Wikipedia is Not Infallible… buried in a long rant…

[I have been rather busy and fighting off what I believe to be my yearly lung infection (stupid cigarettes). Reading like crazy though. Did Oliver Twist, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and The High Crusade in the last two weeks. Not sure what to do about Moby Dick. Story is really good when he is not off yammering away putting me to sleep (note: I am not one of those that believe because something is classic I must praise it or love it!). Started Non-Stop by Brian W. Aldiss tonight. So what? Oh, just dropping a line on why posts have been scant.]

But here is a little rant. I have been following the discussions over at Strange Notions for the last couple of months. But I think I am done with it. I hear the atheists (a group that is largely making a worse and worse impression on me) wail foul when the slightest critical crack is made about atheists in an article (the articles are largely by Catholics). These can be of the smallest slight. I never, in all my card carrying atheist days, would have even noticed such small slights. But these people are like the politically correctoid police howling foul at everything that isn’t sanitized to their pale shade.

The reason for this is simple. Christopher Hitchens some years ago proposed to break the supposed “taboo” that one’s religious views should be respected. People didn’t used to comment, sneer or get in your face if you were religious. No more, declared Hitchens (and probably Dawkins too) get in their face, go on the offensive. That is fair enough, one could never say religion had never been on the offensive.

I see, however, an implicit second side to this. Atheism is now supposedly sacrosanct, and the way to achieve that is to be offended at everything that is not flattery to your side. Wail, cry, moan and complain – cry wolf – then attack, then wail, cry, moan and complain – cry wolf.

But in the comments section they, the atheists, snark away left and right. Highly non-intellectual. And they spout the stupidest assertions as if they already know the subject thereby revealing they do not. I have antennae for such things having spent 20 plus years in Objectivist circles. I think I met two or three non-Objectivists who knew squat about Objectivism. Not, mind you, that this fact of ignorance would stop them. No, the greater the ignorance, the mightier the flow of thy mouth.

Here is a piece of advice – to anyone – don’t know something? Go ask.

This would go against the pride, nay, the vainglory of the typical atheists, especially the type that spends their time arguing about their non-belief online to strangers. And I know of the pride, oh yes, brother, I know it very well. I exalted in it, bathed like the devil himself. And I recognize I may have been an extreme case, but that is only a question of degree, I know the nature.

I also speak as someone who has committed this action of walking in ignorance.

I came across this some time ago, about two years. I was commenting on a blog. I, in a single post, complained that my adversary did not know anything about one of the subjects under discussion (Objectivism), I then proceeded to write voluminously against Christianity. I, who had never read the Bible nor any religious material whatsoever save what may be garnered from certain philosophers. And of these philosophers I ignored most. Augustine? Mystical garbage, fantasy, into the fire with it. Of Catholicism in particular, if it wasn’t in The Exorcist or the Godfather, I knew nothing about it outside of general history texts (which is not the same thing).

So I shut up and hit some books.

Now for the subject of which this post is titled. Here is a comment exchange on Strange Notions from an article called  The Crusades: Urban Legends and Truth. None of which follows is a commentary on any facts discussed in the article nor those of the commenters. I have a single point.

Commenter 1:

Well, Constantinople rests squarely on the shoulders of the Doge of Venice. He wanted the gold. That’s where the gold was at.

Commenter 2:

And here we have a great example of what I believe is religious-belief-induced myopathy. I’m not going to focus on the underlying facts, I just got done with a cursory wikipedia reading and your account is…lacking…even in the most charitable reading.

First thing. Never rely on a single source. Information is collated by human beings, human beings are not only fallible, but oft times dishonest, sloppy or distorted by ideology. Also there may be other factors affecting an item of knowledge or information that may not be included in the single source.

I can’t say that I do not make mistakes when reporting on stuff, I can say I try very hard not to (I am lucky in having dropped out of school after finishing the 8th grade, I always go on the assumption of my own ignorance and fallibility. I tread carefully. Hell, I’ve spent up to 5 hours fact checking for blog posts or comments and I’m not even getting paid!). But even if I have to rely on the internet for my information – scratch that – especially if I have to rely on the internet, I make sure I have checked several sources.

Now single facts are pretty easy to track down. If someone says Kant was the greatest medieval philosopher, we can pretty easily resolve the issue and state he was a philosopher of the Enlightenment. What to say of his greatness, would be a tougher thing to ascertain.

But there are more complex issues which are harder than merely isolated datum. For instance, The Crusades; a giant, complex topic.

Wikipedia is not Funk Wagnalls, it is not the Smithsonian Institute, nor is it the National Archives or a university. For certain pieces of datum, it is fine. When did Jimmy Stewart die? What was the lead character’s name in Keith Laumer’s Greylorn? If, in argument about something more that trivial datum, you come back and report that your cursory glance at wikipedia shows me to be wrong, I consider you have reported nothing at all.

Hell, even if I were reporting the date of Stewart’s death, I would probably check twice. Then again, for that type of information I have a better source, imdb.

Any drunken lout can edit almost any wikipedia page he desires whether he knows anything about the subject of the page or not. This alone disqualifies it as reliable testimony.

Let me rewrite what this person should have reported having come back from wikipedia.

I just checked what you said against a cursory glance at wikipedia, and though we can’t rely on wikipedia with any certainty, whoever wrote it seems to have a very different take on the facts than you have reported. Based on this preliminary, I will check further and with more reliable sources and get back to you.

Instead of:

Blind religious fool! Wikipedia says you are way off!

Again, I have no idea who was right or wrong nor even specifically what fact(s) were under dispute. I have just noticed this tendency of people (of all stripes and beliefs mind…) to treat wikipedia as if it is the product of trusted scholarly efforts. Some entries may well be written by scholars and be very dependable. But if you are not already well educated in the subject matter, how would you know?

Wikipedia can be thought of epistemologically as equivalent to induction by simple enumeration. Obviously in simple enumeration you do not see one Chinese laundry-man, then two and then three then declare, “by George! All Chinamen are laundry-men!” Simple enumeration is merely something that gets the ball rolling, gets the questions percolating. “Seems this class, or a portion of it belongs to this other class – lets investigate.”

Likewise when consulting wikipedia against someone else’s account. If the account of wikipedia does not match up to your interlocutor’s account, that simply means the issue is to be investigated further. By means that do not include wikipedia.

Otherwise you may as well walk around saying all black people like fried chicken – no difference epistemologically.

Final note. When I was an Objectivist I never met another Objectivist I liked, at least not in person. And I did try to meet some over the years. I found them morose, repressed, aloof and many full of airs. I also never liked their cut throat way of dealing with other people. Many are short tempered and hostile. Not that any class has a monopoly on assholes, mind.

But I came across something today. It seems one of the early members of the Objectivist “movement” died the other day – Barbara Branden. She had an acrimonious split with Ayn Rand in the late 60’s. Most people had an acrimonious split with Rand. Branden went on to write a dubious biography on Rand (I still think it dubious especially the use of omniscient narrative!) that is anathema to Objectivists of the purist type (as I was).

On the Objectivist framework there is no reason whatsoever for not only forgiveness, but even common decency or courtesy (unless, of course, this can be proven to be of selfish benefit – if not, then no, you can even go fuck off and die, unless some way can be shown that you can be of selfish value, and don’t spend too much time trying to show it, the cash register doesn’t fill itself). So one of the leading Objectivists from the Rand era of the purist school, a Harry Binswanger, tweets the following.

If you’ve not heard, Barbara Branden has died. Not exactly sad news.

After almost 50 years the blood still boils hot. Enough to come out swinging against the dead. Silence is not an option, apparently that would violate the principle against sanctioning evil. I wonder what the leading Objectivist, Leonard Peikoff has to say, Branden is his cousin. Peikoff, not famous for being a “nice guy”, usually keeps his mouth shut on such subjects. However, not because of courtesy, but because he views the subject as beneath contempt, and to even address it would be to sanction evil.

Binswanger, what a total putz. You don’t have to change your mind about the person, nor even defy your own mind and say what is not true of your opinion. But there is no reason to kick up dust on someone’s fresh grave.

I got in a tangle with a few “mid-level” Objectivist intellectuals on a forum about ten years ago. The most obnoxiously pompous and rude individuals I ever met. They remind me of some rude New Yorker type who pushes you aside to steal your cab and tells you in a Bronx accent to “Go fuck yourself.”

New York, btw, is the favorite city of almost every Objectivist whether they really think so or not.


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