In the academic field I need constantly to remind students to check their data from reliable sources: reputable books by known and respected authors in the field of study in question; articles in peer-reviewed journals, again by reputable authors; and when they happen to become available, personal communications with such authors and scholars. However, the advent of the Internet has now clouded the issue of sourcing. Together thousands of sites display a welter of information, much of which is anonymous, at times borrowed wholesale from other sites, copied from out-of-date encyclopaedias, or just plain misinformation from sloppy research.
One primary site used constantly as a prime source, not only for students but for researchers generally and even teachers, is Wikipedia. One can “Google” on any topic, personality or issue, and up will come the relevant Wikipedia entry. Despite the convenience – and extent – of the information from this source, it has serious problems, as follows:
Wikipedia can be amended by any viewer according to his own whims, and does not necessarily require documentation. Hence one can never know who is responsible for any piece of discussion at any given point of an article. He could be well-versed in the field, or a rank amateur!
- The amount of documentation varies from article to article. Quite often there is none at all. Moreover, there is no peer-review process.
- Wikipedia’s hosts will vet all posts and alterations to those posts as they see fit. Those hosts are, to the best of my knowledge, all politically correct and left-wing liberal in their outlook … Thus any specifically Christian content is likely to be edited out or at least modified.
- The factual information in Wikipedia, while broadly correct, can all too often be misleading and even plain wrong. Hence it always needs to be checked against reliable sources.
Therefore this source must be used with great caution, and when cited at all it must be done so with reserve and qualification.
Let me give several examples of this unreliability:
Some months ago I was researching the reign of Charles I and the struggle which led to the English Civil War. Charles summoned three parliaments in the first four years of his reign (1625-1629), but when I examined the relevant entries in Wikipedia I found confusion concerning those early years. I checked its material against the new, and magisterial, book by Austin Woolrych, Britain in Revolution (OUP, 2002): the latter not only sorted out the confusion, but showed how incorrect Wikipedia was in its order and chronology, and therefore in its explanation of how Charles came to rule without a Parliament from 1629 to 1640.
A second instance concerns the editing out of anything Christian. Probably the most outstanding figure of reform and philanthropy during the Victorian period was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885), whose untiring labours for the welfare of children occupied him as a Member of Parliament for almost fifty years. He inaugurated the many Factory Acts to reduce and finally abolish child labour; as president of the Ragged School Union he promoted these institutions until education for the young up to a certain age became enshrined in law; and gave generously to philanthropic causes throughout his life. The motivation for his work was his deeply Christian evangelical faith which he had received from a Methodist housemaid in his youth, but the short and perfunctory entry in Wikipedia makes no mention of any of this. The most it will say is that he was a “religious man”. Likewise with other examples: such is the aversion to Christianity that, when faced with the obvious evidence of Christian outlook in such people as Hannah More or William Wilberforce, the most the authors will concede is that they possessed a “religious” motivation.
The final example is even more serious: some time ago there was an exchange between Lawrence Solomon, author of the anti-global-warming book The Deniers (Richard Vigilante Books, 2008), and the Wikipedia host. This had to do with the “findings” of the California scientist and warming alarmist Naomi Oreskes regarding global warming (GW). The dispute, in summary, went as follows:
Dr Benny Peiser, a very prominent UK scientist, had challenged the conclusions of Oreskes, who had been given a very approving write-up on a Wikipedia page, without any hint of dissent. Solomon checked with Peiser, who informed him that the statements on Wikipedia were distorted and incorrect, whereupon Solomon amended the pages accordingly (as anyone can do). Imagine Solomon’s dismay when he found that within minutes his corrections had been re-edited or deleted! When he contacted the host of Wikipedia’s pages on this issue he was met with an effete reply that “We have a reliable source…” In vain did Solomon plead that Peiser had verified his concerns with him personally only in the previous hour or so. No; what the host had written she had written.
A perusal of all of Wikipedia’s pages on the GW issue reveals that every sentence has been vetted to ensure that the GW faith is presented in all its purity, without demur. It seems Wikipedia is carefully vetted on a regular basis to make sure that no contradiction is admitted which may raise doubts about the green faith. Yet the same people would raise a hue and cry about ‘censorship’ in many other connections.
Another, even more egregious, example of Wikipedia mendacity arose quite recently (14December.) concerning Rev. Joseph Farah, one of the hosts of World Net Daily, a conservative news site. Wikipedia actually declared Farah to be a “noted homosexual of Lebanese and Syrian heritage”.1 A couple of years ago the hosts claimed that Farahhad conducted an affair with “a prominent female columnist”. Whether he is a heterosexual philanderer or noted homosexual, both charges are fatuous nonsense. Farah complains that when he contacted the hosts, “I was even told I was not a reliable source of information about me.” His conclusion: “(Wikipedia) is a wholly unreliable website run by political and social activists promoting their own agenda.”
The Farah episode, along with the other examples, only highlights the fact that Wikipedia is in no sense a reliable source on a level with Encyclopaedia Britannica or Chambers. In the academic sphere, if your lecturer allows you to cite Wikipedia in an essay or paper, he is at that point abdicating responsibility. An astute academic will disallow such citations. When we write our own literature it behoves us as Christian “truthers” to treat such sources with due scepticism and do our homework properly.