Wikipedia and Knowledge

Last week an article came out in the New York Times discussing the western research bias of Wikipedia.  Let me summarize.

The western tradition of knowledge is based on a chain of source material upon which further scholarship can build and grow.  Primary source material is something that is wholly original, such as personal papers, video and audio from events, direct scientific experimentation, and other sorts of realia.  Secondary source material is a step removed, where a scientist, historian, or other type of commentator discusses the primary source material and its meaning. Tertiary sources are compilations of primary and secondary source material, things like textbooks and encyclopedias.

Wikipedia operates under a similar modus operandi as traditional encyclopedias, which requires citation of documented sources.  Unlike traditional encyclopedias it doesn’t require that the contributor be an expert in the topic in order to contribute, only that the contributor document the origin of the claim.  The documentation doesn’t have to be available online, but that does help when verifying the accuracy of the statement.

However, there are untold multitudes of information which are undocumented, especially in countries which don’t follow Western academic traditions.  This undocumented life is trying to find its way onto Wikipedia, specifically in their indigenous language variants.  But Wikipedia, holding the line on being a tertiary source.  As a matter of policy Wikipedia doesn’t want people to contribute original research.  The argument is that this policy is culturally biased, and that Wikipedia will be forever incomplete because of this.

But there are ways to make this work, without going direct to Wikipedia to explain these things.

The first thing that came to my mind in this was the story of the woman who taught the reporter how to make this indigenous drink.  Say there is a video of her brewing.  Why can’t this video get posted onto Wikimedia or the Internet Archive?  Along with say, three videos of different other women from other parts of the country where this drink is made?  That would compile a list of sources from different places that could provide an objective viewpoint into the brewing of this drink.  The sources would be housed at Wikimedia or Archive.org, and the article on Wikipedia could reference back to those videos as the context for the piece.  Yes it is original research, but the resulting follow up from the community could expand from there.

In the context of the children’s game from India, the problem is that this is a game that everyone knows about but no one has written about.  Again, Wikipedia doesn’t have to be the first step.  India is a very tech savvy country.  Someone could encourage people across the country to blog about the game and their experiences as children playing the game.  There could be video footage of children playing saved in various places.  This could create a body of work for the Wikipedia community to build from.

Yes, these are both end-run arguments that continue to operate in the context of textual citation.  The alternative is to have Wikipedia change its policy to allow original research to happen directly on the site.  Wikipedia doesn’t want that to happen, and it has good reason.

The word that has been going through all of this is “verify.”  The reason why Wikipedia does not want to have original research presented directly on the site is because original research is impossible to verify, and this deems the material untrustworthy.  Wikipedia wants to be a resource that is seen as trustworthy.  Someplace you can go and see what something is about, and have a degree of confidence that what you’re seeing has been verified by a number of people, and that you can check because it lists all of its sources.

This is why academic journals go through a peer review process.  If someone is making a new claim, there needs to be a degree of confidence among people within that field that the research was done in a sound way, that the claims can be verified against the method and sources used, and that the community can respect.  This is also why the scientific community abhors people who try to do an end run around the peer review process by holding a press conference.  You probably don’t have the think back to far to remember the Arsenic-based life story, and the resulting backlash that came from the scientific community.

Bold claims from original research can be extremely challenging, and sometimes those claims are flat out wrong.  This is not something on which you would want to stake the reputation of an entire encyclopedia.

But if you look back at the history of famous encyclopedias, they are often riddled with bias and the spurious claims of the day.  Often too filled with original research from experts in the field who believed they were correct.  Take for instance the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1910-1911.  It’s in the public domain now, so you can just go and take a gander at it all over the internet.  But the content is so grossly outdated that even Wikipedia points it out.

This edition of the encyclopedia is now in the public domain, but the outdated nature of some of its content makes its use as a source for modern scholarship problematic. Some articles have special value and interest to modern scholars as cultural artifacts of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yup.  And this is where Wikipedia is valuable.  Articles don’t have to suffer because they were written incorrectly a century ago and scholarship has moved on.  The content of the article can change as new scholarship comes out and the piece as a whole can be modified indefinitely, subject to citation.

Could Wikipedia be a venue for original research and documenting the undocumented history of the world?  Yes, it could be that place.  Does it have to be that place?  No.  There are many other venues that can provide a place for original research, and Wikipedia can remain the tertiary source that it wishes to be.

Wherein I Explain “Blood Libel” with a Song

While I know the expiration date on talking about Sarah Palin’s abhorrent comment after the Tucson Shooting has long since passed, I ran across what is probably the best didactic resource on the topic the other day and just had to share.

Quck recap for those living under a rock: Sarah Palin used the phrase “Blood Libel” a) in a context where it made no sense (go figure) and b) betrayed her ignorance of the topic entirely (again, big surprise).

So, what is “Blood Libel” anyway?  Let’s break it down.  Libel is when you start a malicious lie about someone, in the context of this phrase it was about the Jewish people.  The Blood part specifically refers to the blood of gentiles, and specifically gentile children.  Blood Libel refers to a medieval urban legend where it was believed that Jews would kidnap gentile children and sacrifice them to their bloodthirsty God. Never mind the fact that the God of the Christians and the God of the Jews is one and the same.  This legend persisted and spawned all kinds of pogroms against Jews repeatedly over the course of the middle ages and early modern period.

And as all things medieval and early modern is was also captured in song.

While I was researching the Child Ballads, a set of historical English balladry, and listening to Pandora stations of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span I ran across this song Little Sir Hugh.  At first I thought it was just another murder ballad about some horrible woman who kills a child, but no, this was explicitly a song about Blood Libel.  So, let me share the salient story line points and verses with some explanations so that we can all have a perfectly clear picture of what is entailed when someone uses this phrase.  The lyrics I will use here are the whitewashed version by Steeleye Span. Though the horrifying racist versions are all available on Wikisource.

The song opens up on a scene of boys playing kickball.  This is a common image of childhood innocence.  Little Sir Hugh joins in the fray and starts kicking the ball.

He kicked the ball very high
He kicked the ball so long
He kicked it over a castle wall
Where no one dared to go

The “castle wall” here is probably the common Shtetl wall you would find in medieval cities that separated the Jewish district from the rest of the city. Though that’s speculation on my part.

Out came a lady gay
She was dressed in green
“Come in, Come in Little Sir Hugh
Fetch your ball again.”

“I can’t come in, I won’t come in
Without my playmates all.
For if I should, I know you would
Cause my blood to flow.”

Again, because this is the publicly safe version to sing no mention is made of her ethnicity though in the Child Ballads she is sometimes explicitly referred to as the “Jew’s Daughter.”  More importantly here’s where we have to explain that “little sir Hugh” was one of those miraculous Christian children who supposedly had some kind of precognition. That or he’d heard the urban legend and was repeating it child-like back to her face.  But let’s get to the killing already.

She took him by the milk white hand
Led him through the hall
‘Til they came to a stone table
Where no one could hear him call

She sat him on a golden chair
She gave him sugar sweet
She laid him on a dressing board
And stabbed him like a sheep

He called it.  But again, there was something saintly about him.  He was stabbed like a sheep, the lamb of God.  Part of the thing about blood libel is that it has a sort of fucked up biblical origin.  Certain Christians have never gotten over the crucifixion.  Hell, look at Mel Gibson’s Passon of the Christ and you can see just how much he hates the Jews for killing Jesus.  Again, nevermind the fact that there’s supposedly a reason for the sacrifice of Christ, and that it was God’s plan all along.  The simple fact that the Jews turned  him over to be crucified and that they “screamed for his blood” means that Jews are supposedly this bloodthirsty vengeful people.  On a slight tangent I would also like to point out that there’s something in this line that reminds me of the White Witch of Narnia giving young Edward Turkish Delights, and the witch in the woods with her Gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel.  Onto the rest.

Out came the thick thick blood
Out came the thin
Out came the bonny heart’s blood
‘Til there was none within

She took him by the yellow hair
And also by the feet
She threw him in at the old North Well
Fifty fathoms deep

So she drained the child dry.  No explanation as to why, she just did.  Then she throws him in a well.  This is another one of those common medieval urban legends: the well poisoner.  Because well water was commonly shared among multiple households in medieval villages the threat of someone poisoning the water supply was very serious.  Any outbreak of sickness or plague often resulted in accusations of well poisoning and the brunt of those accusations fell on people who didn’t fit into the common village society, i.e., Jews, foreigners, “witches,” etc. Xenophobia leads to accusations and hate crimes.

Finally the chorus.

Mother, Mother, Make my bed
Make for me a winding sheet
Wrap me up in a cloak of gold
To see if I can sleep

Part of the rest of the story is that the spirit of Sir Hugh appears to his mother.  His ghost is in a little cherubic form (as cherubs are the spirits of dead children), and he explains to her that he is dead.  The cloak of gold is a burial shroud.  In some of the variant texts the ghost child actually leads the mother to the well and the body of the boy is retrieved.

It’s never really said what happened to the Jews in the song.  All we see are the actions.  I think it would be safe to assume that if this song was sung in a Christian town that it could lead to inciting anger and violence against Jewish people.  The fact that the Jews were driven out of England in about the same time as this song was originally written and that they weren’t allowed back into the country until the 17th century says something.

For more on blood libel check out The Prioresses Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.