Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Uses and Abuses of Wikipedia


A History Teachers Association of Victoria training seminar I attended recently was a very enjoyable session with much debate about pedagogy, sources, referencing, and resources. We also spent a fair amount of time on issues of copyright, plagiarism, and social networking. The biggest debate that surfaced, not for the first time at an HTAV event, concerned the use of Wikipedia as a source for students.

Apparently some history teachers have been telling their students for years not to use Wikipedia, because they feel that it is too open to unprofessional comment. One person shared the tale of a colleague who warns students against Wikipedia, and then purposely goes onto the site to sabotage the information so that she can catch them out! (Presumably creating a new pseudonym each time: the editors do eventually catch up with saboteurs and ban them. Frankly I prefer good, honest, old fashioned Nazi-style book burning to such cynical vandalism, but I digress…)

Some of us were able to assure those present that the sheer quantity of review on the website means that, in the long term, the articles are often better than most of those available through a published Encyclopedia. Wikipedia’s own article on the Reliability of Wikipedia (accessed on 18/7/10) includes the following:
An early study conducted by IBM researchers conducted [sic] in 2003—two years following Wikipedia's establishment—found that "vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly—so quickly that most users will never see its effects" and concluded that Wikipedia had "surprisingly effective self-healing capabilities".
An investigation reported in the journal Nature in 2005 suggested that for scientific articles Wikipedia came close to the level of accuracy in Encyclopædia Britannica and had a similar rate of "serious errors". These claims have been disputed by Encyclopædia Britannica.

I am particularly impressed that Wikipedia notes anything that is disputed or inadequately referenced. Wikipedia is more demanding of footnotes and references than most academic publishers, and certainly far more comprehensive than I have seen in most classroom textbooks. A brand new Wikipedia article may be the work of whichever crank has put it up, but bad articles do not survive long. It can take time for public opinion to settle a new article down to a more reasonable document, but it usually happens. This is one of the reasons that the editors of Wikipedia have banned many organizations, particularly religious cults, from commenting about themselves on site.

It is valuable therefore for students to realize that change happens, and even more valuable to track how it evolves. There is a History tab at the top of each Wikipedia page, which links to the number of changes to the article over time. This can be revealing on, say, Scientology, and downright terrifying on more immediately emotive issues… Try any article on ‘terrorism in X country’, and check what changes were made just after the most recent attack! A serious discussion with your students about sources can usefully include looking at one of these ‘History’ tabs.

Wikipedia can be an excellent tool for students, as long as they recognize its weaknesses. To demonstrate this, I suggest a nice little exercise to give students before they are permitted to use the resource on a regular basis. Ask them to find a controversial article, then click on the Discussion tab at the top of the page. There, they can examine the arguments behind changes that have been made. Any topic likely to provoke controversy is a useful start. If you can find one that relates directly to your students areas of studies, consider that a bonus.

Pointing out that there can be a debate about any particular topic is only the tip of the iceberg. To go a bit deeper, start looking at issues of ‘cultural’ censorship, such as politically correct modifications to terminology, or the assumption of automatic acceptability of things that are clearly still debatable. For example Wikipedia’s Global Warming Controversy article included under ‘Discussion’ (accessed on 6/3/10):
I noticed that the Related Controversies section dealing with the skeptics anti-science positions on the regulating of ozone depleteing [sic] chemicals and the risks of passive smoking were removed on March 29... Why was this allowed? It is quite clear that the skeptics simply did not want it known that they have resisted the scientific consensus on other notable issues as well. It was quite relevant because it lets people know just where these liars-4-hire are ideologically coming from, as spokespeople and spinmeisters for industry not for people.
(As most of the ‘climate skeptics’ I know of are mathematicians, geologists, and magnetic scientists, I don’t see how they can all be guilty of being funded by the tobacco lobby… Look at the debate on Wikipedia about how Wikipedia seems to be editing away references to ‘Climategate’ revelations!)

Political biases are equally evident. It may be worthwhile to point out to students that in many articles the cultural biases of the authors and editors require the words ‘conservative’ or ‘right wing’ in front of any opinion from right of centre (e.g. Keith Windschuttle), but reverse qualifiers are rare about opinion from left of centre! See Stolen Generations for instance. The consistency of such usage implies that ‘right thinking people’ instinctively understand the application of ‘conservative’ to imply ‘opinion that might be easily discounted’. A similarly opprobrious epithet was American practice in the McCarthyism era (then, one might have referred to the ‘communist’ Stuart Macintyre), and your more advanced students might like to consider such ironic parallels.

The very best cultural censorship examples are those that reveal the worst inherent weaknesses in the Wikipedia system: the ones that reveal the biases of the majority of its reviewers… Americans! My current favourite example for this is the article on the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 saw the United States opportunistically join the Napoleonic Wars against Britain in the hope of: A) getting ‘free trade’ with Napoleon’s blockaded Empire; B) invading Canada while Britain was busy; and C) undermining British support for the various Indian nations resisting American expansionism. Their main excuse for war was the ‘civil rights’ of ‘recent immigrants’: usually foreign nationals who had deserted their military service. In fact, the British were as likely to grab navy ‘deserters’ back from US flagged ships in 1812, as the US were to seize army deserters in Paris during World War Two. (Excuses are rarely the real war aims… see Weapons of Mass Destruction (accessed 18/7/10) as an excuse for taking down Saddam Hussein: “As Paul Wolfowitz explained: "For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”)

Britain had no real war aims against the United Sates in 1812 beyond how to get out of it without losing anything essential, such as the vital blockade of Napoleon’s Empire. This they easily achieved. At the end of the war the British had fought a number of half-hearted and inconclusive military engagements in North America; achieved some minor ‘victories’ (such as landing, burning Washington the ground, and leaving); and some ‘defeats’ (Americans celebrate one British raid was that was defeated, but which happened after the peace treaty was signed); and then were generally simply happy that the whole thing was over (allowing them to concentrate on Napoleon again). Total economic effect on Britain, small. Total political effect on Britain, vanishingly small. Most British people, then and now, hardly noticed the North American skirmishes against the background of the worldwide campaigns of the Napoleonic wars.

Canada had a war aim, to avoid conquest by the Americans. This they clearly achieved, and most Canadians have always believed that their side ‘won’, because America failed in a war aim that was clearly supported by the US President and many US Congressmen at the time. The political effect of the war in Canada was to effectively unite new British colonists, traditional French Catholics (who feared rampant US Protestantism), and displaced ‘Loyalist’ American refugees hounded out of the US after the previous war. Canadians can claim that ‘winning’ this war helped create their nation.

The US had many war objectives, but it is hard to find one that succeeded since British impressment of sailors had ended before the war started. The United States attempted to break Britain’s trade blockade of Napoleon’s Empire, and failed. It attempted mass attacks on British commerce, and failed. (Initial surprise attacks by American heavyweight ‘frigates’ were quickly been beaten back, and the surviving frigates were laid up in port. It is estimated that the US captured about 800 British ships, losing about 1,900 in the process.) It attempted to invade Canada several times, and failed. It finished the war with its trade destroyed, many of its ports and cities smoking ruins, its internal economy in collapse, and completely unable to pretend that it had achieved anything like its war aims. (It is claimed in Wikipedia that the great American ‘victory’ was Britain’s subsequent disinterest in the rights of the Indian nations to resist American conquest. This is the only ‘war aim’ that the British ‘lost’ – or at least pursued no harder than previously – as a result of the war. The British did not however, return the thousands of slaves they freed, many of whom fought for Britain and received land grants in Trinidad or Nova Scotia… Britain did later pay some compensation to some slave owners, if that helps?) So it is quite amusing that Wikipedia has consistently defined this conflict as “a draw”. Some American reviewers like to claim ‘both sides won the peace’, but Germany got to say that about World War Two without claiming that conflict was a ‘draw’.

Drawing students’ attention to Wikipedia’s very specific biases - in this case a very American patriotism - is only the first lesson they can draw from the discussion of this issue. See for instance the highly amusing subheading within the War of 1812 Discussion segment (Archive 13): “Impossibility of consensus because Wikipedia is not entirely American”. The, I hope unconscious, irony of this statement is best reflected by the commentator (jmdeur) who offers the apparently tongue in cheek statement… “The header for this section says it all - obviously Americans are the only people who have misconceptions about this conflict.” In fact this is an excellent lesson to learn in regard to all sources, as most published history books reflect their own biases.

(It is only fair to comment that American nationalistic jingoism in the War of 1812 article has been much improved since this archived debate. The recent version of the article (18/7/10) is considerably better than it was. Wikipedia still won’t concede that America lost, but it does note that Canadians have a right to believe that they might have won something... a bit… perhaps…)

In some ways Wikipedia is superior to most textbook sources in that the debate is, reasonably, transparent. I used to give my Cold War students out-takes from books by the pro-Communist ‘Progress Press’ for a nice contrast viewpoint to mainstream Western texts, now I could refer them to Wikipedia’s discussion of the viewpoints. Where the ‘Stolen Generation’ debate previously involved providing students with out-takes from Robert Manne or Stuart Macintyre and ‘the right wing’ Keith Windschuttle, now you may well be better off referring students to summaries of the debates in Wikipedia… provided they note the pejoratives and at least glance through the Discussion. Wikipedia’s History Wars articles (particularly the Black Armband Debate or Stolen Generations subheadings – accessed 18/7/10) have a better analysis of the different viewpoints than most of the (appallingly partisan) textbooks I have seen.

After students have digested the weaknesses of the Wikipedia system, they will be in a good position to make careful use of its strengths; that you can look at both the History and the Discussion of any topic is the greatest strength. It’s helpful for students to recognise that an article with no history or discussion is as much of a warning sign as one with too much! The real advantage of Wikipedia is that it can be its own best analytical tool. That the investigation will introduce students to the concepts of historiography via their preferred medium is just a lovely bonus.

References: Every reference in this article in italics is the title of a Wikipedia page. Every quote notes (in brackets) the date it was accessed, as suggested by the - quite respectable really - APA Style guide. Every Wikipedia page has its own references attached. How you want to handle that in essays is up to you!

Nigel Davies
(Medieval Education)


  1. Interesting, as an American editor on Wikipedia I found it one of the more frustrating articles that I work on. One of the things that is brought up is also in this article, that being the "sneak attack when our backs were turned" belief. Friction and that seems to sum up this silly little war, brought about the conflict. It seems often that shedding various national biases might be one of the tougher issues. From the comments I assume that our historian thinks that all sailors manning American built merchants were British subjects. Unfortunately, at most 20% were. British Naval Captains of the time openly admitted that they were not overly particular about whom that took beside the fact they looked to be good sailors and spoke English. We have the increasing tensions over trade and impressments were rather hard to over look. So much so that when the war was declared and before word had gotten to the Royal Navy a British frigate spotting an American Naval Squadron at sea didn't think twice before fleeing for his ships life, tensions were that high. As for the land campaigns that one object lesson in how not to run a war. You see lots of things get over-looked, like the fact that the US so feared military overthrow of the nation that it really didn't have much in the way of a professional army, and not much more of one after the war either. It had all of 27 ships... against 650 in the Royal Navy. Why that mean dastardly sneaky war mongering land grabbing nation... really didn't have much of a means of waging war at all and for that matter for the most part didn't try all that hard either. It had legitimate complaints to a Country that didn't treat it like a legitimate nation. Land ceded in the 1783 Treat of Paris found British forts standing there. Britain’s popular papers express disgust and dismay at America's rising merchant marine and wanted it limited. It was the policy of Britain to treat the Indians as useful tools of state, but never hesitated to abandon those same Indians no less than 3 times. Britain wished to limit American expansion to the Mississippi River and was considering expansion into California. This was no war of black and white, and there were no "Good Guys" to root for.

  2. Delighted to see that Wikipedia editors keep track of what is being said about it. Amused to see that this editors comments all relate to just one of my samples, the 'War of 1812' article that I use to show the problems of Wikipedia. A bit frustrated that the editor just recycles 'but they were all bad really' arguments.

    Yes, they were all very bad. Frankly I don't blame the Americans a bit for using the opportunity of Britain being busy with the French to try to get what they wanted. That is realpolitic. (After all the Americans had previously used the British against the French in the 7 years war, and then the French against the British in the Revolution). In a way I admire the cunning, but I find American populist policies no more morally acceptable than the British version.

    But here we differ. Britain's 'badness' was more populist newspaper tripe - which the government refused to take seriously - and bad captains overstepping their authority and pressing 'anyone who could speak English'. This stuff was considered bad by the British government, and they moved to stop it. By contrast most American 'badness' was government policy.

    Personally I am not surprised that some Royal Navy captains, who for centuries had been pressing English speakers to fight European dictatorships (specifically the French), tried to continue the practice. But the British government stopped it when they worked out it was a problem (before the war started).

    I am amused at the childish idea that when the Americans did a deal with the French, they might be surprised to find British forts in the territories the French claimed to possess. They were all at war more often than not! Not only that, but for most of the previous couple of centuries British expansion into 'French territory' had been instigated, indeed demanded, by the American colonists! Forts in 'other people's' notional territories - particularly the Indians - was what the 13 colonies had been all about. (Have a look at American expansion into Mexican territories over the next century for a reality check.)

    I do feel sorry for the Indians. They, like the slaves, were always on the British side against the American's, (and for obvious reasons). Every time they tried to get some sort of chance of survival when an ally was available (realpolitic again), but every time there was a peace treaty they were left alone and facing steady decline. I suppose it might be argued that British taxpayers should have kept fighting for the Indians against all oppressors, but that is a pretty fantastic idea considering British democracy had the same self interest as American. (Even in our 'enlightened' times, I don't see a 'coalition of the willing' headed for Tibet or Darfur do you?)

    I am particularly amused by the fact that later the British would not return the slaves they had freed, but they still paid compensation for lost property! (Two conflicting moral urges being dealt with by the British government, though I suspect even Americans might be surprised at the 'sacredness' of property being applied to slaves!)

    But I can't accept that the Americans had no real intentions against Canada, or that they didn't try very hard against Canada. (Incompetence yes, lack of malice, no.) That is crap. The Canadians have every reason to believe they won their war against aggression, and no American editors obfuscation can avoid that vital point.

    In fact I thank the editor concerned for underlining the point of my article.

  3. I'm amused that anyone actually responded to your drivel.

  4. It remains one of the constants that the main driver of the war was the annexation of Canada. Unfortunately it doesn't bear up to inspection. The prime driver was the Maritime issues involved. Again realpolitik that the US didn't feel any driving interests in not trading with either side of a war, it was a great profit opportunity and thus the phase Yankee Trader. I was often referred to at the time that the British were "protecting" the America's from France and we the American's should be grateful. That simply didn't fly in America. America had already fought the quasi war with France and came pretty close to declaring war on her as well. If you are asking me to defend slavery in the US I'm sorry that isn't going to happen. Be aware that the answer to the slavery question was answered by 660,000 American lives, I consider that butcher's bill paid in full. As to designs on Canada, you would have found a few in among the War Hawks that would have been all for it. Where I think that a bias lies is that to many including yourself it seems wish that it be a primary driver and it doesn't bear up under investigation the vast majority of both US and Canadian Historians. As for the Indians, they did get the rotten end of war. As for the British Captains, no I'm sorry, it isn't all a bit fantasy for the evil American's to grab land under false pretenses. Sadly offering to blockade neutral harbors for "insults to the Royal Navy", and many US born citizens in the Royal Navy quite against their will can't not be whitewashed. The sneak attack assertion is a red herring the orders of council were repealed because it was becoming obvious that the US was getting to the point of going to war, it was not a surprise. There are no knights in shinning armor here, I don't think you will find the Irish overly loved British rule, we didn't appreciate a high handed Royal Navy off our ports, it was a very avoidable war, a silly war in most cases. I'd love to have a beer with you sometime and I think we'd both get a laugh. As for my personal opinion, yeah we lost that one, but pinning winners and losers on that war is like hand catching eels.

  5. I agree with most of that, and am still amused that the War of 1812 raises such arguments even when only quoted as a sample in my 'why I like Wikipedia' article. The mere fact that one person responded that they they can't believe anyone responded to my drivel makes the point adequately. (though I prefer to be abused by both sides... It is the only way of being sure of balance.)

    I would love a beer and discussion at any time with anyone who enjoys a good debate about history, and am quite open to being convinced of alternative viewpoints (and indeed like the comments on the childish vamping up of pressure by both governments egged on by irresponsible popular presses and pressures).

    But my comments on what I agree was as stupid and pointless war remain. The Americans failed to get anything except a few piddling concessions - mostly already being sorted before the war started - and a ruined economy. There can be no possible sense in which even the most patriotically blinded American should fall for the idea that they 'won'.

    The attacks on Canada may well have been a sideline to some - but not all - Americans, but they were not to the Canadians. The Canadians have a good reason to believe they won their part of the war (and the Americans lost), and it is not really possible to argue against this perspective.

    As for the British, the War of 1812 was an almost un-noticed irrelevance amongst the Napoleonic Wars, and most of the things the Americans were complaining about were almost inevitable side effects of such a war (which is why the Americans have used similar tactics in their own wars ever since, with the same outrage from the people who's free trade they interdicted). If the British don't really care about who won or lost, it is simply because in a long and desperate war against real tyranny, a few stupid little side problems hardly counted.

    The British don't care, the Canadians know they won, and the fact that American's still argue endlessly against admitting they lost in any way is EXACTLY why I recommend this topic as the best possible way to assess Wikipedia for honesty and historiography.

    I hope that using it in such a way will convince more history teachers to allow their students to use Wikipedia as a source.

  6. Not what I expected from an Aussi historian......just been reading Roland Perry(great book on Aussi Light Horse) but boy does he have a chip on his shoulder.
    Refreshing perpective from Nigel Davies and prompts debate.........more please

  7. One of the things about articles in Wikipedia is that they do suffer from what we politely call POV warriors. One thing I do not mind sharing is that the only bias that anyone ever really likes is the one they believe in. I only thought that the War of 1812 was a hot topic until I found a lonely paragraph for the Battle of Borodino and it's companion article The French Invasion of Russia. I don't have a dog in that hunt, I'm an American but I have been accused of more bias there than you would believe. My only interest was to bring forth a decent understanding of the battle and campaign. You learn very quickly there are folks that just insist it be presented in very certain ways. People that will write all day to defend a point of view and not a second to actually improve the history. It does get frustrating take a look at the talk pages and you will see. However we do get the opportunity to bring forth a decent history to the public and that makes it worth while. I've never made a dollar for a lot of work, and I hope that has some worth to the public.

  8. On veracity, one of the things that is terribly important in Wikipedia articles is reliable sourcing for the article. It should be center-lined with the current Historiography while noting any credible minority views. Again the more controversial the subject the more this must be done. We had the Battle of Waterloo where you run into the same problem that you do with the American Civil War articles. Virtually ever citizen of England professes to be an expert on the Battle regardless of any actual study on the subject. It happens more than you would imagine. What becomes important in these cases is that every major source has to be read. It will never do that you "think" you know what happened. At least in my case I found that was pretty useless. Your perceptions of battles and wars change over time and education. We had a simple rule on the article: if you don't have a cit-able source, it isn't going in period. It stopped a lot of opinionatedness finding its way in the article and it stopped a lot of fighting. We never really offered an opinion about anything, we just stated the facts of what, when, and how. We pretty well left it with the reader to draw his own conclusions. That is a good article in my opinion.

  9. I agree with all three of those comments, and find myself constantly tempted to do some editing on Wikipedia to 'clarify' simplifications, by which I usually mean what I see as biased points of view. But I know that this would be a slippery slope, so I have limited myself to corrections of fact (what ships were sunk where, whether it was a cruiser or a battlecruiser, etc.)

    It is gratifying to get a comment that my biases aren't what one would expect from an Aussie historian. In fact the 'chip on the shoulder' approach is exactly what I am working against, whoever it is by. As a result I am scathing of American pretentiousness, Australian defensiveness, or British self-dismissiveness: all of which I consider to be natural stages of historical development, but none of which are attractive. (Go back to the stages of British pretentiousness or American defensiveness a century ago to see what I mean).

    I could spend my life trying to inject some of this into Wikipedia, but I would be falling into the trap of distorting the project by trying to argue a case. Wikipedia is better limited to trying to be as factual as possible, even if that means a boring repetition of consensus. It is far better that Wikipedia point out the voices of dissent and let the consensus catch up, rather than trying to guide. That is the difference between a real encyclopedia and a bad textbook.

    Again, as long as everyone accepts that there are imperfections, the result is one of the best examples of historiographical method available to modern students. (Meanwhile I will do my boundary challenging where they belong, in books or articles or on private blogs, not in an Encyclopedia.)

  10. Sometime you and I are just going to have to discuss Montgomery. Feel free to send me an email via Wikipedia between the 3 articles I mentioned you can figure out who I am.

  11. Thanks for the input.

    Montgomery is one of those hard cases like Patton, where everyone thinks they know the whole deal without bothering to analyse the facts. I like both of them because I think that good generals have to be a bit nutty as well as a bit self righteous and opinionated, and they are both classic examples of tipping over the edge.

    However I planned to leave them towards the end of my discussion of western generals (64 planned in the series), because there is no point defining 'good' bits until you have a really good basis for 'bad' for referencing.

    Still I would love a private discussion, but don't have time to go looking for you until I have finished a few articles that are due in. Feel free to contact me directly on -

  12. I don't think that I have ever seen a better General at preparing, logistics, and execution, than Montgomery. He and Patton both shared the unfortunate hoof in mouth disease though.

  13. Nigel

    I know of one Aussie luvvie academic who wages his own cultural war on Wikipedia, including the preposterous introduction - and most of the rest - to Keith Windschuttle's page. The page for the 'social democrat' QLD economist is chloroformed by contrast. KW should take it as a compliment.