minutes before someone edited the page and deleted her addition with the comment “this is not true.”

    All sources are fallible, whether it’s Wikipedia or a hard copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. As a previous commentator said, you have to be discriminating.

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  18. Trying to get anything changed on Wikipedia is a nightmare – I understand (and agree) with their insistence on having sources for their content but some of their editors take a very strict stance. But its inconsistent because there have been other instances recently of people who were able to edit their profiles and remove info that they felt was unflattering.

    Like

    September 20, 2012
  19. This whole premise of an author confronting his own biography, finding errors, but being unable to change them, so that the “incorrect” biography becomes the accepted biography, strikes me as something quintessentially Rothian. Roth, remember, once wrote a supposed memoir called “The Facts,” subtitled “A Novelist’s Autobiography,” in which Roth writes a letter to his literary stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman.

    Like

    September 20, 2012
  20. I once tried to amend something in a legal article on Wikipedia after a new court ruling. I am a lawyer myself and I added the court’s official website with the ruling as a link.
    Some honcho deleted it, saying this was “not a credible source”.

    I will never again put time and effort into amending Wikipedia pages. And I can’t take it seriously anymore.

    Like

    September 22, 2012
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    Like

    July 3, 2014
  22. Reblogged this on iconobaptist and commented:
    Wow, an author is told he is not a sufficient authority on his *own novel by Wikipedia standards. Be careful out there, folks.

    Like

    September 22, 2014
  23. This information is worth everyone’s attention. Where can I
    find out more?

    Like

    February 23, 2015

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