Wikipedia, Ken Lay, and the Problem of Neutrality

July 11th, 2006 12:45 AM

The death of Ken Lay, the founder of the now-defunct energy company Enron, aroused a lot more passions than a typical CEO's passing would. Apparently, many liberals out there are letting their anger out in the strangest place, Lay's entry in the online community encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Frank Ahrens reports:

At 10:11 a.m., the Lay article concluded, "The guilt of ruining so many lives finaly [sic] led him to his suicide." (Is it the speed with which flamers type that inevitably leads to typos? Or is it a political statement, a willful rebellion against the bourgeoisie strictures of so-called conventional spelling? Or are they just idiots? Discuss.)

Somehow, one minute later, actual news managed to elbow its way into Wikipedia: "According to Lay's pastor the cause was a 'massive coronary' heart attack."

But the sanity was short-lived. At 10:39 a.m., a self-styled medical expert opined: "Speculation as to the cause of the heart attack lead many people to believe it was due to the amount of stress put on him by the Enron trial."

Finally, by Wednesday afternoon, the Wikipedia entry about Lay said that he was pronounced dead at an Aspen, Colo., hospital and had died of a heart attack, citing news sources.

What does all of this tell us?

That Wikipedia's greatest strength is its greatest weakness.

If the statement that "history is written by the winners" is too gross, it does speak to an underlying truth: All definitive encyclopedia authorship comes with the point of view of its times. It is unavoidable. As august and reliable as the Britannica is, one need only look back to 19th-century versions to see its Anglo-centric viewpoint and curious study of others that treated foreigners (say, Africans) as anthropological subjects rather than human equals.

I couldn't agree more with the bolded sentence. Ahrens clearly does since he wrote it. But I wonder if he or his editors bothered to ponder its logical implications.

Basically, according to Ahrens, people who write an encyclopedia entries come to their task with their own biases and assumptions, rendering their claims to objectivity (termed "neutral point-of-view" by Wikipedia) moot, despite their protestations to the contrary. If that's true, why shouldn't an observant reader apply that line of reasoning to anything written by Ahrens's colleagues who claim to be objective?

The answer, of course, is that they should, and left-wing journalists who take umbrage at those who dare to question the received wisdom need to get over themselves.

Related: Slashdot discussion. Jason Unger has a very nice demolition of Ahrens's piece, focusing on how the MSM feels threatened by the loss of control online media represent. Previously on NB: Wikipedia and Keith Olbermann.