The Wikipedia Dilemma – Part 3


In this episode of Cassidy’s Wikipedia Exploration, we have an interesting interview with Melissa. Enjoy. This is the series finale, so I hope you enjoyed it.


Cassidy: Do you think you can rely on Wikipedia to get accurate information? Why or why not?

Melissa: It depends on what I’m looking for, when you say accurate information. I use it personally, just to check on basic factual things like ‘year of birth’, ‘year of death’, ‘place of origin’. If I’ve only heard of, say, a name or an event, and I want to know more about what that was (or who that was), ultimately I end up on the Wikipedia page for it, and I’ll get a little bit of an orientation to what or who that new piece of information is, and so I would say that most of the time I trust that kind of looking up of bits of factual information is trustworthy…most of the time.

Cassidy: So, what do you consider accurate information?

Melissa: It depends on what a person means by information, and the way that I just used it, I mean like, basic factual data, that can be verified. So accuracy for me means it can be verified by reliable sources, it can be triangulated, or more than one reliable source will confirm that the information is accurate. That’s what I mean by factual information. But, if you’re talking about, say, ‘Why did the South break off from the United States to form their own country and launch the civil war?’, that is also information. But, you can’t really call how people answer that, accurate information or not. You can get accurate facts.

Cassidy: It’s very subjective why they did it?

Melissa: Yeah. And it gets into what we mean when we say information. If we are talking about information like (you know), ‘who was responsible for such and such decision?’ Okay, well even that can be subjective. But ‘who was the president at the time of this event?’ That’s verifiable. It can be looked up, and/or it can be noted as inaccurate information. But in terms of how and why we study history, we deal with information, but we don’t just deal with facts. History is just so much about arguing about what happened as well as what happened. It’s not just the past. It’s how we are able to make a case for what we believe drove certain decisions, or what were the multiple causes of things happening. And those things are a bigger part of history than simply, accurate information. Although accurate information is super crucial.

Cassidy: You would usually use the facts that we do know to build off of it and make theories, that were about what really happened and why.

Melissa: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, yes, in a manner of speaking.

Cassidy: Because, we basically only have the facts. Usually.

Melissa: I mean, facts such as ‘where was this person on this date?’, ‘were they in this city, or were they in that city?’ Those kinds of things can be verifiable…possibly. But I think…we’re in the scary place now – like, to go off on a little bit of a tangent – where it feels like the country (this country) has so many places for people to get information, that their requirement for accuracy becomes lessened. People respond very much respond to information that sounds right to them, that feels right to, maybe how they already view the world…

Cassidy: Confirmation bias?

Melissa: Possibly, yeah. I think that there’s a lot of that. I mean, I’m totally guilty of it all time. And so I have to really check myself on that. And so, I’m just….all I’m doing is commenting on how it feels like a lot of people in this country don’t value accuracy of information as much. And their isn’t agreement on facts anymore. If you read mainstream news, it feels like there’s lots of division and disagreement about actual verifiable, ‘you can check on whether this is true or not’ information. People don’t even agree that certain…

Cassidy: Like climate change?

Melissa: Yeah. Sure. Historical accounts, the current president and people in addition to the president try to say that history was a certain way when it wasn’t. I mean, it gets into a lot of things. Factual information, accurate information is really super important to our understanding of why things are the way they are. But, accurate information is just one part.  And I can explain what I mean…I was looking at something today, and I wanted to, it was just phrased really well. Yeah, I was reading this piece about the historian James Loewen, and he is a history professor, and historian. You know. He writes history books. And his most famous one is Lies My Teacher Told Me.

Cassidy: I think I’ve heard of that.

Melissa: Yeah, you might have. It’s a very famous book…It’s a book not just about the history that a lot of American students don’t get to learn in school, because they learn through textbooks that leave a lot out, and leave a lot of opportunities for critical thinking – about history – out. But, there’s this line that says “Too few texts contain primary sources. It’s assumed that students cannot handle the ugly truth that history ‘is a furious debate formed by evidence and reason.’” And so, kind of what I’m getting at is, accurate information is necessary for people to be able to reason out why things happened the way they did…and to build evidence for their interpretation of history. Right? If you don’t have accurate information you don’t have solid evidence. You don’t really…you can’t really make an argument in that furious debate about history. Right, like our country has a way of disagreeing about – I am gonna go back to the civil war – you know, all those Confederate monuments that were put up (you know) 50/70/100 years after the civil war ended. And they tell the story of this glorious…South, this seperate country that broke off from the United States because they didn’t want to give up the slave system. They were willing to leave the country over that. They kind of tell a different kind of story about trying to be free of the tyranny of the federal government, trying to show pride in the efforts of their generals…their military generals. Which in a way, one can understand. If you feel like you were part of the side that ‘lost’, of course you want to look to the pieces of that war history that you can, I don’t know…take pride in. And I think studying history, one of the reasons we do it is to take pride in what our country has been and what it’s been about. But I also think people study history to really understand as much as possible, why things are the way they are. And that is not always about taking pride. It is about understanding as much information as we can know about the complex situations that have created why things are this way, and why they stay this way, or how and why they’ve changed.

Cassidy: Do you let your students use Wikipedia?

Melissa: Do I let students use Wikipedia? Yes. I let them use Wikipedia as a starting place.

Cassidy: Just as a starting place?

Melissa: Yeah. For example, if students are assigned to research people/places/events they’ve never heard of, how are they ever gonna find out anything about them if you don’t give them a place to start? And for me, Wikipedia is a fine place…’cus it’s an encyclopedia basically. And encyclopedias are just supposed to like, tell you about everything. It’s just supposed to give you a little bit of information, like, you don’t know Queen Nzinga? Well, look up when she lived. Look up, you know, look up what countries she was involved in. Maybe that will give you some sense of her era, some names of other people she’s associated with and what historical events she’s associated with. And then you can look up those as well. And so, Wikipedia is great for that starting place

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