Wikipedia and the evolution of history

Wikipedia’s in the news again regarding its editing policy and accuracy, this time with an interesting twist. In an article this week in the Atlantic, Timothy Messer-Kruse, a renown scholar on the Haymarket riot and resulting trial, talks about his experience attempting to update the Wikipedia entry on the riot. Years of research on the trial of the men convicted of building and throwing the bomb that killed one police officer and wounded several others, Messer-Kruse added new information not yet known in many history circles about forensic evidence used by the prosecution in the case. Almost as soon as he posted the new text, Wikipedia’s editors removed it.

This highlights a standard Wikipedia policy which requires that statements in entries are verified and represent a majority view by scholars. Wikipedia requires that minority views should be stated as such and should not dominate an entry. (Wikipedia, 2011).” The idea behind this policy is to rely on the judgment of many scholars in the field to weigh out a lone theorist with unvetted ideas. But how does that effect new scholarship and evidence? Because Messer-Kruse’s information was newly discovered, it had not appeared in other sources and had not been greatly debated. But was it inaccurate?

This controversy reminds me of a recent book looking at historical events through a contemporary cultural prism as seen through high school textbooks over time. Kyle Ward, author of History in the Making (2006), shows students how as public opinion changes over time, the historical record also changes. In an NPR interview, Ward discusses how the writing of history is affected by the culture of the time in which that history is written.

How do you feel about Wikipedia’s policy of majority opinion? Is it a safe guard? Does it adequately allow for new scholarship? How will those majority opinions and hence the entries change over time? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *