SYNOPSIS: Consumers already know to be wary of random assertions they find on the web. The Wikipedia entry for "John Lott" gives a classic example of why consumers should be not only careful to check the assertions they find on the web, but also the quality and policies of the source as well.
DISCUSSION: As part of our study on the quality of information used in forming policy, we continue our evaluation of data sources by turning to Wikipedia. Wikipedia's operating structure already subjects content to the tyranny of the masses - in short, whatever group has the most perseverence in promoting its view will prevail in the race to convince other disinterested parties of their views' merits.
However our close observation of Wikipedia points to the company's willing participation in efforts to promote biased material into "fact." The company's business relationships give it high page rank in many search engines, so searches on many terms, disputed or not, naturally draw consumers to Wikipedia material. (Google in particular, a growing icon in politically left-leaning circles, gives high priority to Wikipedia entries.) When controversial topics are 'frozen' by Wikipedia editors, they are apparently done so in a form most beneficial to the left wing view, without disclaimer warning a well-intentioned researcher that he or she may be incorporating disputed or unsupported material. When journalists accept such material, whether innocently or by knowingly giving faint diligence to an obligation to get 'outside' authoritative sources, the quality of material presented on Wikipedia becomes inappropriately boosted in the eyes of the public. The net effect is a 'bootstrapping' process, in which the quality of material which tends to serve liberal political needs is artificially inflated and distributed.
The Wikipedia entry on economist Dr. John Lott illustrates this process clearly. Without seeking any mention in the Wikipedia company in the first place, Lott became the target of extensive efforts to portray his biography and work in ways that most serve the political views of people who Lott's work actually tends to undermine. Their efforts to discredit Lott's research results by means of discrediting him can reasonably be described as defamatory. Wikipedia provided a forum to organize such assaults on Lott's reputation, and by freezing presentations at checkpoints serving Lott's attackers, Wikipedia represented a springboard for launching those attacks into 'truth.'
While each of those points is addressed elsewhere in this report, the present page documents one of the authors' efforts to understand to what extent this bootstrapping process is true. After posting either carefully measured edits or simply participating in efforts to draw text back to a centrist presentation (such as advocating that a simple disclaimer alert readers to disputed material), the author was in rapid order attacked and called names; his attempts at presenting an opposing view were not answered, but rather removed; and a separate entry was created for him, apparently for no other purpose than to attempt to defame and discredit him.
1. We started collecting material here purely for purposes of organizing it internally for an upcoming publication. However the traffic, once others on the net seemed to link to it, shows there is ready interest in it now. We have consequently broken this up into a few separate pages to simplify access by others, rather than leave it all in one long file.
2. An entertaining thought: what would it look like if WP had a problem being cast in such poor light and we followed WP's own policies to resolve it? In that case we would readily publish material from all the WP detractors in the world, no matter what they happened to write, then cheerfully assure WP that we would correct any presentation here once everyone had reached consensus on what is said...
3. [Added 2-17-2007] In checking for updated material on the web we encountered a page prepared by Lott which gives details of misrepresentations. You can find it here.
4. [Added 5-30-2012] Apparently Dr. Lott continues to be the target of misinformation campaigns on this and other issues. Be sure to check Lott's own view of a topic before accepting third party assertions about his views.
James M. Purtilo
Computer Science Department
University of Maryland at College Park
purtilo @ cs.umd.edu