The Chieftain's Hatch: Evaluate Everything


This week’s Hatch was going to be about the US Army’s formal tests of the Firefly, but I just had an interesting experience which I feel warrants my soapbox.

One of the good things about World of Tanks from my perspective has been that it has encouraged interest in the history of armoured warfare. People will actively start going online to look up information on this, that, or the other tank or AFV, or start buying books. This is a good thing, as long as the information source being used is a good one.

There are basically two sources that one is going to use: Online or Hardcopy. Hardcopy is easy. With the exception of those lucky few of us who have the ability to go do personal research in archives, we buy a book. The book may be ‘academic’, or it may be something as unusual as a data annex for a miniatures wargame.  The advantage to books is that it is usually easy to figure out if the author is reputable or not. Unfortunately, far too often there is the perception that ‘because it was printed in a book, it must be true’ and people don’t vet the source. The other advantage is that a good Hunnicutt volume is far more useful in hand to hand combat than an iPad.

The downside is that books have a very long half-life. Even if information is subsequently found to be false (even despite the best efforts of a reputable author), that false information is in print, for ever, and will be in direct conflict with any subsequent writings.

Online is a bit more difficult to judge.

We can divide yet again into two types of sources. Social and reference. Social are things like a forum: Ask a question, get a response, and hope that whoever is responding is doing so with researched information, not simply ‘Things that I know because I heard them somewhere else and they sound about right so I never questioned them.’ Plus as such sources are rarely instant, for things that ‘I must know the answer right now’, one will generally hit “Google” and see where one ends up. Often the reference sites, such as AchtungPanzer and Wikipedia. Again, though, because things look authoritative, they are often taken at their word. Again, some are better than others, look to see if they cite their sources, and then go investigate the citations. Really. Click those footnotes.

Of course, top of the list of quick reference sites is going to be Wikipedia. You won’t get an in-depth analysis, usually, but enough for a good overview. Of course, we all should know that everything we read in Wiki is not gospel. I make a very direct case in point in The Can Openers.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Wikipedia has a very good reputation for accuracy when it comes to historical or scientific topics, if memory serves, greater than that of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Better yet, as the electronic medium is ‘real-time’, it is theoretically possible to update with the latest information: The problem of the half-life of books can be removed, given that the old, inaccurate information is basically destroyed when an article is updated. However, it seems that there is a procedural inertia which prevents this sort of thing from happening.

I recently checked the ‘Talk’ page of a particular article, out of curiousity, to see how a popular, but generally inconclusively supported, subject was being handled. I was interested to note that an editor had (several months after I published it) cited an article that I had written, and linked to a scan of a document that I had uploaded.

I decided to break my usual policy of non-involvement in Wikipedia, and added a comment to the talk page, expanding a bit upon the editor’s contribution. I concluded my comment by stating along the lines that “regardless of anything else, this at least proves that a previously held theory is wrong”

Apparently, not for Wikipedia. Some staff member put a response “Wikipedia doesn't use an editor’s original research as a reference, nor primary sources in this way” with a few links to their policies.

In other words, apparently what the guy is telling me is that going to the Archives, scanning a document, and putting that document online, is not sufficient evidence of fact to warrant a change in the article. Cue a large mental whiskey tango foxtrot going through my mind.

This thus begs the question of what the devil does count as suitable evidence. The whole thing about primary sources is that they’re, well, primary. I was reminded of an article I read last year ( http://chronicle.com/article/The-Undue-Weight-of-Truth-on/130704/ ) with the official response that Wikipedia’s position was “If all historians save one say that the sky was green in 1888, our policies require that we write 'Most historians write that the sky was green, but one says the sky was blue.”

(For demonstrative purposes only. F-14s were not commonly found in 1888)

The staff member’s response prompted me to conduct further research into Wikipedia’s rules on admissibility, leading me to its page on “Verifiability, not truth”. According to Wiki’s policies, “Wikipedia does not try to impose "the truth" on its readers, and does not ask that they trust something just because they read it in Wikipedia.” You know, this is a pretty important little item. If you go to the homepage, there is nothing on there saying “Warning! We don’t care if what you read here is true or not, we only care that lots of people have said it.”

That simply reinforces the problem that I am trying to deal with in my various articles. Something gets repeated often enough, or loudly enough, and it becomes true. A recent innocently-intended incident with a popular World of Tanks streamer caused significant damage to the cause of truth. Unfortunately, the position of Wikipedia is such that it appears to encourage this phenomenon. Especially when they emphasise the use of secondary sources over primary ones, and many of those secondary sources are those books which remain on the shelves even after newer information comes to light.

I’m sure that as a general rule, Wiki’s somewhat bizarre policies have resulted overall in the reliability for which it is known. Yet we also all know that if Jentz/Doyle or Hunnicutt say something, it was the best truth as they knew it was possible to be, and they would stand by it. Wiki’s policies apparently take a little longer for the truth to be accepted, even after it has become known.

The point of all this is not to bash on Wikipedia, or any other website.  The point is, instead, to get you to properly evaluate -everything- you read, even from sources which have a good reputation. Yes, I’ve even found errors in Hunnicutt. Ultimately, and I hope the Wiki guys will forgive me for saying this, it should come down to primary sources, and an open mind that not everything that is commonly known is necessarily true. And hopefully this story will explain to people part of the reason why Wikipedia is not normally accepted as a reference in your college papers.

So go forth, and keep reading and expanding your knowledge. Just evaluate everything you read for yourself.

Bob will take you to the discussion forum.

Bright Orange Button

Oh, while I think of it, a plug for my Facebook page.