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David Aaronovitch wrote a recent article about the way the internet and sites like Wikipedia can normalize controversial ideas or mislead the unitiated student. You can find the full text here but here’s the practical example:

At the weekend I was tidying up some footnotes for my book on conspiracy theories, which is to be published next spring. In one chapter I deal fleetingly with a dead American conspiracist called Harry Elmer Barnes, and mention his affinity with/for a French Holocaust denier called Paul Rassinier. I was after a date and found it after a quick Google, but not before noticing that the Rassinier biography on Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, was a little bit odd. I let it go. Then, yesterday, I read Berners-Lee’s comments and returned to the site.

I was right – righter, in fact, than I had realised. The biography begins with what seems to be a neutral introduction, but is in fact a selective description of Rassinier as a pacifist, activist, as anti-Nazi, a former concentration camp prisoner, and then, at the end of the introduction, comments that Rassinier has “come to be remembered for his views on the Holocaust, which have caused some to call him the ‘father of Holocaust Denial’”. Note that “some”, as opposed to the positive things – pacifist, activist, prisoner – that Rassinier can be called without qualification.

What then happens is a process whereby the entry’s authors suggest a scholarly neutrality while, at the same time, normalising Rassinier’s easily refutable views on the Holocaust. For example, Rassinier believed there was no deliberate Nazi policy of extermination of the Jews and no gas chambers. And we find, in the text, some support for this view cited in the works of “Princeton historian, Arno J. Mayer”. There is a short extract from Mayer’s own book, warning readers that “sources for the study of the gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable”, that “there is no denying the many contradictions, ambiguities, and errors in the existing sources” and that “most of what is known is based on the deposition of Nazi officials and executioners at postwar trials and on the memory of survivors and bystanders”.

It’s pretty clear what you’re supposed to take from this: that Rassinier’s argument about there being no gas chambers should be taken seriously. So I then Googled Mayer. The first thing I discovered was that exactly this selection of quotes from Mayer’s work appeared on Holocaust-denial and neo-Nazi websites. The next thing I found out was that Mayer himself is a deeply controversial historian of the period, having argued that more Jews died of diseases in the camps than were murdered, and that the extermination was more a consequence of Nazi anti-Bolshevism than of anti-Semitism. The first contention is unsupported, the second is ludicrous.

But even given that, the Mayer quote was doctored. Mayer certainly believed that the gas chambers were real and that untold thousands had been killed in the death camps, but the nature of Mayer’s qualification was withheld from Wikipedia readers. As was the fact that Rassinier’s biographer, Jean Plantin, whose work was used for much of the Wikipedia entry, was fined and given a suspended prison sentence in Lyons in 1999 for Holocaust denial. You have to go to the French edition of Wikipedia to find that out.

So it took me an instinct, one morning, three hours, and a background in this material, to realise that the Rassinier Wikipedia biography – the first item on Rassinier that appears when you search for his name – had probably been written by someone with sympathies for the Holocaust denial camp of David Irving. The uninitiated, however, would never know, for not once does this poisonous bias break cover.

Like most TAs, I tell my students to stay away from Wikipedia when writing their essays. To be fair, I don’t simply condemn it as the source of all evil, I merely point out how problematic it is to rely on information posted anonymously unless it can be checked elsewhere and that encyclopedias and dictionaries, while very useful to get started, do not provide enough information to support the kind of essays they need to write in history courses.

A friend of mine argues that better than blankly forbidding the use of Wikipedia, we would do the students a better service by teaching them how to use Wikipedia effectively. She talks about creating an assignment that would require the students to do extensive research on a given topic and either create a Wikipedia entry for it, if that doesn’t exist, or edit the existing entry with the information they gathered. That would teach them that anybody can create a Wikipedia entry and perhaps help them use it more critically in the future.

While Wikipedia has a big no-no in many academic circles – and historians are perhaps the most critical of it – some articles suggest it’s not all bad:

David Parry, “Wikipedia and the new curriculum: digital literacy is knowing how we store what we know” in Science Progress, 11 Feb 2008.

Nicholson Baker, “The Charms of Wikipedia,” review of Wikipedia: The Missing Journal by  John Broughton, in The New York Review of Books, 55 (4), published 20 March 2008.

Michael Booth, “Grading Wikipedia“, in The Dever Post, 30 March 2007.

All the articles above suggest we need not dismiss Wikipedia completely, that it can be very useful and its dynamic nature means that many subjects in it reflect some of the latest developments in a given field. An example is the entry on global warming, considered by specialists in the field to be “a great primer on the subject, suitable for just the kinds of use one might put to a traditional encyclopedia. Following the links takes the interested reader into greater and greater depth, probably further than any traditional encyclopedia…”(Scott Denning, Monfort Professor of Atomespheric Science).

I confess I have no prejudice against Wikipedia as I often find myself using it for general information and if I tell my students no to use it, it is simply because I don’t want them relying on either encyclopedias or textbooks to write their essays. But maybe we need to discuss more the reasons behind that.