The Cult of Wikipedia

wikipediaOver at more than 95 theses they have been discussing Wikipedia. We’ve all been given reasons not to trust WP, most notably the so-called “vanity edits” made by staffers on capital hill.I’ve been troubled by the entries on covenant theology and most recently by the entry on the English/New England Puritan, John Cotton, and theonomy. Several times in the entry s.v. “John Cotton” it is claimed that he drafted a “theonomic” legal code and that New England had a theonomic system. Such claims are highly disputable and tendentious yet there is no recognition in WP of this fact. What to do? I clicked on the “edit page” function and immediately one is threatened that unless one logs in one’s “IP Address” will be visible to the world. I guess this is a bad thing so I logged in. Now what? How to challenge these claims? As they point out at MT95T one has to decode the WP code. I couldn’t or didn’t want to spend the time, so I gave up. I made the mistake of clicking on the link to “theonomy” which was evidently written by someone at the Chalcedon Foundation. There is a fairly comprehensive bibliography of published sources but the electronic bibliography seemed to be overwhelmed by pro-theonomy authors. In short it virtually pure propaganda and worthless as any sort of fair-minded starting place for research. A group of dedicated, intelligent propagandists, arguably a roughly accurate account of the rhetorical and publishing strategy of the theonomic/reconstructionist movement that has promised, Kruschev-like, to bury any critic. Search for the spelling of Kruschev and the WP entry is the first entry! This gives WP and lot of power as many will not bother to go beyond WP.

The strength of WP is that it is not controlled by “elites.” The weakness of WP is that it is not controlled by “elites.” What I mean is that, on the one hand, the possibility exists for “everyman” to participate in the system of knowledge collection, analysis, and dissemination. On the other hand, there seem to be virtually no barriers to propaganda. I realize that there pages where folks argue over entries and many entries are marked as disputed, but the discussion seems to be relegated to technocratic elites who care to master the WP code in order to participate. I don’t have time to learn to speak WP. So, elites are unavoidable, in the nature of the case. We’ve traded one set of elites for another: scholars for nerds. In the case of an encyclopedia, I doubt this is a good thing.

[This post first appeared in 2007 on the HB]

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Brings to mind a WP article that stated: “…the regulative principle of worship, favoured by many Zwinglians, Calvinists and other radical reformers…”

    You say:
    “…virtually pure propaganda and worthless as any sort of fair-minded starting place for research. …….. This gives WP and lot of power as many will not bother to go beyond WP.”

    I would agree that this assessment applies to many WP articles. However, does anyone who is even mildly interested in researching something take WP seriously? Brings to mind those “intellectual” types in a previous era who has read the cliff notes version of something, it would become obvious in a conversation that they didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Going back further, I’ve read the introductions in 100-150 year old published editions of some classic works, written by some professor of something or other at a prestigious university, where “…virtually pure propaganda and worthless” would be a fitting description. Or go way back and read Jerome’s “refutation” of those who would deny the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary (none of the writings of those he wrote against have survived, of course). “…virtually pure propaganda and worthless” fits there too. Every era has its issues with the dissemination of knowledge, but the truth generally is there to be found. I’ll illustrate with an encouraging testimony from the USSR (Jerome’s extensive quotations of his opponents preserved some knowledge of them, which brought this to mind), of a man who had perhaps only dim early childhood memories of Christianity, who was driving through a remote area of Siberia with some colleagues. He recalled thinking how remote and pristine it was being hundreds of kilometers from any other people, when in a clearing ahead, they saw a snowman. He recalled the shock of seeing that and realizing that there must be someone around who had made it. This got him to thinking about where did we come from, in the beginning God, ect. (the spirit moves, right?). So, to search out his questions, he got a Bible, but the way he did it was interesting. He recalled that various atheistic scholars he has read in university has quoted extensively from Scripture in order to refute it. So, he assembled a “Bible” from those extensive quotations.
    I guess I find WP as annoying as the stupid comments some people unknowledgeable on the subject might leave on a technical video on youtube, but don’t take it any more seriously that that.

  2. I don’t doubt the problems with the specific cases mentioned, but I was in a talk given by a science education professor where she mentioned a study that found Wikipedia to be more accurate than Encyclopedia Brittanica. I can ask if I see her again for the specific study.

    I have encountered science and engineering professors using Wikipedia quite often, including in class, when attempting to find some information or giving the students an example of how to find information like melting temperatures, history of scientific figures, etc.

    • Oops, I misspelled “Britannica.”

      I also don’t know how to enter that ae combination. I guess I need to use something like Word.

  3. I agree with Alberto on the point he raised, WP does have some excellent science articles (of course me relating personal experience isn’t a scientific study:)) That being said, I wouldn’t hold up Britannica as much of a standard either….

  4. Dear Dr. Clark,

    I’m not sure that pointing out errors or biases in some articles on WP is a reason to suggest that it cannot be useful. Even credible publishers put out books and articles with errors and various biases ranging from the mild to the more extreme. Isn’t one of the principles of research to learn how to discern bias as you have demonstrated regarding the article on John Cotton?

    Quick changing digital media can be frustrating for a variety of reasons, but there is a subtle implication here that the same kinds of errors and biases do not exist in print media.

    Should a student outright accept something in WP as fact? No. Neither should a student outright accept the face value opinion of any single author’s claims, print or digital, as fact.

    I have a feeling that digital sources like WP are here to stay. It may be worth some of our time to engage where we think there are errors or biases. Besides, like it or not, I image that if you don’t take the time to add your thoughts to that article on theonomy you will eventually be doing it with red ink on some of your students’ papers.

    • Aaron,

      Yes there are biases in every medium, whether print or electronic. My concern is about the lack of editorial oversight. As far as I can tell anyone who is willing can add anything he will to a Wikipedia entry. That simply is not the case with traditional, edited, reference works. The medium (print or electronic) doesn’t matter. I have contributed to edited, professional electronic reference works. I have also contributed to printed reference works. Both were edited. There were quality controls in place. This is not to say that there are no errors in printed works. There are! I see them all the time. Indeed, I’m concerned about the generally declining editorial standards in print works even published by major academic publishers.

      Wikipedia is so vast and changes so quickly, however, that no one could possibly supervise the whole thing. People frequently make humorous and or offensive emendations to Wikipedia entries. I have listened to radio shows where the hosts, as part of the show, have logged into Wikipedia and changed an entry on the air.

      That doesn’t happen with a more reliable reference work with real editorial controls.

      That said, I use WP all the time but I certainly don’t rely on it for substance. I wouldn’t permit students to cite it for a paper. It might be useful as a lead to other, more considered research. There are good entries but will they book good tomorrow or will someone pollute them with some nonsense—thus sparking a war among competing editorial factions? WP is home to a great number of such guerrilla tactics between ideological factions.

Comments are closed.