January 2008 Newsletter Vol. 37 No. 1

Wikipedia and the History of Science

Recently admitted to candidacy at Yale, Sage Ross is writing a dissertation on the history of molecular evolution. Beyond the humanistic study of science and technology, his passions are Wikipedia, photography and bonsai.

Historians of science greatly underestimate the popular demand for our work. An example: the “Albert Einstein” Wikipedia article, much of it the work of an anonymous graduate student, has probably been read more times in the last two years than all other recent writing on Einstein combined. (It averages about one hundred thousand views per day, according to recent estimates. That is, Einstein is one quarter as popular as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the most popular topic in the world as of November 2007. Like The Beatles, Einstein and Benjamin Franklin are more popular than Jesus; Darwin is not far behind.) Society will create narratives of science (or re-use the ones historians created generations ago) if we don’t share the ones we’ve made. History of science content on Wikipedia, most of it created without reference to scholarly sources, is viewed millions of times each day.

As one of my colleagues put it, using historical scholarship to improve the public understanding of history has always been like “tilting at windmills.” Historical myths like Columbus discovering that the Earth is round persist, even though historians have known them to be false for several generations. A closed loop of misinformation propagates from generation to generation, a seemingly insoluble problem. Myths about the flat earth, astrology, alchemy, the conflict between science and religion, Ptolemaic astronomy, and many other topics are doubly pernicious and recalcitrant because they are continually recruited to serve as foils for their modern counterparts. Understandably, many veterans of the traditional publishing world are pessimistic that significant changes in public (mis)perceptions of the history of science are possible, since these myths acquire their own momentum.

Wikipedia is changing the way the public uses and understands history. An example: because of the articles on “Flat Earth” and “Flat Earth mythology,” I expect the popular idea that everyone before Columbus believed in a flat Earth will disappear within a generation. Not because everyone will read those articles, or any other myth-busting scholarship that makes its way onto Wikipedia, but because independent-minded students will correct their teachers. Television and film writers are drawing on Wikipedia for background (and fans are increasingly sensitive to sloppy treatment of easily-found information). And unlike so many of the venues that create and reinforce historical understanding, scholars can intervene in Wikipedia with little trouble.
Wikipedia’s intellectual impact is not limited to irresponsible students and the nebulous general public.

As many readers of this Newsletter can likely attest, historians turn to Wikipedia for bits of insight into the vast swaths of history they don’t know. It’s a destination of first resort for things that don’t matter enough to require scholarly literature – which for garden-variety historians and scholars in other fields, includes the whole of the history of science. While it may make only marginal headway towards the type of science-enlightened populace sought by so many failed public-education schemes of the past, Wikipedia’s power should not be ignored.

The potential is great, but the reality will fall desperately short until scholars become involved with Wikipedia on a larger scale. Historical topics in the modern physical sciences, and to a lesser extent, technology, tend to have the strongest coverage (in terms of comprehensiveness, if not rigor). These are also the areas most dominated by practitioners, and Whiggish content is not uncommon; computer-savvy physical scientists and technologists are over-represented in the Wikipedia community. The histories of the biological sciences have high points (e.g., the biographies of Darwin and Wallace), but overall the coverage is spotty. The history of medicine is sparse, and the history of public health is almost non-existent on Wikipedia.

I became an historian of science because I thought, and still think, that the work of our discipline is more than just intellectually interesting. Garden-variety historians and non-historians need to know about the history of science to do better history and make better sense of the world around them. That is why I think we have a responsibility to engage with public discourse. We have a responsibility to make our work available, both physically and intellectually, to a general audience – a responsibility that cannot be met to any significant degree through modern academic publishing. We have a responsibility to engage with Wikipedia.

Working on Wikipedia
For me, tapping into the enthusiasm of talented history buffs and history-minded scientists has been the most rewarding part of working on Wikipedia. Since I started “WikiProject History of Science” in January 2006, 90 Wikipedians have joined the Wikipedia history of science community. There are a couple of anonymous graduate students, a couple more professional scholars, and a handful of others who studied or are studying the history of science or STS as undergraduates. Most of the participants are scientists and other enthusiastic laypeople.

For most historical topics on Wikipedia (the history of science being a partial exception), historians are the recognized authority. Wikipedia’s rules and standards for sourcing, though not always met, explicitly support scholarly sources. Even on controversial topics, one sees little resistance once historical scholarship is brought to bear. Experts hold no special place as writers on Wikipedia, but scholars’ edits will usually be treated with deference (and, occasionally, insightful suggestions and critiques) if added content is clearly traced to published secondary literature. When one finds poor coverage of a particular historical topic, it is almost always the case that no one with a deep understanding of the topic has worked on it, rather than earlier good work being corrupted.

At its best, editing Wikipedia involves a level of collaboration and feedback that is rare in academia, especially when scholars from different fields work on a common topic. More often, working on Wikipedia is like teaching a class full of students who are already passionate about the subject, a class that includes scientists, high school students, and others who have never been exposed to the perspectives of professional historians of science, and whom we would rarely meet in a classroom.

One concern about Wikipedia for many academics is that articles have no byline, no easy way to claim credit. But the “edit history” of each article reveals every change made; one can check, for example, that User:Ragesoss wrote most of the “History of biology” article. Unfortunately, Wikipedia’s current reputation in the academy is worse even than blogging; the most talented graduate-student Wikipedians with whom I’ve worked hide their real-life identities online and conceal their online identities among colleagues, for fear of ruining job prospects.

Another concern is the gradual decay of high-quality prose and the accumulation of trivial detail, what Wikipedians call “edit creep.” Others can and will change your work. However, while writing quality will wax and wane (and rarely retains the full coherence of single-authored prose), factual content supported by precise references is typically very stable. So myths dispelled on Wikipedia tend to stay dispelled.

For those of you who would like to see Wikipedia’s history of science coverage improve but are put off by the nitty-gritty of editing, there are low-investment ways to get involved. Many educators have reported success with Wikipedia classroom assignments; with the prospect of an audience of peers and strangers, students put more care into their work than they otherwise might. Wikipedia editing can also be a marvelous case study on the production and dissemination of knowledge (and will no doubt be a rich source for future academic work on “science in the vernacular” and the interplay between popular science and professional science). In the most effective assignments, students scout out holes in Wikipedia, then research, write, and post early drafts, and follow the fate of their work over several weeks or months. Biographies based on a single scholarly source make great self-contained topics, but term papers can also work well if planned properly to integrate with existing content. Members of “WikiProject Classroom coordination” (myself included) are available to help manage assignments and guide students through the editing process. If you have review papers or historiographical essays that might make good encyclopedia material and would otherwise go unpublished, I can help forge your work into Wikipedia content. Even just pointing out flaws on an article’s discussion page is helpful (preferably with some pointers on what sources ought to be used). The rewards for working on Wikipedia are well worth the effort.

By Sage Ross

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