The New Yorker claimed that Essjay was “A tenured professor of religion at a private university.” This assertion was subsequently corrected by the addition of an ‘Editor’s Note’ stating that Essjay had been recommended to the author of the New Yorker article “by a member of Wikipedia’s management team because of his respected position within the Wikipedia community.” But, in fact, it had subsequently been discovered that “his real name is Ryan Jordan, that he is twenty-four and holds no advanced degrees, and that he has never taught. He was recently hired by Wikia—a for-profit company affiliated with Wikipedia—as a “community manager”; he continues to hold his Wikipedia positions. He did not answer a message we sent to him; Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikia and of Wikipedia, said of Essjay’s invented persona, ‘I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.’”
Now, I am not one of those people who dismiss Wikipedia as a source of all the inaccurate information known to man (though I should say that my colleague, Dermot Hogan, has never been so forgiving - see his article from 2005, Lies, Damned Lies and Wikipedia). I use Wikipedia a lot - far more than I use any printed work of reference - and, in fairness, I have learnt a great deal from it. But, even so, I don’t trust it. I would never quote a Wikipedia article as a definitive reference. This is partly because I don’t know who the people who wrote those articles are and whether they are authorities on the subject or just self-opinionated hotheads.
I read another interesting article today in Canada’s National Post. The writer of this article claims that numerous Wikipedia articles, many of them relating to climate change, have been rewritten by a U.K. scientist and Green Party activist named William Connolley: “He rewrote Wikipedia’s articles on global warming, on the greenhouse effect, on the instrumental temperature record, on the urban heat island, on climate models, on global cooling. On Feb. 14, he began to erase the Little Ice Age; on Aug.11, the Medieval Warm Period.”
The National Post article says that Connolley created or rewrote 5,428 unique Wikipedia articles and, when he became a Wikipedia administrator, he deleted more than 500 articles: “The Medieval Warm Period disappeared, as did criticism of the global warming orthodoxy. With the release of the Climategate Emails, the disappearing trick has been exposed. The glorious Medieval Warm Period will remain in the history books, perhaps with an asterisk to describe how a band of zealots once tried to make it disappear.”
Of course, as I am sceptical of the information in Wikipedia, so am I sceptical of information in newspapers such as the National Post and I should mention that the author of the above article, Lawrence Solomon, might be said to have his own agenda - he is, amongst other things, author of “The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud.”
But Solomon is open about who he is and the views he holds. So I can make up my own mind about how much credibility I give to what he writes. It is harder, much harder, to unpick the tangled threads of additions, deletions, corrections and counter-corrections which go into an article in Wikipedia. And, for that reason, I take Wikipedia articles with an even bigger pinch of salt than I the ones I reserve for articles in the conventional press and printed books.
The plain fact of the matter is that the manner in which Wikipedia articles are constructed by multiple authors over time ensures that the information which Wikipedia contains is broad-reaching and regularly updated. But the downside is that it can never really be trusted.