Discussing Wikipedia and Haymarket affair on NPR Talk of the Nation

Today I was on NPR Talk of the Nation discussing the latest controversy around the editing of the [[Haymarket affair]] article in Wikipedia. [See the NPR page here].

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, professor Messer-Kruse documented his attempts to update the Wikipedia entry over a two year period to reflect his groundbreaking research. He was rebuffed and wrote:

The “undue weight” policy posed a problem. Scholars have been publishing the same ideas about the Haymarket case for more than a century. The last published bibliography of titles on the subject has 1,530 entries.

“Explain to me, then, how a ‘minority’ source with facts on its side would ever appear against a wrong ‘majority’ one?” I asked the Wiki-gatekeeper. He responded, “You’re more than welcome to discuss reliable sources here, that’s what the talk page is for. However, you might want to have a quick look at Wikipedia’s civility policy.”

I tried to edit the page again. Within 10 seconds I was informed that my citations to the primary documents were insufficient, as Wikipedia requires its contributors to rely on secondary sources, or, as my critic informed me, “published books.” Another editor cheerfully tutored me in what this means: “Wikipedia is not ‘truth,’ Wikipedia is ‘verifiability’ of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that.

Therein lies the problem.

Wikipedia depends on secondary sources. If recent scholarship, though accurate, still accounts for a minority view, Wikipedia will wait until the majority view recognizes these new advances as canon. Only then will the article reflect those changes.

What we’re seeing with the new evidence published by Messer-Kruse in August 2011, is that there is a lag time before scholarship is generally accepted. To wit, on the radio show, I read the blurb from the professor’s book and showed why it was perhaps the “perfect storm” of conditions such that Wikipedia would not include his findings right away (emphasis mine).

In this controversial and groundbreaking new history, Timothy Messer-Kruse rewrites the standard narrative of the most iconic event in American labor history: the Haymarket Bombing and Trial of 1886. Using thousands of pages of previously unexamined materials, Messer-Kruse demonstrates that, contrary to longstanding historical opinion, the trial was not the “travesty of justice” it has commonly been depicted as.

Every bolded word is in stark contrast to Wikipedia’s policies of verifiability, reliable sources and undue weight given to minority viewpoints. That is, this book is the first revelation of these new findings, and they haven’t been taken as a consensus view, at least not yet.

In time, if the facts hold up, and there is every reason to believe they will, the rest of Haymarket affair scholarship will reflect the new research, and Wikipedia will reflect that.

So chalk this up under one of the more unusual and modern complaints about Wikipedia you almost never hear:

Can’t you move faster? You’re going too slow.

12 thoughts on “Discussing Wikipedia and Haymarket affair on NPR Talk of the Nation

  1. Dear Andrew – I enjoyed your discussion with Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation regarding the history of the Chicago Haymarket Riots of 1886. I may hold the record for call-ins to talk on air [as Portland Oregonian’s in general hold the record for call-ins to NPR’s Talk of the Nation.] (My comment is also there in the NPR TOTN site for this discussion)

    But I had missed the broadcast that day and later found the archive and reviewed it a day later. The reason I am writing to you is that I took a very sentimental interest in this story after being tapped to act the part of the anarchist labor leader- August Spies for an historical educational film work produced over a years time covering all of the early US History- This segment was done about early US labor disputes. I was asked to recite in anger those famed lines by August Spies as they had all of us in a dramatized 1886 scene here in my hometown of Portland Oregon in the cobble stoned northwest Peral Art District in about 2006. But low and behold, they dubbed over my dramatic oratory with a weak little German gentleman’s voice. See me here in the opening at 1:00 minute during the intro and then at the actual scene with the lines from 7:10 ~ 8:10. The filming technique was to obscure my image as if you were one of the rioters in the street looking up through the crowd. >

    *I would think that the editors at Wikipedia would want to include a link to this excellent educational film in the Haymarket Riots Chapter of Wikipedia as it may lend some credence to the actual historical story.
    American History Film- Site Overview of video segment #14 >
    *Or directly access this Chicago Haymarket Riot Dramatization video URL here >
    Mark is at one minute into the intro on the right as the orator, Then the actual historical scene playing the historical German American Labor Leader/Anarchist, named August Spies at center with many other background actors seen at 7:10 ~ 8:10

    There is an historical narrative just before the dramatization and then after it ends at 8:00 minutes, the history of anarchy in labor movement is reviewed in the narrative is well done and something for all Amercian’s interested in our country’s labor history and severe growing pains of new American immigrants as worker/slaves of the past century.

    Mark Seibold, Retired IT Technician/Consultant, Artist-Astronomy Educator, Portland Oregon

  2. This just goes to prove what all teachers say about wikipedia. That it is not reliable. From now on I will never believe anything on wikipedia. And any time a web search comes up wikipedia I will look elseware for the truth. If wikipedia has sponsors. I will be sure not to patronize them.

  3. In behalf of society”— His [Clarence Darrow, lead attorney for the defendants] phrase ran in my head all through the trial. That was the point of it all–a struggle between sensible folks who went about their business and tried to get all there was in it–like myself–and some scum from Europe, who didn’t like the way things are handed out in this world. We must hang these rebels for an example to all men…’In behalf of society”–yes, before we had left our seats in the court room my mind was made up: guilty or not, these men must suffer for their foolish opinions, which were dead against the majority. Thus I performed my duty to society.” – Van Harrington (juror in the Haymarket Riot trial) quoted from Robert Herrick, Memoirs of American Citizen, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1963. Pg.74

    Seems to me its hard to say that a juror who holds this type of opinion can really have been a fair arbitor of justice. It was a sham trial not because of the evidence but because the verdict was already determined. It was a show trial put on by Mayor Harrison and thats why the Governor eventually steps in and pardons the defedents that were still left standing(alive.)

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