Wikipedia Can Be Unreliable: Known Errors Not Corrected
When I’m doing research for an article I’m writing, or just want to satisfy my curiosity about something that caught my attention, Wikipedia is usually the first place I go. I do so because I’m confident I’ll get a good overview of the topic, and that the information I receive will be generally accurate. In my opinion, Wikipedia is one of the most valuable resources on the entire web.
But I’ve discovered that as good as Wikipedia is, you can’t trust it to be accurate when it comes to precise details on specialized topics.
Wikipedia sometimes provides information that is seriously inaccurate
I’m a writer whose articles often require in-depth information. Recently, I was researching aspects of the American Civil War that I already knew quite a bit about. But when I consulted Wikipedia on those subjects, I was surprised to find that some of the articles I read contained details I knew to be flat out wrong.
Worse, despite Wikipedia’s vaunted quality control process, this misinformation has remained uncorrected for extended periods of time. In one instance, the fact that an entire article was based on a historically inaccurate premise had been noted in a Wikipedia forum as early as 2004. Yet the uncorrected article has remained on the site, continuing to mislead unsuspecting readers, for more than a decade.
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I’d like to describe for you two instances in which I found historically incorrect information in Wikipedia articles. The first of these concerns a relatively trivial detail, while the other could contribute to the reader having a fundamental misunderstanding of the historical event it purports to describe.
NOTE: The links provided to the Wikipedia articles in question are to the archive.com copies of those pages as they appeared at the time of this writing.
Wikipedia is wrong about when chain gangs were first used in the United States
I had run across an article in the August 14, 1863 edition of the Richmond, Virginia Daily Dispatch concerning the use of chain gangs in that city. Not having realized that Southern states were using chain gangs as far back as the Civil War (1863 was the mid-point of that conflict), I wanted to find out when the chain gang was first employed in this country. So, of course, I went straight to Wikipedia.
Imagine my surprise when I saw the following statement in the Wikipedia article on chain gangs:
The introduction of chain gangs into the United States began shortly after the Civil War. The southern states needed finances and public works to be performed. [Emphasis added]
That is obviously incorrect! I already knew the chain gang was in use in Richmond during the Civil War, but I found another Daily Dispatch article mentioning the chain gang in 1860, the year before the war began. Some further research uncovered references to the use of chain gangs in Ohio in 1859, and possibly in California as far back as 1838 or even 1836 (it would take more research to be sure about that one).
The Wikipedia article cited one reference as the source of their statement that chain gangs were first used in the U. S. shortly after the Civil War. Clearly the writer(s) of the article didn’t do their own search of primary sources to verify that information.
That points out what I consider to be a significant flaw in the Wikipedia process. Articles can be written, checked, and edited, by people who may be fairly familiar with the topic, but who don’t have the in-depth knowledge required to pick up on inaccuracies in the sources they use.
Have you ever found inaccurate information on Wikipedia?
Here's my second example of faulty information in a Wikipedia article. It is, in my opinion, far more egregious than the first.
Wikipedia says Frederick Douglass supported Andrew Johnson!
Having written about Frederick Douglass’s relationship with Abraham Lincoln, I knew that Douglass viewed Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice President and successor after Lincoln was assassinated, with nothing but disdain. He considered Johnson a racist who was totally antagonistic toward the idea of equal political rights for African Americans.
So it was something of a jolt to read in a Wikipedia article that Douglass had been a delegate to a convention aimed at “unifying the country behind President Johnson” in the run-up to the mid-term election of 1866.
The subject of the Wikipedia article was the “1866 National Union Convention,” which was held in Philadelphia on August 14-16. Its purpose was to promote support for President Johnson and his very conservative, states’ rights-based Reconstruction program which aimed explicitly at denying African Americans the right to vote. Although the agenda of this gathering ran counter to everything Frederick Douglass stood for, the article lists him as one of the delegates.
The meeting Douglass actually attended was the “Southern Loyalists’ Convention,” held in Philadelphia starting on September 3, 1866, and which was called for the express purpose of countering many of the Reconstruction policies advocated by Johnson.
The author of the article admits to getting it wrong
It appears that because both conventions met in the same city within a few weeks of each other, the Wikipedia writer conflated the two together. In fact, in a comment on the Talk page for the article, the author admitted to fearing exactly that.
The Wikipedia Talk page is “a page which editors can use to discuss improvements to an article.” Here is what the Talk page for “1866 National Union Convention” says:
Talk:1866 National Union Convention
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from Talk:National Union Convention)
I fear I may have conflated two events--there may have been separate conventions in Philadelphia for pro-Johnson and anti-Johnson factions in the summer of 1866. I haven't been able to find a good summary of the situation--only passing references here and there--usually only in the form of so and so was a delegate to either the National Union Convention or the Loyalist Convention of 1866 in Philadelphia. I'm going to leave it as is for now, but also wanted to leave a note for anyone who might have more knowledge about this. older≠wiser 19:29, 30 Jul 2004 (UTC)
The evident author of this entry has a separate statement that he/she fears he/she has conflated two events -- as indeed he/she has. There was a second convention in Philadelphia in the first week of September, 1866, which was attended by "Southern Loyalists," who supported the Radicals against president Johnson. That was a group that completely opposed the folks at the national Union Convention in August. The list of attendees in this article seems to have people from both events. I have deleted Ben Wade of Ohio and Frederick Douglass from this list, because they were definitely not at this Convention in August; I suspect there are other names that are listed there incorrectly.
David Stewart. 22.214.171.124 18:24, 22 September 2007 (UTC)
Note that an editor says he deleted Ben Wade and Frederick Douglass from the list of attendees. Yet in the article as it remains published on Wikipedia, only Wade’s name has been removed. Douglass is still erroneously listed as having attended.
Known errors were never corrected in the published article
What is really disturbing about this is that the author of the article expressed reservations about its accuracy in 2004, but no corrections were made to the published article. Three years later an editor recognized the errors that had been made, and tried to make minimal corrections. For whatever reason, his changes were not fully reflected in the article.
The result is that after more than a decade, this article still contains what is known to be misinformation that could severely distort a reader’s understanding of the politics of 1866. There is no indication in the article, as published, that the information it offers is known to be false.
Why Wikipedia’s accuracy safeguards are inadequate
Wikipedia takes accuracy very seriously, and has built extensive safeguards into its process. Independent studies of the site’s accuracy give it high marks. For example, according to cnet.com, a comparison by the journal Nature of Wikipedia’s accuracy and that of the Encyclopedia Britannica found that “Wikipedia is about as good a source of accurate information as Britannica.”
Yet, as the two examples I share here indicate, when dealing with specific details of lesser known or specialized topics, Wikipedia may provide information that is seriously inaccurate.
I believe the reason is that, with low profile subject matter, only a few people may be interested enough and knowledgeable enough to vet the information provided. When the subject is a popular one, many, many eyes will see it, and errors can be quickly corrected. But when the topic is specialized or not generally searched for, only a few people with the expertise to detect inaccuracies may ever see the article. Thus errors can remain uncorrected for long periods.
Wikipedia is highly accurate, but not totally trustworthy
My point in raising this issue is to warn users that when accuracy really counts, it’s great to start with Wikipedia, but you shouldn’t stop there. Rather than rely on Wikipedia as the final word on topics I’m researching, I use their references to track down original or highly authoritative sources. That way, Wikipedia provides great assistance in my search for accurate information, even when some of its own assertions may be faulty.
For me, Wikipedia is good, but not gospel!
© 2016 Ronald E. Franklin