Misinformation on Wikipedia

Wikipedia accused of being source for Washington Post error

Although the coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake has generally brought a lot of favorable publicity for Wikipedia, an incident last week illustrated instead its potential for spreading misinformation and highlighted the need to cite sources when writing articles.

The furor began with a story in the 31 December 2004 issue of the Washington Post. In that day's issue, reporter Jose Antonio Vargas wrote a piece entitled "Seeking the Hand Of God in the Waters". Near its conclusion, the article contained the following statement: "Following the devastation in Lisbon in 1755, priests roamed the streets, hanging those they believed had incurred God's wrath."

Vargas' article was part of the media coverage following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, and drawing analogies to a very similar event that hit Lisbon in 1755 fit in quite naturally. It apparently struck a chord, and this particular statement was picked up and repeated in some form by many different sources in the following days.

Concerned Catholic investigates

However, the statement raised the ire of Theresa Carpinelli, host of a Catholic radio show in Canton, Ohio. Questioning this allegation directed against Catholic priests, she tried to track down a source for it and wrote about her efforts in a two-part article (Part One, Part Two) for the portal site Catholic Exchange. Carpinelli concluded that the allegation was unfounded and probably originated with Wikipedia.

The story was picked up last Thursday by John Hinderaker of the Power Line blog. In a post called "Not Even Voltaire Believed This One Archived 2005-08-29 at the Wayback Machine", Hinderaker commented on the disputed sentence, "It appears that it may have originated in an unsourced, wholly imaginary Wikipedia entry."

In trying to find the source of Vargas' statement, Carpinelli reported that she conducted a Google search for "1755 Lisbon priests roamed city hanging people". She found a number of sites that had relied on Vargas, along with Wikipedia (in all likelihood, she probably found a mirror, which is still the first hit besides Carpinelli's own article, rather than Wikipedia itself).

On to the Wikipedia article

Carpinelli then went to Wikipedia to investigate it further as a possible source (she did not identify the actual article, but reconstructing her actions makes it clear that it was the 1755 Lisbon earthquake article). She speculated that Vargas came across the article by a Google search himself; as of now, the Wikipedia article is the second hit for "Lisbon earthquake".

In the version that Vargas might have looked at, the article contained a sentence reading, "In the following days, priests roamed the city hanging people suspected of heresy on sight, blaming them for the disaster." The language that "priests roamed", Carpinelli determined, had been in the article since its creation by Viajero in October 2003. Carpinelli said she "requested of Wikipedia that a source be cited for this allegation." This request was initially made 6 January, but placed directly into the article, rather than on the talk page, immediately following the disputed statement.

Upon returning 17 January to discover that no source had been provided, Carpinelli this time found her way to the talk page and raised her objection there. Muriel Gottrop responded, "Dear anon user, if you disagree with the article in some way, you are invited to change it."

However, instead of eliminating the statement from the article, Carpinelli acted on this invitation by expanding considerably on the objections she had earlier placed in the article. She said, "I am simply going to leave it for all to read, that the writer cited no source, because no source exists except within the writer's mind." Ultimately, the allegation was edited out by Sandover on 20 January, who also went back to the article last week and began adding outside references that could support its remaining content.

Both Hinderaker and Carpinelli commented on the failure of the Washington Post to run a correction regarding the statement in its article. This shows, one might say, one of the benefits of the wiki system by comparison; Wikipedia has at least managed to correct its information, albeit more slowly than it might have if Carpinelli had just removed the material from the article herself.

Incidentally, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake article was nominated as a featured article candidate on Sunday, although the nomination has already picked up objections from several people.

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  • I have once again found my comments taken out of chronology, this time, on this page. Therefore, I have placed them as they were when I wrote them. I can only guess as to the motivation of the person(s) who continue to rearrange my comments.Polycarp7 06:33, 3 September 2005 (UTC)[reply]
  • As the person directly involved with Ms. Carpanelli i have to say a couple of things: i was never impolite (despite the hysterical, slightly irritating tone of her notes) and i tried to motivate her to edit the article, i even left welcoming message at her talk page. The whole affair can be followed in Talk:1755 Lisbon earthquake. I am quite amazed with what is said about her article. She acted in absolute bad faith with me and with the project and i'm finding very strange that the acts of a biased scandal-seeking person are depriving the article from feature status. I agree with Bishonen et al. objections about the philosophical section and i'm only sorry that my knowledge is not enough to answer their requirements. These are valid objections and I hope Sandover is successful in his attempt to clarify them. Ms. Carpanelli's article is not a valid objection and i cant believe that this will be held against the article in the future. muriel@pt 21:50, 15 Feb 2005 (UTC) Also posted in Wikipedia:Featured article candidates/1755 Lisbon earthquake

Anyway congratulations to Michael for the Wikipedia newsjournal, its very nice. As a side comment to this piece, its a pity that you didnt mention that the objections made to the article have nothing to do with this. muriel@pt 21:50, 15 Feb 2005 (UTC)

Thanks for your comments. I probably could have mentioned that point - I thought starting the sentence with "Incidentally" would be enough indication that the nomination was purely coincidental to Ms. Carpinelli publishing these criticisms. I would change it now except that now this article has become part of the story itself in a way, which rather complicates things. --Michael Snow 23:53, 15 Feb 2005 (UTC) (For those wondering if it's Carpinelli or Carpanelli: Catholic Exchange has the former, while her show's website had the latter when I checked. And I don't know if it's because she's getting an influx of traffic out of this incident or something, but since I first checked that website it has added a few more pictures, including one of her, this time with her name spelled Carpinelli instead. Oh well, she doesn't feel like correcting our mistakes, but we're not even given the ability to correct hers.)
  • I would like to comment on the discussion that has taken place regarding the 1755 Lisbon earthquake article. Since I am the person about whom it is claimed was "hysterical, slightly irritating" I would like to say that I apologize if my shock and surprise at such an outrageous allegation on Wikipedia was taken as "hysterical and irritating." My initial response to finding the unattributed allegation was shock, and I had no idea how to go about finding the source for the allegation. After finding Muriel Gottrop's response to my wholly ignorant and somewhat desperate query:
"Jesus! Then remove the allegation. Its not my essay, it's our (like in me, you and everybody else here) article. muriel@pt 13:23, 20 Jan 2005 (UTC)"

to be completely offensive, and irritating, despite her claim to have never been impolite, I responded by becoming more firm and resolute in attempting to find a source, and commenting on her and the original author's apparent lack of regard for source citations by my refusal to change the allegation. In short, my comment that "I am simply going to leave it for all to read, that the writer cited no source, because no source exists except within the writer's mind," was not in response to Ms. Gottrop's "Dear anon user, if you disagree with the article in some way, you are invited to change it," but to her quite irritated and offensive "Jesus! Then remove the allegation. Its not my essay, it's our (like in me, you and everybody else here) article. muriel@pt 13:23, 20 Jan 2005 (UTC)" In addition, it was not JUST the allegation I was intending to leave in, but my request for a source as well. Since I initially didn't know whom to contact or how to request a source be cited, but I found I could edit the article, I simply placed my request for a source within the body of the allegation, as I believe you have noted. It was, therefore, not just the allegation, but my request for a source that I intended to leave in. That way, perhaps, someone would come forward with a source, and/or people reading it would know that a source was not listed. I believe this, and proper chronology of the discussion page remarks, gives the more complete context for the discussion that ensued.Polycarp7 15:45, 5 Mar 2005 (UTC)

I believe also that you have made your conclusion from the discussion page of the article, which was totally out of chronology. I have attempted to place the discussion in proper chronology, from oldest at top to newest at bottom. This should give a better idea of the discussion as it happened.

I believed then, and I believe now, that persons who make ostensible claims should be held accountable for their research by citing a source, not let off the hook for interjecting personal bias or poor scholarship into an article they are largely responsible for writing. Finding the unsourced allegation in the first place, Ms. Gottrop's taking of the Lord's Name in her first correspondence with me, and her charge of "complaining" because I was asking for a source, certainly set the tone for my remarks. Her subsequent posts were quite polite, and while mine might have been irritating, I do not believe they were hysterical. Ms. Gottrop did eventually apologize for any offense, and I accept that.

Speaking of poor scholarship, and possible bias, I now question the assertion under a photo of priests being present at a hanging to be "supervision" by the priests. I have found no such evidence of priests supervising the hanging of looters in the aftermath of the Lisbon quake. I cited some sources on the article's discussion page. Priests are often present at state sponsored executions, even today in our own country, but it is hardly "supervision." Careful research into the eyewitness accounts make no mention of priests having anything to do with these hangings. Just because that statement appears under a caption on a picture somewhere (the about.com site) doesn't mean it was under the caption of original source material. Even the article in question links to external images of the city - one links to the Kozak collection, which also contains this picture. That caption reads: "KZ119: Lisbon, 1755: refugees. Lisbon a few days after the earthquake. Camping outside the damaged town, executions of robbers and looters. (Copper engraving, Germany, 1755) Lisbon, Portugal." The Wikipedia caption seems to prefer the about.com's suggestion that priests were involved in the hangings in ways other than for religious rites.

I am not a contributer to Wikipedia, nor do I wish to be. But I have used it, and my son has used it quite a bit. As a user, therefore, and the primary educator of my son, I feel I have a perfect right to ask for sources, not change the article myself. I will not shield him from truthful accounts of the bad behavior over the years of some members of the Catholic Church, but the only use I have for anti-catholic bias is to show him it exists.

I also object to the comment that "she doesn't feel like correcting our mistakes, but we're not even given the ability to correct hers." First of all, ad hominem attacks warrant no further comment, but the misspelling of my name is hardly a mistake of the same proportion to the one Wikipedia has made by failing to attribute a source for such an outrageous claim that appears in no credible source, or in any eyewitness account that I have checked. Second, if I made any mistake at all, it is my failure to see how I acted in "bad faith" with anyone. At the time of my correspondence with Ms. Gottrop, I had no intentions of writing anything other than a letter to the editor of my local paper. That Catholic Exchange said they would help me write an article was not known at the time. I did not mention her name, and the few people who may have checked out the discussion page after reading my article could see that I did not mis-quote her or take her quotes out of context. But I will be certain that in a future article on this subject, which will be forthcoming, I will link to the discussion page for the 1755 Lisbon article so anyone interested can read it. And since I was charged with "messing up" the discussion page, I took some time to organize it in chronological order, to make the reading of it more logical, as noted above.

Neither am I a "biased scandal-seeking person," but I do not back down from anti-Catholic bias when I see it. This charge is bogus, and lacks any merit. And as for the recent postings of pictures of me on the Truth Matters web page, the show is relatively new, and that portion of the web site is constantly under construction. To my knowledge, the pictures have been up since the show's inception. I find mention of this to have no bearing in this matter, except to assert the specious idea that a submission at Truth Matters which misspelled my name somehow doesn't allow Wikipedia to correct "my" mistakes. I didn't correct your mistake - I left that up to you, but by all means, write to the web-master at Truth Matters and tell him someone mis-spelled my name!

Finally, as I said in my discussion, I found the Lisbon article to be well done, and tainted only by this unattributed allegation. I had no bone to pick with Wikipedia when I first saw the allegation, and I regret that this has caused the article to lose some recognition. Simply correcting the error was good enough for me - in fact, I commend you for doing so, and respect you for it. But due to the number of places where this allegation now can be found, with Wikipedia sourced, I would still like a credible source to be put forth, or accept some responsibility for the propagation of this slander. So far, I have seen little regret, or even recognition of the gravity of the error. And, after having my Faith insulted, reading ad hominem attacks upon me, and, what I feel to be unjust criticisms of me, for what I believe was simply insisting that credible sources be cited, rather than change the article, I do now have a bone to pick. Users of Wikipedia should not have to endure this. Polycarp7 08:43, 4 Mar 2005 (UTC)

What kind of correction could the WaPo have run?

It does not seem clear that the information was false. I find an almost identical quote in a 1990 book (a most unreputable one: an astrology book edited by Joan McEvers; and yes I only know this because a minute's googling pulled it up); and as she is no historian, I doubt McEvers was indulging in original scholarship. My money's on a shared secondary source. I don't yet know what it is; but complaining about the source and "not being able to find verification" is quite different from falsification. Perhaps Viajero will enlighten us one day, or some knowledgable soul provide other references that say such a statement is hogwash. Until then we should be clear on the distinction between unsourced and mis-information. +sj + 10:14, 8 Apr 2005 (UTC)


In a paper by Andy Szybalski, a Master's student in Computer Science at Stanford University. Why it's not a wiki world (yet)(pdf). --Michael Snow 04:01, 12 Apr 2005 (UTC)


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