As a
professional historian, I’m interested in the nature of authority. Wherever I
happen to be in my reading or research I ask: On what is truth, beauty, and
morality based at this point? Often the answer is simply that the supreme
leader or the ruling class defines the terms. At other times the answer
contains a strong religious emphasis.

recent decades, public opinion polls, sales figures, and elections dominate. Gallop,
Pew, Bloomberg, and Rasmussen are quoted breathlessly and frequently as the
voice of truth. If more people like rock than opera, then guess what will be
found on almost every radio and television station amid legions of
advertisements? If one party gains control of Congress and the White House, its
leaders can do almost anything they like (as long as the Supreme Court contains
a sufficient number of party allies.) As for moral principles, why not just
“hook up” with anybody for as long as you feel like it and have as
many babies as you want? What’s wrong with that?

is hardly news that Western culture is rapidly embracing secular materialism, a
culture in which age-old truths are banished as bigotry and chaos and
narcissism abound. The media and the schools are largely responsible. The
message that streams into our homes from cables, satellites, antennas, and cell
phones declares the joy of doing what feels good, never growing up, owning as
much as possible, and declaring the past irrelevant. In schools at all levels political
correctness, increasingly enforced by the federal government, preaches
“inclusiveness” and “diversity.” These are code words for
leftist dogmas that seek to foster a society based on colour and sex, and that
would banish supernaturalism, destroy the traditional family, dismiss venerable
moral standards, and set up a wholly indulgent welfare state.

an increasing intellectual and moral vacuum, how does one know anything for
certain? How can one learn, say, history when the historians themselves are
overwhelmingly committed to a single ideology? (Thus the near unanimous
condemnation of George W. Bush by “presidential scholars” and their
passionate praise of Obama.) Can one even trust traditional facts and dates

brings me to Wikipedia, probably the most widely read source of information in
the world. Earlier this year, the web site claimed to be attracting nearly 68
million visitors each month, and it boasted of having 12,460,561 registered
users. Wikipedia contains more than 15 million articles in more than 270 languages,
some 3 million in English. Type in a name, an event, a product, or an idea and
your browser will take you there in a split second, often at the head of a list
of sites.

can you believe what you’re reading? Is Wikipedia reliable? Can we make sense
of life and solve our problems by consulting it?

web-based Wikipedia was created in 2001. (See the glowing Wikipedia article on
co-founder and de facto leader Jimmy
Wales.) From its inception, the entire concept seems, to this scholar, fatally
flawed. Wikipedia articles are written by unpaid and, more often than not,
anonymous authors. Wikipedia explains, “The expertise of qualifications of
the user are usually not considered.” And it boasts, “Wikipedia is
written largely by amateurs. Those with expert credentials are given no
additional weight.”

footnotes are encouraged, especially if they refer to anything in print. In short, if a fact or judgment can be found in
a book, magazine, or pamphlet, it must be true! Wikipedia declares,
“Original research and ideas which haven’t appeared in other sources are
therefore excluded.”

almost any article in Wikipedia can be altered in any way by anyone at any
time. There have been over 31 million edits, and the only qualification is
internet access. Do I mean to say, for example, that a scholarly article on the
French Revolution can be altered by an anonymous 10-year-old? Yes.

has editors who “may” perceive and alter “obvious errors,”
obscenities and the like. But this small body of volunteers (we are told that
there are 1,724 “administrators”) can’t possibly examine the huge
amount of incoming information let alone police the extant articles that may
already been changed in meaningfully ways. Moreover, how do we know that the
Wikipedia editors, whoever they are, are themselves qualified and objective?

Wikipedia publicly warns readers that many of its articles are untrustworthy! “In
particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while
newer articles more frequently contain significant misinformation,
unencyclopedic [sic] content, or vandalism. Users need to be aware of this to
obtain valid information and avoid misinformation that has been recently added
and not yet removed.”

believe that since Wikipedia content is ongoing, in time there will be
sufficient progress to make all articles accurate and objective. This is
madness, revealing an astonishing innocence about human nature and scholarly
evidence. (Jimmy Wales has a background in finance.) It’s close to the
venerable theory that if enough monkeys hit typewriter keys long enough, they
will produce Macbeth.

few articles, Wikipedia informs us, can no longer be altered. “Featured
Articles” display a small star in the upper right corner. A second tier are
designated “Good Articles.” Editors create these distinctions, which
contradict the basic premise of Wikipedia. Moreover, the process of selection
“can take months or years to be achieved.” An article on Hillary
Clinton, containing an error about her education, was edited more than 4,800
times over 20 months before a television news channel exposed the error and it
was removed.

authors have the right to appeal alterations, but imagine how long that process
takes. “Every day,” Wikipedia tells us, “hundreds of thousands
of visitors from around the world collectively make tens of thousands of edits
and create thousands of new articles…”

have had personal experience with this portal of knowledge and wisdom. I’ve
made corrections on several topics I know well, only to find that they have
later disappeared. I once tried to add a book title of mine to a rather
significant footnote, and it too vanished. As a favor to friends, I’m about to
submit five articles on people and activities I have researched at length. Will
they be edited or vandalized by unqualified people? Why not?

reminds me of a similar policy displayed on To review a film or a
book, you need only over 13 years old. That’s it. I once had an anonymous
“student” attack my biography of Senator Joe McCarthy. I had assigned
the rather large volume to a class not long before and suspect that the reading
requirement was behind the negative commentary. It was surely not a product of
a scholar in the field. But who knows? And who cares?

C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century
America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R.
McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and Chester A. Arthur.

Thomas C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter...