01 June 2020

Crowd Sourcing vs. Expertise

For so long as opinions are counted, not weighed, the better part had often to be overcome by the greater.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2

A student paper that I was grading about 2007 put me onto a source that was new to me. The student was making a claim that I had seen in dozens of college papers over the previous two decades, and that was discussed and dismissed in several books on my shelf. The student sourced the claim. I went to the source and found it there. I found other errors in the source.

Within the hour, or perhaps five minutes later, or maybe the next day, I discovered that I could correct the error. The "source" was the Wikipedia entry on the Nez Perce. It repeated a common myth that Chief Joseph was a military genius who led Nez Perce warriors in battle. Lucullus V. McWhorter (1860-1944) addressed this myth in two books that were the culmination of decades of interviews with survivors of the Nez Perce War of 1877, but it was still being pushed in documentaries about the war in the 1970s. Wikipedia also asserted that Nez Perce should have an accent mark. I corrected both errors.

Over the next few days or weeks, I repeatedly corrected these errors. I was quickly joined by a librarian at Washington State University,* where McWhorter's papers are housed in the archives. I had to join Wikipedia as a registered user in order to stop bots from automatically reverting my corrections back to the errors that preceded them. But, even as a registered user, it was a battle to remove the accent mark. Through reason, evidence, and persistence, the librarian and I ultimately won the battle and the Nez Perce entry has offered the correct spelling of Nez Perce for 13 years. The Chief Joseph myth, too, has been largely absent from the entry. Other users made other edits, and the article became a credible encyclopedia entry.

During my first months as a registered user of Wikipedia, I made many contributions. Another battle with other users ensued when I attempted to correct agreement with Ronald Reagan's faulty memory (or lies) about his student days. I did not then have access to the not yet published The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014) by Rick Perlstein, but offered some of the work of Lou Cannon refuting Reagan's claims. The battle between Reagan partisans, on the one hand, and partisans for accurate history, on the other, grew so fierce that eventually the entire section was removed from the article. Then, a few years later, Reagan's lie reappeared in the article in another briefer section with a footnote to Cannon's book that refutes the claim.

When students ask about Wikipedia as a source for the past few years, I have told them about the Nez Perce spelling war and the dangers of correcting the memory of a President who died of Alzheimer's. Sometimes they would ask whether I might try to correct the error in the Reagan article again. It should not be too difficult to recover my password, or create a new one. In December 2019, I restored Reagan's "leadership" of student protests his freshman year to his "participation". My previous Wikipedia edits had been in 2014. The truth about Reagan's participation still stands today. How long before a mob tears it down again?

My own memory could be faulty, however, or at least short on details.** A search through my own Wikipedia edits this morning confirms that I added Lou Cannon, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power (2003) on 12 March 2007, but the context appears to be the narrative about him making up facts during his broadcasts of baseball games, not his false claims about student leadership. I also added Garry Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home (1987) that day, and many other small edits.

For a few months in spring 2007, I made many edits to articles about US history and literature, and to chess, as well as a few other topics. At least once, I was corrected for adding what appeared to be original research. The insights of experts on a topic are welcome only insofar as they accord with general knowledge. Sometimes that will favor error when truth is elusive.

Wikipedia editing proved to be a form of social media with its own network of personal relationships and friendships with people I have never met. In spring 2007, a new chess website came online and I joined that fall. It had active forums that helped pull me away from Wikipedia. For a time, at least, the truth of checkmate offered better grounding for arguments than the evidence of primary sources that counter the memories of a dead president. If I am not mistaken, I also joined Facebook about that time. In fall 2007, I started Patriots and Peoples.

*The Nez Perce talk page shows that she had made edits two years before I joined.
**I may have made a lot of edits while not logged in, and then logged in to try to protect these edits from bots and well-meaning fools.

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