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Oct 21, 2004 7:49 am

More Noted ...

What Derek Catsam and Daniel Drezner said.

According to the New York Sun, an unreleased underground film about anti-Semitism at Columbia University is causing considerable stir there. It has, apparently, been screened for President Judith Shapiro and Provost Alan Brinkley, but their offices refused comment. Tip of the hat to David Nishimura at Cronaca.

Jason Kuznicki and Caleb McDaniel have been comparing blogging with doing history. A blogger's post is subject to immediate challenge. A historian's blunder is liable to go unchallenged on the library's shelves for decades before it is corrected. In this new electronic age, why not submit the historian's work to immediate challenge and correction on the net via a"wiki", they ask. Undoubtedly, we can speed up the process of fine tuning a text on the net, I think, but the complexities of history are such that it's a whole lot more complicated than creating a Wikipedia. Read any entry in the area of your expertise in that original wiki. How many errors or misconceptions do you find? Do you want to spend time and energy correcting them? Only to have someone, maybe someone who knows less than you do, come along behind you to correct your corrections? In the process of correcting you, do they import mistakes of their own? That is what we historians do in slow motion. Kuznicki and McDaniel merely suggest that we might do it in real time.

Finally, there's Tom Bruscino's example of a blogger's fact-checking. He finds former President Jimmy Carter making"so un-freaking-believably dumb" claims about combat casualties in the American Revolution, the War in Iraq, and other American wars. I'm afraid Bruscino's got the numbers on the sage from Plains, but at least Carter didn't claim that there would be no casualties.

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Lloyd Kilford - 10/21/2004

My take on this is that, unlike a traditional encyclopedia entry (where the writer gets paid) or a traditional scholarly article (where the writer gets kudos), there doesn't seem to be a way of giving authors/editors of a wiki credit. If I tell a tenure committee that I haven't published anything for 3 years, but I have edited 1500 wiki articles, that's not going to get me tenure!

So the people who contribute to wiki can be a bit odd, in that some of them at least want to push a particular agenda. So far the wiki editors have managed to stop most of the more obvious loons, but it's a never-ending battle.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/21/2004


Jason proposes some differences between an historians' wiki, and the current one. First, it would start off with monographs by someone recognized in the field. Second, it would also publish comments on the monograph (as opposed to a separate page for discussion?). Third, there would be a gatekeeper function -- the ability to comment would be restricted to historians.

I take it that the major weakness of the current Wikipedia is that no comments are published (at equal display). Rather, one just supplants a prior entry with one's own, or one adds something to the discussion folder. That seems the major weakness of the enterprise. History is not just one view of the past supplanting another (and extinguishing the prior one in the process). It is a conversation not just with the past, but with everything else that has been written on the subject in the past. I'm with you on that score, Ralph. I can't imagine going to the trouble of writing an entry only to have it "disappeared" by an editor from the Ministry of Truth (though the "dicussion" comments would remain, like a vestigial organ).

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/21/2004

I took up your challenge, Ralph, and you were proven right. I looked up 'Quilombo' and 'Zumbi' on the Wikipedia site, and it has some of the characteristic errors one usually sees, some of which haven't been corrected in the latest literature even.

Wiki has it that the last king of Palmares, Zumbi, committed suicide in the decisive battle (in the 'Quilombo' entry). It also has it that Zumbi survived the decisive battle, and was killed in an ambush almost two years later (in the 'Zumbi' entry). The latter view dates as least from Ennes' publication of archival materials in 1938. The former from Rocha Pitta's 1730 version. How did Rocha Pitta get it wrong? He wrote a library dissertation, without access to all the materials, and didn't even interview survivors, and he wrote it in record time (he was the first to finish his part of the general Portuguese history).

There is NO EVIDENCE that anyone committed suicide at the final battle. Some slipped in the dark, moving along a cliff-face (the tailend group), including the Ibangala commander of the rearguard, the tandala (not the king). The legend of the suicide apparently won't die. I have a theory on the origin of this legend, but I'll save it for publication.

I also just read Martin Klein's new book, something of an encyclopedia on slavery and abolition. It has corrected the old errors about Palmares (mostly -- it still opts for a start at 1605), and introduced new ones from the last 20 years or so of the literature on the subject. That is how we progress. Slowly but surely the ratio of error to truth gets smaller and smaller.

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