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This Just In ...

Kevin Fischer is a veteran broadcaster, the recipient of over 150 major journalism awards from the Milwaukee Press Club, the Wisconsin Associated Press, the Northwest Broadcast News Association, the Wisconsin Bar Association, and others. He has been seen and heard on Milwaukee TV and radio stations for over three decades. A longtime aide to state Senate Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, Kevin can be seen offering his views on the news on the public affairs program, "InterCHANGE," on Milwaukee Public Television Channel 10, and heard filling in on Newstalk 1130 WISN. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their lovely young daughter, Kyla Audrey, in Franklin.

Why Trust Wikipedia?


Why Trust Wikipedia?
By Guest Blogger Thomas C. Reeves

As a professional historian, I'm interested in the nature of authority. Wherever I happen to be in my reading or research I ask: On what is truth, beauty, and morality based at this point? Often the answer is simply that the supreme leader or the ruling class defines the terms. At other times the answer contains a strong religious emphasis.

In recent decades, public opinion polls, sales figures, and elections dominate. Gallop, Pew, Bloomberg, and Rasmussen are quoted breathlessly and frequently as the voice of truth. If more people like rock than opera, then guess what will be found on almost every radio and television station amid legions of advertisements? If one party gains control of Congress and the White House, its leaders can do almost anything they like (as long as the Supreme Court contains a sufficient number of party allies.) As for moral principles, why not just "hook up" with anybody for as long as you feel like it and have as many babies as you want? What's wrong with that?

It is hardly news that Western culture is rapidly embracing secular materialism, a culture in which age-old truths are banished as bigotry and chaos and narcissism abound. The media and the schools are largely responsible. The message that streams into our homes from cables, satellites, antennas, and cell phones declares the joy of doing what feels good, never growing up, owning as much as possible, and declaring the past irrelevant. In schools at all levels political correctness, increasingly enforced by the federal government, preaches "inclusiveness" and "diversity." These are code words for leftist dogmas that seek to foster a society based on colour and sex, and that would banish supernaturalism, destroy the traditional family, dismiss venerable moral standards, and set up a wholly indulgent welfare state.

In an increasing intellectual and moral vacuum, how does one know anything for certain? How can one learn, say, history when the historians themselves are overwhelmingly committed to a single ideology? (Thus the near unanimous condemnation of George W. Bush by "presidential scholars" and their passionate praise of Obama.) Can one even trust traditional facts and dates anymore?

Which brings me to Wikipedia, probably the most widely read source of information in the world. Earlier this year, the web site claimed to be attracting nearly 68 million visitors each month, and it boasted of having 12,460,561 registered users. Wikipedia contains more than 15 million articles in more than 270 languages, some 3 million in English. Type in a name, an event, a product, or an idea and your browser will take you there in a split second, often at the head of a list of sites.

But can you believe what you're reading? Is Wikipedia reliable? Can we make sense of life and solve our problems by consulting it?

The web-based Wikipedia was created in 2001. (See the glowing Wikipedia article on co-founder and de facto leader Jimmy Wales.) From its inception, the entire concept seems, to this scholar, fatally flawed. Wikipedia articles are written by unpaid and, more often than not, anonymous authors. Wikipedia explains, "The expertise of qualifications of the user are usually not considered." And it boasts, "Wikipedia is written largely by amateurs. Those with expert credentials are given no additional weight."

Some footnotes are encouraged, especially if they refer to anything in print. In short, if a fact or judgment can be found in a book, magazine, or pamphlet, it must be true! Wikipedia declares, "Original research and ideas which haven't appeared in other sources are therefore excluded."

Worse, almost any article in Wikipedia can be altered in any way by anyone at any time. There have been over 31 million edits, and the only qualification is internet access. Do I mean to say, for example, that a scholarly article on the French Revolution can be altered by an anonymous 10-year-old? Yes.

Wikipedia has editors who "may" perceive and alter "obvious errors," obscenities and the like. But this small body of volunteers (we are told that there are 1,724 "administrators") can't possibly examine the huge amount of incoming information let alone police the extant articles that may already been changed in meaningfully ways. Moreover, how do we know that the Wikipedia editors, whoever they are, are themselves qualified and objective?

Moreover, Wikipedia publicly warns readers that many of its articles are untrustworthy! "In particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles more frequently contain significant misinformation, unencyclopedic [sic] content, or vandalism. Users need to be aware of this to obtain valid information and avoid misinformation that has been recently added and not yet removed."

Officials believe that since Wikipedia content is ongoing, in time there will be sufficient progress to make all articles accurate and objective. This is madness, revealing an astonishing innocence about human nature and scholarly evidence. (Jimmy Wales has a background in finance.) It's close to the venerable theory that if enough monkeys hit typewriter keys long enough, they will produce Macbeth.

A few articles, Wikipedia informs us, can no longer be altered. "Featured Articles" display a small star in the upper right corner. A second tier are designated "Good Articles." Editors create these distinctions, which contradict the basic premise of Wikipedia. Moreover, the process of selection "can take months or years to be achieved." An article on Hillary Clinton, containing an error about her education, was edited more than 4,800 times over 20 months before a television news channel exposed the error and it was removed.

Frustrated authors have the right to appeal alterations, but imagine how long that process takes. "Every day," Wikipedia tells us, "hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world collectively make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles..."

I have had personal experience with this portal of knowledge and wisdom. I've made corrections on several topics I know well, only to find that they have later disappeared. I once tried to add a book title of mine to a rather significant footnote, and it too vanished. As a favor to friends, I'm about to submit five articles on people and activities I have researched at length. Will they be edited or vandalized by unqualified people? Why not?

This reminds me of a similar policy displayed on Amazon.com. To review a film or a book, you need only over 13 years old. That's it. I once had an anonymous "student" attack my biography of Senator Joe McCarthy. I had assigned the rather large volume to a class not long before and suspect that the reading requirement was behind the negative commentary. It was surely not a product of a scholar in the field. But who knows? And who cares?

Thomas C. Reeves is a retired UW-System professor living in southeast Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and Chester A. Arthur. I am proud to call Tom Reeves my friend.

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