bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Can we trust Wikipedia?

Posted in Blogography, Humanism by bonaelitterae on 5 October, 2008

The wickedness of Wikipedia is a common theme — the worry that students garner their information from the on-line encyclopedia, at the expense of ‘real’ work, undertaken surrounded by piles of printed tomes. We have all heard the urban myths of lecturers going on the internet to add intentionally false entries to Wikipedia so that they can catch their students if they plagiarise. Wikipedia is far from perfect, but should every good scholar ignore it completely?

First of all, let us not become protective of print encyclopedias, which often fall far below the level of extensive, unquestionable knowledge that we naively expect of them. I should know, I have edited an encyclopedia of the Renaissance. I would rate only two printed volumes: the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance, edited by J. R. Hale, and the more recent and wide-ranging Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance by Gordon Campbell. To warn students off a true-ready reliance on what they read in print, I am fond of quoting an example from another encyclopedia of the Renaissance, one which sits quietly on the open shelves of the Bodleian and which states: ‘Petrarch was the first man to use the Latin term humanismus.’ As there is no such word in Latin, as it is a German term invented in the early nineteenth century, and as Petrarch did not employ any word or phrase cognate with humanismus, this is utter nonsense. Piffle. Twaddle. Moonshine. Balderdash. Codswallop. And claptrap. In short, hard copy does not equal hard facts.

What, of course, printed reference works do claim is some sort of academic recommendation, supplemented by the reputation of a worthy publisher: thus, the lists of advisors that appear at the front of any volume (completed with university affiliations), a page or so after the imprimatur of the publisher. These may encourage confidence where none should exist, but they do at least demonstrate a link, however tenuous, with academia. Wikipedia lacks such a patena of respectability, presenting itself instead as the standard-bearer of on-line democracy, encouraging anybody to contribute. In those areas of life which attract attention on the internet, this can create clashes, ‘vandalism’ and repeated re-writings without necessarily any improvement in veracity — but, then, we are not interested in articles on Britney Spears or which is the best George Clooney film (Michael Clayton, by the way). Most of the articles of interest to a student of the Renaissance are not battlefields in the same way: a reader is more likely to be caught out by accidental error than caught in the crossfire between contributors reflected in an entry.

Wikipedia has developed its own rules of engagement for contributors, centring on providing a NPOV (a Neutral Point of View). But there is a curious result from this: Wikipedia is consciously, achingly non-hierarchical but it can certainly be deferential. For example, the discussion board for contributors about Machiavelli has one of them objecting to a sentence in the entry because it makes assertions ‘Without reference to a reliable academic source‘ [their italics]. As another contributor points out, there is much about Machiavelli which is controversial within academia, but there does seem to be a tendency in Wikiworld to seek external justification for what is said by reference to the supposedly impartial truth found in the writings of academics. It leaves little room to realise that even the driest historical monograph can hide bias, blindspots and mistakes behind its dour binding.

There is an added issue with Wikipedia which is worth mentioning: it is not one but several encyclopedias. It exists in all the major European languages, including Latin, but the text in each language can be separate from that in others. Sometimes, an article is simply translated but often that is not the case. This can create some oddities: the character Burckhardt celebrated as the archetypal Renaissance man, Leon Battista Alberti, has a stub of an entry in Latin with an external link — to his works in Italian; the corresponding Italian entry does not provide that link; and neither of these lead the reader to those Latin texts which are available on-line at the Biblioteca Italiana site. In other cases, if one only looked at the English entry, you would come away with only very limited information: for another humanist of the early quattrocento, Guarino da Verona, the most detailed articles are those in Italian and German. More generally, the rule for the reader should be that if you are interested in a subject, check the article in the range of languages listed in the left-hand bar of Wikipedia: even if you can not fully grasp the text, the links provided could lead you to more information than you could gain by only reading one version.

My own impression, having spent some time looking over a range of Renaissance articles on Wikipedia, is that the limitation most often is not as much inaccurate  as incomplete information. In the entries for Alberti, the English version has a list of works which is highly truncated — a reader would be in a dangerous land if they assumed that the article provided a sufficient base of knowledge. There may be a seemingly counter-intuitive principle in play: the more obscure a character, the more likely it is that the Wikipedia entry (if there is one) will present useful information. In some cases, of course, Wikipedia simply will not have any entry: I have recently sent off an article on an interesting humanist, Antonio Beccaria, who spent some years in England; he does not appear on the website. On the other hand, I have also written about the even less well-known Tito Livio Frulovisi, who does have a fairly good article — because (I admit it, gentle reader) I put it there. For the more recherché, if somebody has bothered to post an article, they are likely to have put some effort into doing it.

The inverse of this is that the better-known characters can not be as well served. So, Machiavelli himself has, in English, a long entry with a useful listing of his works. But the text makes some significant errors. For instance, looking at it this morning, I noticed it states that he considered The Prince his magnum opus. I can see how the contributor made this assumption — the famous letter to Vettori in which he describes his method of composition gives a sense of Machiavelli’s depth of engagement in the project at the time of writing — but it hardly fits with the fortunes of the text in his own lifetime: it circulated in manuscript, but, like the Discourses was only printed after his death. The only text that Machiavelli actively promoted himself by having it printed was one which we study much less nowadays, his Art of War. That work, and his History of Florence, hardly get a mention in this English Wikipedia article. A fuller treatment of his life, with some useful quotations, appears in Italian, though again attention is directed to a minority of his works.

If the guideline is, the bigger the name, the lower the value of the article, there’s another that can be added: names are better than things. Wikipedia is weaker talking about concepts than about characters. Take ‘civic humanism’, Hans Baron’s master-concept used to describe a tradition of Florentine republican justification: it does not appear in an article on its own, but instead the reader is re-directed to ‘classical republicanism’. This does not give much room to highlight the controversy which surrounds ‘civic humanism’. The wider concept of Renaissance humanism comes off even worse: the entry is hardly worth reading.

Yet, we should return to the comparison with print encyclopedias. Wikipedia’s sins are, in many ways, unoriginal: its weaknesses are the ones you could also find in most older encyclopedias. They too are often weakest on concepts, and least satisfying when they are talking about the most famous — and, so, most controversial — characters. What, of course, they often have lacked is the ability to develop. The future of reference works, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica knows, is on-line, where information can be added and corrected. A comparison between Britannica and Wikipedia suggests that, for our area, each has some advantages over the other: of the characters we have talked about, Machiavelli has a judicious article in Britannica, but most other humanists receive only a insubstantial summary. Even a significant figure like Leonardo Bruni is treated in this way, while Wikipedia gives more information (though it is, at present, skewed towards only a few of his works). In Britannica, the lesser humanists I mention are featured not at all. Where, of course, Wikipedia has a singular advantage is that it has the ability not just to be corrected: you can do the correcting.

So, if I should end by answering the question I set myself: of course we should not trust Wikipedia, just as we would not trust any other work or source. As historians, we trust nobody. But that does not mean we don’t use them and learn from them. The advice to students must be: read but read carefully. The advice to academics should be: if you don’t like something, change it. Admittedly, some entries might be beyond redemption but that is the case for a very few dealing poorly with concepts. Most are capable of improvement — and it is our job to do it. So, as I said, this morning the Machiavelli article talks erroneously of The Prince being his magnum opus. By this evening, I will make sure it does not anymore.

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