Truth v.uninformed consensus: Wikipedia, Giuliani, et al.
We read about the latest edit-a-thon of Wikipedia, recently held by Dr. Elizabeth De Wolfe and carried out by students in her Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies course at the University of New England. As Perspectives on History puts it,
A Wikipedia user survey reports that the average “Wikipedian” on the English-language version of the site is male, formally educated, and from a majority Christian, developed country in the Northern Hemisphere. This lack of diversity, according to a Wikipedia essay on systemic bias, reproduces imbalances on the site that extend (in the realm of history) to a lack of women’s history, the histories of people without access to the Internet (primarily “people in developing nations, the poor in industrialized nations, the disabled, and the elderly”), and the histories of minority demographic groups, which in the United States include African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.
Edit-a-thons are a popular model for highlighting these topical weak spots and encouraging broader participation in editing the site. Often hosted by libraries and museums around a particular theme, edit-a-thons provide participants with both the in-person training and the sources needed to create entries. But even the most successful edit-a-thons are no match for the second, more treacherous set of barriers that are built into the site and hinder its representation of history.
…Wikipedia is not designed to showcase expertise, and for good reason, explains Rosemont College associate professor Michelle Moravec: “The Wikipedians recognized early on that they were going to end up with academic wars if they allowed academics to edit entries that they themselves are the field expert in.” However, Wikipedia’s alternative to expertise—consensus—introduces its own biases. In theory, “if enough people weigh in you’ll eventually reach un-bias,” says Moravec. “But anyone with a brain would realize that’s nonsense. You’ll get the most persistent opinion winning.”
Founded in 2013, the Wiki Education foundation seeks to bridge these gaps between Wikipedia and academia by facilitating partnerships between them. The foundation provides online training and guidance for classroom projects designed to counteract some of Wikipedia’s weaknesses while working within the strictures of the site’s core policies. University of Texas at Austin associate professor Daina Berry worked with Wiki Education to develop a project for her Black Women in America undergraduate class. Berry says that she used the tension between Wikipedia’s standards and those of historical scholarship to teach her students about the false ideal of “neutral writing” and “the challenge of researching women and people marginalized from the historical record.”
The HP applauds these efforts to break the uninformed consensus that Wikipedia can fall prey to. And it leads us to return to a topic we covered a while back: getting history right.
We notice, as historians, that certain popular stories about historical figures are repeated in textbooks and other learning material even though they are untrue. The most glaring example we can think of at the moment is not from American history, but it’s illustrative: almost any resource you read will say that when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon, he renounced the Catholic Church and became a Protestant, and this was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in England.
We are exposed to this story frequently as scholars of the English Puritans. The truth is that Henry remained a devout Catholic to the end of his life, persecuted Protestants, and rejected the Reformation. What really happened was that Henry made himself the head of the Catholic Church in England (not the head of a new Protestant Church), putting himself in place of the Pope. The English monarch was now the head of the Catholic Church in England, and this is why it was so dangerous to be a Protestant during Henry’s reign—to reject Catholicism was not just a religious act but a political one. It was to reject the authority of the king, and as such Protestantism was treason, and punishable not just by excommunication but by death.
Protestants would labor in secret during Henry’s reign to sway the Church of England toward Reformation, and under Henry’s successor Edward VI, who actually was a Protestant, and a fanatical one, the C of E did become Protestant. But under his successor, Mary I, a fanatical Catholic, the C of E returned to the authority of the Pope, and Protestants were notoriously persecuted. Mary’s successor Elizabeth I maintained a middle ground, making the English Church the mix of Catholic and Protestant practice that it remains today, and after the brief experiment of Puritan rule under Cromwell, the Anglican Church was set to remain a Protestant sect with many lingering Catholic elements.
But all that is less clear-cut and dramatic than saying Henry VIII was mad at the Pope and so he became a Protestant.
It’s also easy to blur things unintentionally, as the BBC website does when it says “His break with the papacy in Rome established the Church of England and began the Reformation.” Yes, the break with Rome gave English Protestants hopes that the Catholic Church in England would be reformed, and paved the way for Henry’s son Edward to receive a humanist, Protestant education (carefully hidden from Henry), and for Elizabeth to one day enact a gentle shift to middle-ground Protestantism that would be challenged once more during the English Civil War but restored under Charles II and, after one last threat from James II, securely established.
…but that long string of events stretching from the 1534 to 1688 is not the story you get from the line “Henry began the Protestant Reformation.”
So a general consensus is built by people who have not devoted time to studying the English Reformation that Henry was a Protestant. This view becomes so well-known that it is repeated in many venues, including history materials meant to teach students about English history.
That’s the problem with an uninformed consensus—it creates stories so well-known that when you point out that a story is wrong, you are the one who seems crazy. As editors of history materials, we know that when we correct items like Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, or Anne Hutchinson was persecuted for being a woman, or the Pilgrims left Holland for America because their children were turning Dutch, we often get flack. Does it really matter? we are asked, by educators. Isn’t the general gist correct?
We insist that it does matter. It’s funny that you would not be allowed to get away with error in football stats, identifying the designer each star is wearing at the Oscars, or summarizing TV show plots online, but misrepresenting the actions of U.S. presidents, founders of major religions, or civil rights leaders is given a pass.
Why is it acceptable to learn fictions about the important people and events that have created the world we live in today? Each error in those narratives is worse than just a mistake; it is a misrepresentation of the actions, decisions, and factors that have impacted millions of lives and created the social and political problems or solutions we experience today. Unfortunately, the double standard seems to say that accurately describing what landmark Supreme Court decisions made possible in the United States is less important than getting all the plot twists of Game of Thrones down right on a fan site.
During today’s presidential election, the truth is taking an unusual beating from Donald Trump, who will seemingly say anything he likes whether it’s true or not. Few people seem equipped to call him on this. Chris Matthews stood up to Rudy Giuliani’s truth-bashing recently by refusing to let him skim over a question or start spouting lies made up on the spot. You can see that here. What Matthews did is what every good historian should be doing right now, as lies flood our media at an unusual rate and misrepresent our shared past.
It can be hard to know when you are not being told the truth; all we can recommend is that the next time someone on TV is telling you what the Second Amendment ensures, or what Lincoln thought about civil rights, or what the Boston Tea Party was about, take the time to find a reputable article by a scholarly author and read it. Then read a few more. You will most likely get to the truth, and find that you are actually willing to spend that much time studying the history of your country, your own history, because it’s interesting and because it explains the world you inherited and because the truth, as they say, has this uncanny ability to set you free.