Wikipedia as a source

Yale Daily News ran a story on Wednesday, “Profs question students’ Wikipedia dependency“. I guess it’s a disturbing sign that I thought angry and vindictive thoughts about the student, freshman John Behan, who created a number of fake articles. I used to think that kind of thing was funny, and I feel like I should still (in principle, at least; Behan’s work didn’t even rise to the level of BJAODN). The article focuses on one fake in particular, “emysphilia” (turtle fetish). But as it turns out, emysphilia (Behan’s “most successful” article) was deleted rather quickly; its only traction came from syndication on It’s unclear whether anyone besides people with direct knowledge of the hoax and the Wikipedians voting to delete it even read the article; it’s not something one would just run into on without searching for the non-existent term.

The YDN article goes on with some quotes from professors about how Wikipedia is not an acceptable academic source. The headline for the page 6 continuation is “Inaccuracies make Wikipedia an unreliable academic source”, which is a pretty mediocre summary of what the faculty actual say about the subject. One prof makes reference to the “rigorous editing standards of hard copy sources”, compared to an anecdote about a Wikipedia article (with accurate, referenced information) giving the wrong first name (James Boswell instead of John Boswell) for a source. Unfortunately, the professor failed to take any action; I just tracked down the article I presume he was referring to, which it took 5 seconds to correct. (I have my own share of anecdotes about contradictions between a hard copy scholarly source and WP where it’s the hard copy that is wrong, but I digress.)

Like most stories about Wikipedia as an academic source, the Yale story misses the point. Another professor hits on the legitimate basis for excluding Wikipedia as an academic source: it’s an encyclopedia. 5 years from now, Wikipedia is going to be more accurate than any general print encyclopedia (at least on topics that traditional encyclopedias actually cover). And for random contradictions between a book source and a referenced Wikipedia article, Wikipedia will be the correct one more often than not. But it still won’t be an acceptable academic source, except perhaps as a place to point readers for peripheral background information. Because it will still be a tertiary source.

This issue has been in the news a lot since the Middlebury College Wikipedia ban and the Chronicle of Higher Education story on it.

Here’s a similar blog post about the issue, from a clear-headed historian.

HSS meeting in Vancouver, open journals, Wikipedia evangelism

Last weekend was the History of Science Society meeting in Vancouver, BC. Despite growing up in Seattle, I had never been to Canada before.

I gave my first scholarly paper (which I had tried out a week before at the department’s Holmes Workshop): “Natural Philosophy Images: Pedagogy and Popular Science in America”. I was in a panel with two other very good talks on physics education-related texts–one on 20th century Canadian high school textbooks, which fit well with mine on 19th century American textbooks, and one on children’s biographies of Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. I’m really pleased with how it went; I got some good questions, and I had at least reasonable responses to all of them, as my Yale colleagues had prepared me well. Turnout was pretty good, really good for a panel of two early graduate students (myself and Michelle D. Hoffman of U. of Toronto), one guy not yet in graduate school (Trevor J. Owens, majored in history of science at Wisconsin), and one junior professor talking on a topic only marginally related to the rest (Steve Sturdy, a lecturer at University of Edinburgh who does history of medicine). I was really excited because David Kaiser was in the audience, but he left after the first two talks (i.e., right before mine).

One of the great things was talking with Adam Shapiro; his dissertation project, on the textbook industry and the Scopes Trial, is freaking awesome (and he has the kind of cultivated idiosyncrasy of dress and manner that I can appreciate).

As is typical at conferences, much of my best-spent time was with people from New Haven. I didn’t spend as much time meeting new people as I have at previous conferences, but no regrets. I did stay up drinking late into the night (along with Brendan) with the marvelous Gar Allen, which was great fun. And I met John Rudolph. And, in one of the great ego-inflating moments of my entire life, I was recognized by a stranger as… the writer of this blog. But beyond that, I mostly stuck with people I already knew.

John Rudolph invited me to work up my textbook research into something publishable, to submit for an upcoming special science studies issue of Science Education. Assuming I can find the time to do that (what with qualifiers hanging over my head) and that I could make it good enough to get accepted, it’s time to decide how seriously I want to take my free-knowledge ideals, since they conflict with my goal of actually being able to get a history job someday. I would like to only publish in open content journals… ideally, ones that support copyleft, but that’s not likely to happen any time soon. There aren’t really even any open content history of science journals (the closest things are History of Intellectual Culture and Science, Technology & Innovation Studies) or general American history journals (the closest thing is American Diplomacy). What needs to happen is for a broad flagship journal (like Isis or JAH) to totally retool for open content: increase the number of published articles drastically, invite contributions from a wider range, and start poaching from all the competitor journals. If it was done right, with a plan for expanding the editorial positions to keep pace with submissions and maintain quality, it could force the whole journal ecosystem to switch to open content. Before there was search, it made sense to have highly specialized journals. But at this point, it would make far more sense to get rid of the vast majority of paper publications and make open content online publication the standard.

Another variation on that theme… Despite the marked lack of enthusiasm for Wikipedia among professional science studiers in listservs (like the HOPOS and H-SCI-MED-TECH lists where I pump the History of Science Collaborations of the Month and get ignored), scholars express a fair amount of enthusiasm or at least convincibility when I talk to them in person about Wikipedia. The most effective line of argument (sadly) is not the “contribute to society” one, but the one about how creating high-quality free content expands the market for our work; what science studiers do has the potential to be popular, as far as scholarship goes, but not many people know how compelling our stories are. Even down to an individual level, it will probably pay off in career-prospect terms a few years down the road to have good Wikipedia articles about your area of expertise; it will whet people’s appetites for more, and give people (including the scholars who might hire you) an entry point into your particular esoteric specialty.

The Patahistory Manifesto is here

Dave Davisson of Patahistory (and the History New Network’s Revise and Dissent group blog) has finally put up his Patahistory Manifesto. All in all it’s a good fun romp, but it’s a little to esoteric for me (as I’m sure my own manifesto is for most people).

Some bits and pieces I liked:

…Syllabi and textbook intros are littered with historian’s hopes that their writing and teaching will somehow transform the learning of history into something fun! They then proceed to write and talk about war, disease, starvation and oppression. Only perverse and idiosyncratic minds (the current state of the historian) want to learn more about this miserable past. Where are the jokes? The songs? The dancing? Where is the can-do spirit of enthusiasm? Must every optimism be overshadowed by the evil humanity commits? Isn’t play also part of the human condition?…

…Historians simultaneously disdain popular histories and yearn for popular success. Patahistory is the reverse. It disdains success and yearns for popular histories….

…Patahistorians are deliberately aware of creating the future. Students look to historians for their cultural metanarrative. They accept or reject current events based on the history they are taught. Creativity and imagination are primary tools of the Patahistorian. The Patahistorian of today helps create the metahistory of tomorrow….

But I think there is some tension between Dave’s patahistorical vision in the first two quotes and the third one. I whole-heartedly endorse song-and-dance, jokes and enthusiasm, and the goal of creating popular histories. But the manifesto suggests that the way to do that is to embrace the historical topics that consumers want. History of pleasant things, genealogical history… he fails to mention the overwhelming popularity of (and scholarly disdain for) military history. These may be cultural dead ends.

If we patahistorians (and here I’ll jump on board) are going to take our roles as creators of the future and authors of the cultural metanarrative seriously, we shouldn’t be turning to the subjects and issues of interest to the history consumer… we should be turning the interests of the consumer to the subjects and issues that can help us move forward culturally. The current range of info- that our society derives -tainment from is one of the parts of modern culture we should be trying to overwrite. Instead of turning history toward the established ruts that happen to be popular, we need to create new genres, new mediums, content that is better than docudramas, family histories, and war films.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t just try to replace current types of popular history, we should aim to take over/replace the modern sitcom, TV drama, feature film, pop song. We want a culture that fundamentally, metaphysically values history and reality (including, as the patahistory manifesto rightly celebrates, future history and potential reality) at every level, from education to entertainment.

On Wikipedia burnout and hostility toward expertise

Wikipedia editing can be stressful if you let it, and for plenty of editors, their time spent on Wikipedia becomes progressively less pleasant, until they leave and declare the whole thing a lost cause. Philosophy experts, in particular, tend to enter with enthusiasm and leave with hellfire and brimstone blog posts. One such malcontent (who hasn’t quite given up) is cataloguing fellow experts who are dissatisfied with Wikipedia.

It’s true that Wikipedia is, in many ways, a difficult venue for expert knowledge (and the keepers of that knowledge). JKelly puts it well:

Wikipedia is an unwelcoming place for the expert. There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. As with the internet as a whole, there is no convincing way to exert expertise, other than by making sound arguments. As with the entire internet, sound arguments have less impact than persistence, belligerance and popularity.
  2. Experts rely upon original research and sources that cannot always be verified by the public. Neither of these belong on Wikipedia.
  3. Experts expect, quite reasonably, to be rewarded for the effort put into acquiring their expertise. There is no reward system in Wikipedia.

So Wikipedia is, and will remain, a great place for hobbyists. One might say that this has little impact on Wikipedia’s quality as the treatment of subjects in thirty-two kilobytes rarely demands an understanding of any subject beyond the hobbyist level. There is a loss is in those places in which the popular view of a subject is misleading. Furthermore, an expert has immediate access to reliable sources which may take a hobbyist a great deal of time to find, or elude them completely. I don’t see any way to reconcile Wikipedia’s mission with supporting expert editors, however. Experts can, of course, contribute to articles on subjects on which they are themselves hobbyists. The side-effect is that hobby subjects get enthusiastic coverage, while drier topics languish, and will continue to do so until fashion touches upon them.

But JKelly, unlike many ex-Wikipedian philosophers, takes this reality with a wink and a nudge:

Taking a proactive approach, I hope to solve part of this by marketing a French novelist vs. German literary figures collectible card game.

This isn’t just clever irony; Wikipedia’s greatest potential is as the mass culture point of entry to otherwise esoteric and over-specialized scholarly subjects.

The common complaint of burnt-out experts like Chris Hillman and Windy City Mike is that the bad editors, the opinionated amateurs and ideologues with 16 hours a day to devote to pushing their skewed views, tend to win in the long run through sheer tenacity. A knowledgeable expert puts in a lot of work improving an article on their pet topic, but without constant diligence, the mob will introduce pablum and distortion until all their precious work is undone.

Wikipedia’s epistemological foundation, the expert realizes, is fatally flawed. “Consensus does not equal truth!”, they proclaim. Not to get all post-modern, but I think that critics take the wrong approach to issues of truth vis-a-vis the encyclopdic project (perhaps philosophers, especially). When Wikipedia works (from an expert knowledge perspective), it works because editors writing (and citing) from the experts’ corner are able to create a strong enough consensus that they are no longer fighting against the mob to retain the quality information in an article. Instead of thinking of Wikipedia in terms of personal epistemology–how do I know what I know, and how can I infuse the steps to truth into this article?–we should think of it in terms of cultural epistemology–what do most people think about this topic, where does that information come from, and what should this article say to bring them from where they are to where they ought to be?

As the self-identified post-moderns and social constructivists frequently point out, it isn’t that they don’t believe in truth or objective reality (for the most part, they do) . It’s just that, at the end of the day/career/life, the amount and quality of scholarly knowledge that you’ve produced matters much less than what you do with it and how you make it meaningful within the common cultural-intellectual framework. Barring the fulfillment of Ray Kurzweil‘s prophecies (in which case we’ll have hybrid computer-minds with infinite room for details and virtual immortality), the endgame of scholarship should be intellectual products consumable by those who haven’t sacrificed years of their lives to be able to understand that specific narrow body of knowledge.

Three inter-related topics on Wikipedia that I get frustrated about are Intelligent Design, pseudoscience, and scientific method. As a science studies scholar (and someone with a fair amount of experience with both the practice of science and the ID movement), I feel like I know better than the Wikipedia consensus, have access to and knowledge of more reliable/neutral sources, etc. But I have (in the short term) given up on reforming these topics, because I know how out of line my views are with the general WP population, and I’m not good enough (yet) to convince them. But I feel like the fault is as much with the experts I channel and the broader set of experts who should be involved in the public discussion of these topics as with myself and my failings as an editor. I know that Michael Ruse and Steve Fuller are much more credible sources than Barbara Forrest, Eugenie Scott and Robert Pennock, when it comes philosophy of science, the Intelligent Design movement and its history, and the demarcation of science and not-science, but they (and the intellectual communities they represent) have failed to bring good enough arguments, forceful enough rhetoric, and (here science studies scholars are especially at fault) enough willingness to engage in controversial topics publicly. (As an aside, I’m increasingly convinced that we did, in fact, lose the Science Wars; humanists no longer seem to think they are entitled to a place at the table when it comes to science policy and interactions between science and society.)

It is important to note that the WP population is very different from the general US population, much less any sort of “general” world population. Somewhat more intelligent, much more educated, much more technophilic, much more male, etc. Wikipedia is more of an intermediate level of expertise than a mass culture free-for-all, even if membership in the semi-elite is theoretically open to all. That means that, while it can be difficult, progress is possible; Wikipedians are educable and often reasonable and willing to be convinced by the proper application of argument and authority. But the goal has to be changing or creating the consensus, not defending the truth from the consensus.

The structure of Wikipedia is a compromise between the ultra-populist caricature that disaffected philosophers describe and the expert authority-based but ultimately culturally impotent traditional encyclopedia model. As Wikipedia consolidates its cultural power, the chaotic open system that made it successful in the first place will be less and less necessary, and more structured and restrictive policies and software elements can be implemented, and the culture of Wikipedia will continue to focus more on reliability. This has been happening gradually for some time, and things are clearly getting better; just look at the typical level of citation in Wikipedia today compared to a year ago. There’s no need to rush things in that regard, lest it lose some effectiveness by becoming too elite too fast. In almost every way, Wikipedia is getting better, not worse. Individual articles may go through cycles of decay and renewal, and experts may get frustrated with the lack of perfection, but the price of perpetuating disinformation via Wikipedia is small compared to the culturally-embedded misinformation that Wikipedia dispels.

History of science manifesto

Here is my

As someone with aspirations to change the world, I figured it was high time I wrote a manifesto. I’ve never written one before, so I found the style hard to master… writing skills don’t completely transfer from genre to genre, and blog posts, encyclopedia articles and archive-based research papers all require practice individually. So I’m not completely satisified with it, but I’ll try to improve it in the future. One nice thing about writing in Wikipedia (as I did with the manifesto) is that you can use links to avoid having to choose between a) over-explaining things for the readers that share your background and b) confusing the uninitiated with jargon and obscure allusions.

I was inspired somewhat to write this after reading an article on “Good and Bad Procrastination,” which quotes from this essay the following:

ask yourself three questions:

  1. What are the most important problems in your field?
  2. Are you working on one of them?
  3. Why not?

I’d say the most important problem in my field is popularization, without a doubt. Historical study of the ways scientific ideas move and transform between the elite and popular realms is just one part of that. Even more crucial is the popularization of history of science itself; translating between esoteric scholarship and mass culture, making history of science an essential component of cultural literacy. Think history of science dramas replacing medical dramas, crime dramas, and lawyer dramas as the top TV shows; that’s the level of popularization to aim for. So my Wikipedia adventures are the first step in this regard.

After popularization, pedagogy is the next most important problem. Again, both the relationship between training and scientific development, and the effective teaching of history of science itself (with the latter taking precedence again). The ultimate goal with history of science pedagogy is take over every other academic field; the sciences, literature, garden-variety history, art, all specializations with history of science.

I’ll have to think some more about what other problems are important. Meanwhile, back to reading about the social construction of nuclear missile guidance.

Randy Olson’s science communication suggestions

Recently, the film Flock of Dodos was screened at Yale, followed by a discussion with the director Randy Olson, science writer Carl Zimmer, and others. As you might infer from the title, a poke at March of the Penguins, the movie is a humorous take on the public controversy over intelligent design. Unfortunately, I didn’t even find out about this until after it had come and gone. But the discussion afterwards focused on how evolutionists should deal with ID, and from the report of one of the students in Lloyd’s class, Olson recommended an excellent approach (with Zimmer providing an opposing perspective more in line with the approach of Panda’s Thumb, NCSE, etc.). Fortunately, Zimmer has provided some of the material, Olson’s 10 suggestions for “improving communication,” and I think he pretty much nails it.

Especially notable is number 3: “The most effective means of communication is through storytelling. The shorter, more concise, and punchier the story you can tell, the greater the interest you will hold with an audience.”

Effective storytelling is something that the scientific community as a whole simply fails at. But, ironically, the humanist disciplines (e.g., history) are nearly as bad. Scholars of all persuasions can continue, as PZ Myers suggests and John Lynch seems to support as well, to emphasize their strengths of “depth, intelligence, evidence, history, the whole damn natural world, and just plain having the best and most powerful explanation for its existence.” But that just serves to further insulate an already insular group; putting more priority on effective mass communication does not mean abandoning good explanations, it just means making them available to non-scholars.

While the more practical branches of science might be able to justify their work in terms of the tangible technical payoffs that society gets from it, evolutionary biologists, historians, and most types of scholars simply don’t have any other reason to exist except for the general enrichment of society. Technical monographs and detailed case histories are a proximate goal to enhance the collective knowledge of a specialist community and body of literature, but we ought always to keep an eye on the larger goal of distilling the broad and deep scope of that literature into stories for the rest of society.

This is, of course, the same broad issue that draws me to Wikipedia, one of the easiest and most effective means of actually applying specialist knowledge to reshape public understanding. The way things are now, the extent of historical outreach is the occasional late-career book that aims at a (very limited) popular audience along with the requisite scholarly one. The only historical work that really makes it into public consciousness is what the media industries ask for from historians; Wikipedia (perhaps among other venues) is a chance for disciplines to shape their own public destinies and forge their own places in mass culture.

Getting the word out

I figured it was time to move the History of Science WikiProject to the next level, so I sent an email about it to h-sci-med-tech. While no one has responded directly on the listserv so far, a surprising number of readers from the list have blogged about my message:

Medical Museion Weblog – The blog of Thomas Söderqvist
Paradigms Lost – A new History of Science and Medicine blog from Saint Joseph’s College of Maine
LIS 569 – A library science course blog at U. Wisconsin (Madison)
Rational rants – The technology and media blog of Mitch Ratcliffe (a journalist who apparently lurks on h-sci-med-tech)

The response by each is quite positive. Then again, the people who are blogging at all are probably more disposed to see Wikipedia in a positive light than the average historian.

Update: – The blog of Thad Parsons, a graduate student at the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford.

Wikipedia in the classroom

It looks like I’m not the first one to think of assigning students to edit Wikipedia articles (not that I actually thought I was). T. Mills Kelly at George Mason University reports on his experiments with using Wikipedia assignments (and his experience of receiving papers bases primarily on Wikipedia sources). However, Kelly researches “the influence of digital media on student learning in history,” so (ironically) it’s not just being used for pedagogical purposes in this case.

I’m not sure how much say I’ll have when I’m a TA next year, but I’m going to start my Wikipedia assignments then if I can get away with it.

Anthony Grafton’s humanities pitch

Anthony Grafton, a some-time historian of science whom I idolize after hearing (and seeing) him speak but once, has a brief article on Slate about how great a certain class he co-teaches is. It’s almost inspiring enough to make me think that the humanities matter even when they don’t have much to do with the history of science. But what I really like about it is the reading selection philosophy Grafton describes: the most interesting and provocative books possible, period.

I’m as big a fan of the Enlightenment as anyone, in theory. Unity of truth, and all that. But it actually kinda sucks as an educational philosophy. Enlightenment ideology is no match for the utter disunity of knowledge in vivo (be it scientific, historical, philosophical, or what have you). Much more effective, I think, is a cherry-picking approach that aims at sparking the interest of students. You don’t learn enough in a classroom to really put knowledge to use, anyway. But if you find something worth learning more about, maybe one book or one idea is all it takes to push you in the right direction. Life is too short to read boring books (and grad school doubly so).

Fortunately, I’m in the most interesting of all possible fields, where even the lesser work is worth reading. But it always baffles me how so many others in other humanities find their esoterica worth pursuing.

Incidently, when I Googled to make sure “esoterica” was a word, I found a scholarly journal by that name, which seems to be about what JQSMP would be if the humor were removed.


I found out a little more about DIY publishing, which I plan to do if I ever get to the point of having a manuscript in need of publication. It actually seems pretty straightforward, with the advances in print-on-demand technology.

I had seen CafePress before, mostly for T-shirts and stickers and the like, but I didn’t know they printed books. What is even more impressive is the cost: I could print a single copy of a 300 page book for $16… somewhat less than the usual cost of a standard academic book of that length, with all the same features: Pefect Binding, color cover, B&W images within. Plus, I could sell copies (with no up-front costs) for $20 each (a typical price for something that length) and make $4/copy (20%). If I can trust everything I read on the internet, royalty payments almost never exceed 15% normally and typically require a minimum level of sales (perhaps in the thousands of copies) before taking effect. And there are no restrictions, so I could later sign a contract with a traditional publisher for the same book once it achieved moderate success. And I could license the text under whatever sort of copyleft license I wanted, basically to allow unrestricted use and copying for non-commercial use.

An even bigger advantage is that I could test out an idea that I think would be really appropriate for scholarly work: I could publish two different editions, with one containing more detail, theoretical discussion, and footnotes instead of endnotes, while the other would be geared toward students and lay readers and be much shorter.

Of course, I don’t have any gauge for how serious the drawbacks of DIY publishing are. There would be no professional editor, no marketing, no instant credibility granted by an academic press, no hardback edition to show off to my family, and if I wanted an ISBN (which I would) I would have to arrange that myself at significantly more cost than the book itself. The current ISBN system is not very DIY-friendly; you have to buy the rights to a minimum of 10 ISBN numbers (I know, it’s repetitive to add “number,” but it sounds more natural). This may change by the time I want to publish something, but it may not; the U.S. ISBN agency seems to be a non-profit, but it is associated with and run by a for-profit publishing services company, Bowker, that probably has no incentive to make self-publishing any easier.