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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Random Wiki-Testing

After reading an article in the Chronicle recently (should link, but too lazy) that tested Wikipedia entries by consulting academics specializing in the area, I thought it might be fun to do something similar. So I've picked randomly out of my head (that is, by choosing the first few that came to mind) a few Renaissance English entries, and here are the results. Feel free to disagree with my assessments or my grades, and please tell me if I've failed to note any grievous errors or omissions in the entries; as I said, these were selected more or less at random, so they aren't all in my areas of specialty:

True Law of Free Monarchies: basically factually accurate if quite brief; nice that it refers to Buchanan's De Jure Regni as an intertext, and that it notes the publishing history of reprinting in England in 1603; discussion of the actual content of the book is very limited, though, and fails to even mention the theories of non-resistance or the origins of kingship (except for a brief, and inadequate reference to the "divine right of kings," favorite phrase of undergraduates), so the contrast with Buchanan is substantively meaningless.
Grade: B-

Master of the Revels: not a very strong entry; the balance is way off, with a lot of minutiae about the early history of the post but virtually nothing on its Elizabethan and early Stuart workings; no account of licensing or censorship, of what was likely to be censored and what was not; list of further reading includes Chambers, Clare, and Dutton but makes little or no use of their conclusions or of their debates about exactly what early modern "censorship" was.
Grade: C-

Arminianism: a very detailed article, excellent overall; helpfully traces the Remonstrant/Counter-Remonstrant debates in the Netherlands, outlines their theological differences, and is very nuanced on the principles of Arminianism as distinguished from Pelagianism; relates Arminianism to Methodism and has a nice section on contemporary churches that espouse Arminianism; the only real problem is no reference to English pre-Civil War controversies: this is provided via a link to another article, on "Calvinist-Arminian Debate," with a section on "17th Century English Politics," but this section is rudimentary at best, failing to even mention Archbishop Laud.
Grade: A-

Spousals de praesenti or de futuro: couldn't find any entry on the issue of spousal marriages in early modern England.
Grade: Inc

Sycorax: good, does what it needs to do; and as a bonus, informs us that the Sycorax are also the name of an alien race on Doctor Who.
Grade: A

I won't pretend to conclude anything based on this absurdly small sample, except to say that I think the conventional wisdom about Wikipedia--namely, that it's fine for some basic facts but not very good for larger conceptual issues--needs to be refined. The entry for Arminianism is impressive (to me, at least; any specialists in Protestant theology out there?) I gave the A to "Sycorax" but this is on a curve (ie, the grading is based on what I expect from that particular entry); it doesn't have as much to do as "Arminianism," of course. It wouldn't surprise me if Wikipedia is generally quite good on religion, since that's one of those subjects for which there will be millions of deeply invested researchers out there.

Try your own and tell us the results in comments or on your own blog (no, this is not a meme, don't worry). I'd be interested to learn if there are definable areas of early modern culture that fare better or worse than others.

  • At 11/15/2006 09:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I suppose that a B- for Trew Law (and isn't its standard spelling "Trew" rather than "True"?) is fair, insofar as there is some entry and what's there is pretty much accurate; however, I don't like the way the entry refers to the work being "written around 1598 and. . . circulated anonymously," before being published in England in 1603. To me, that suggests that the work first floated around in manuscript, when in fact it was published in 1598 in Scotland.

    But check out the entry on Basilikon Doron: twice as long, but half as accurate! It really sounds like it was written at 2 a.m. by one of my students, who just threw in any old half-remembered fact in any old order.


  • At 11/15/2006 09:50:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Hi, Flava Flav:

    yes, the 1598 business is odd; it's as if they don't know it was published in Scotland. But I gave the entry some credit there for distinguishing between 1598 and 1603, on the basis of the coronation, even though it sounds as though James had it first published in 1603.

    On the spelling, I don't really mind there, because it's always struck me as a bit odd that the spelling of Trew Law tends to be preserved even when the rest of the text is modernized. Is this just fetishizing or does it have something to do with Scots language? You can see plenty of references to it in modernized spelling, including by, e.g., Kishlansky, Schama, Wormald, here. So no points off to Wiki for that, I say.


  • At 11/15/2006 09:53:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    P.S. If you want to see some bad Wiki, check out this older version of Basilikon Doron, before it was corrected. The article confuses it with Eikon Basilike and goes on and on about how it wasn't really written by the king and was a propaganda piece published only after Charles was executed, etc., etc.

    The good news, I guess, is that it was corrected. The bad news is how long it took. Lord knows how many people accessed it in that time.


  • At 11/15/2006 02:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Egad! Well, points for improvement, I guess, but I'd still give it a C+.

    On another note: I'm glad you gave us this exercise, because it gives me ammunition for my comp class, which was ready to rebel when I told them last week that they could not use Wikipedia (or for that matter any encyclopedia) as a source in their research papers. They kept telling me, awww...Wikipedia is TOTALLY reliable! And self-correcting and the wave of the future! Etc.


  • At 11/15/2006 02:29:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I actually think a great comp assignment would be to tell them to look something up in Wikipedia, then also look it up in Britannica (e.g.), and then in a more scholarly source; they could explore the different principles of organization, selection of what to discuss, and rhetorical goals. They might become more critical consumers of Wikipedia et al in this way, and learn how to use it sensibly (after all, I do use it myself for some purposes).


  • At 11/15/2006 10:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I love this exercise. I tried it myself using one of the least known writers in my period. To my delight, I realized that Wiki had taken its ENTIRE short biography of him from a book written in 1910, five years after his death, which itself relied on the most egregious pack of lies ever told -- all of which were invented by the writer himself. Clever bastard. Some examples: he could never get anyone to believe him when he claimed to have born in St Petersburg and raised in Paris; he most certainly did not graduate Harvard (I don't think he'd ever even gone there); nor would anyone in his lifetime have believed that his "later" work was in any way "acclaimed." But Wiki found the least reliable source that could be found-- of course, also the most reliable source -- and at last this charming fraud is having his day.

    Incidentally, the only thing left out of the biography is his only achievement -- cofounding an important fin-de-siecle journal. It is the only thing for which he is even remotely remembered now. I'm tempted to give the entry an A+ if only because it is the finest example of this guy's imaginative work now in existence. I'm also tempted to post a little something about myself. My tragic, storied, beautiful, haunted, genius, prize-winning, popular, cosmopolitan, multilingual, ambidexterous self.


  • At 11/15/2006 11:29:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    Midmodern so-called scholar...

    Who is the author??


  • At 11/16/2006 09:57:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Dear Truewit -- it's the late, great Henry Harland. The work for which he is best known is the periodical "The Yellow Book." I checked Wiki, my new bff, and they mention Harland in the entry for "TYB."


  • At 11/16/2006 02:08:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    midmodern airquotes scholar--that is a truly fantastic tale of Wiki. Harland at long last can bask in the reflected glory of his fraudulent Harvard degree, which has now no doubt become established Wiki-fact. If anyone other than you and its author has ever read this entry.


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