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Editor's response to Roth draws Internet attention

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By The ed17 and Theopolisme
Oliver Keyes, editor and author of the blog post.

Oliver Keyes' (User:Ironholds) defense of Wikipedia against the recent Philip Roth controversy has drawn a significant amount of attention over the last week.

The problems between Roth, a widely known and acclaimed American author, and Wikipedia arose from an open letter he penned for the American magazine The New Yorker, and were covered by the Signpost two weeks ago. Keyes—who wrote the piece as a prominent Wikipedian but is also a contractor for the Wikimedia Foundation—wrote a blog post on the topic, lamenting the factual errors in Roth's letter and criticizing the media for not investigating his claims: "[they took] Roth’s explanation as the truth and launched into a lengthy discussion of how we [Wikipedia] handle primary sourcing."

The post quickly drew large amounts of attention, in no small part due to a tweet from Jimmy Wales ("Attention journalists: worth reading."), who has over 74,000 followers on the site.

Keyes found four major problems with Roth's piece, with most being based on factual differences between the chain of events, as documented in the article's history, and Roth's account. The fourth issue was more touchy, with Keyes asserting that Roth did not use "the normal channels"—i.e. the Open-source Ticket Requests System (OTRS)—which he claimed is on the "contact us page that readers are linked to every time they open any wikipedia page ever" (emphasis in original), but the actual email address is buried in subpages.

Keyes concludes that Wikipedia's processes worked in this case. He believes that allowing article subjects to simply email Wikipedia and have us change something, just because they said so, is wrong, because verifiability cannot be compromised—or in Keyes' words, "[we try to] ensure that readers have a hope in hell of actually checking the accuracy of our information. ... We don’t want readers to trust us. We want readers to think and be able to do their own research."

He elaborated on this view in a follow-up blog post, setting up a hypothetical situation where Wikipedia has instituted an email notification system for article subjects to provide the 'real' facts for their articles. While Keyes acknowledges the potential benefits, especially when given our current policy that values verifiability over 'the truth', he quickly showed why any model of this sort is untenable: what if an article subject wanted to falsely 'correct' their article to make themselves look better?

In what may have been the strongest language used by Keyes, he finished the post by condemning the media for simply accepting Roth's claims with no investigation of their own:

[P]eople should perhaps start having a debate about the way authors are treated in "proper" sources. The New Yorker, the Guardian, ABC News and the Los Angeles Times – all respected bodies. And all, without being able and/or willing to do their own research, happily published or republished Roth’s assertions. We rely on these organisations for reporting what our politicians do, what our armed forces do, how entities with the power of life and death over humanity are accountable to the people. And they happily gulp down the glorified press releases of anyone who offers to let them touch his Pulitzer.

And you think Wikipedia is what we should be concerned about? Fuck. That. Noise.

*drops mic*

In brief

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  • Ah, Signpost, taking the strongest bit and using that as a quote ;p. For reference, I didn't see the, ah, double-entendre until someone pointed it out to me after I'd hit "save". No phallic imagery was intended in the making of this post. Ironholds (talk) 13:39, 25 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • Which Truth is True? Why Wikipedia Focuses on Verifiability. Oliver Keyes (Wikipedia User:Ironholds) noting in The Signpost (September 24, 2012) that 'allowing article subjects to simply email Wikipedia and have us change something, just because they said so, is wrong, because verifiability cannot be compromised' is spot on, particularly in this Roth situation. After having a conflict of interest IP editor (Roth's biographer) try on 20 August 2012[1] to remove reliably sourced information regarding Anatole Broyard -- (1920 – 1990), father, husband, American writer, literary critic and editor for The New York Times -- from The Human Stain Wikipedia article (followed by the inevitable Wikipedia revert response)[2] novelist Philip Roth then had an open letter to Wikipedia published in The New Yorker on 7 September 2012, blasting Wikipedia for what Roth saw as the encyclopedia's failings because, "I don’t know how else to proceed."[3]
Well, Roth first could have tried responding to American Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michiko Kakutani when Kakutani first asserted in the New York Times OVER TWELVE YEARS AGO on May 2, 2000 that The Human Stain premise "seemed to have been inspired by the life story of Anatole Broyard."[4] At that time, the ink was still wet on Roths The Human Stain book, but it's possible that Roth and his staff missed the assertion of this Pulitzer Prize-winning critic. However, the New York Times (May 7, 2000), Chicago Sun Times (May 7, 2000), Boston Globe (May 7, 2000), The New York Jewish Week (May 12, 2000), Newsday (May 13, 2000), New Orleans Times Picayune (May 14, 2000), Buffalo News (May 14, 2000), Baltimore Sun (May 14, 2000), Vancouver Sun (May 27, 2000), Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (May 28, 2000), Virginia Pilot and Ledger-Star (July 16, 2000), Dallas Morning News (August 20, 2000), Daytona News-Journal (September 3, 2000), and The American Journal of Psychiatry (December 1, 2000) all came out in 2000 and linked Anatole Broyard to The Human Stain. The assertion that the life story of Anatole Broyard inspired The Human Stain continued over the next seven years:
Years went by while the family and friends of African-American Anatole Broyard suffered humiliation at their husband, father, friend Mr. Broyard being known worldwide as a human stain and the one person who could have put an end to this failed to provide such effort. In 2008, New York based journalist Robert Hilferty asked Roth: "Is Coleman Silk, the black man who willfully passes as white in The Human Stain, based on anyone you knew?" to which Roth replied: "No. There was much talk at the time that he was based on a journalist and writer named Anatole Broyard ... [but] no connection."[34] Fast forward four years, and Roth notes in his 7 September 2012 The New Yorker article blasting Wikipedia for publishing statements that are not "from the world of truthfulness" instead of publishing information "substantiated by fact": "The Human Stain” was inspired, rather, by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin."[35]
Wikipedia isn't here to be the arbitrator of truthfulness and this Roth situation -- 2008 Roth fact: 'It's not anyone I know'/2012 Roth fact: 'It's my late friend Melvin Tumin' (who died in 1994) -- is good example of why Wikipedia focuses on verifiability, not truth. It's interesting that Roth's open letter to Wikipedia refers to the conflict of interest IP editor that changed the The Human Stain Wikipedia article as an "interlocutor"[36] which Wiktionary defines as a "man in the middle of the line in a minstrel show (a variety show performed by white people in blackface) who questions the end men and acts as leader." Are we supposed to just assume that Roth's usage of "interlocutor" paralleling his friend's Melvin Tumin's life altering use of the work "spook"[37] is an innocent coincidence from Roth, who has a Pulitzer Prize command of the English language? It's also interesting that Roth would seek out The New Yorker to publish his 2012 distain for Wikipedia, particularly since it was The New Yorker who pre-2004 described African-American Anatole Broyard as the "famously prickly critic for the Times, a man who demanded so much from books that it seemed he could never be satisfied," which was noted in an article asserting that The Human Stain premise seemed to have been inspired by the life story of The New Yorker's competitor Anatole Broyard.[38]
As for Wikipedia, its purpose isn't to be drawn into someone else's publicity seeking performance art. Instead, the lesson to take away from all this is that Wikipedia is nothing more than a publisher that works towards publishing representative surveys of the relevant literature in a way that people reading and editing the encyclopedia can check that information comes from a reliable source. Next time, Mr. Roth or anyone else who is the topic of a Wikipedia article and are unhappy with the article, please feel free to post a note on my talk page. Like a thousand other Wikipedians, I'm happy to respond to requests for assistance. -- Uzma Gamal (talk) 17:51, 26 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Hmm, I probably shouldn't say this, but my sense of paradox has gotten the better of me. Let me get this straight - "... he finished the post by condemning the media for simply accepting Roth's claims with no investigation of their own" - the media is horrible, awful, terrible, no-good at fact checking. And Wikipedia must believe whatever is written there even over an author's own statements, in every case, without exception, as an absolute rule, with no common sense allowed - because bad things would happen otherwise. -- Seth Finkelstein (talk) 18:28, 26 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Actually, that was kind of the point; that the media published a piece excoriating Wikipedia's model of validation despite using one just as awful. Ironholds (talk) 18:40, 26 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Hmm, I'm not sure what register to respond in. If you're saying tu quoque, that doesn't rebut that Wikipedia is abominable. Are you actually making a pure, true, logical fallacy argument? (Wikipedia's kind of interesting in that it's one of the rare places that combines emotion and technical ability that people really will make very clear logical fallacy arguments). But, in fact, Wikipedia's model is not just as awful. It's really worse, because of that second-order aspect, among other things. -- Seth Finkelstein (talk) 19:03, 26 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Not at all; I wasn't attempting to rebut the argument that we have problems. We do have problems. I would think that my above statement (pointing out we have an abominable system, just not the only abominable system) would have made that clear. My point is that it's a slightly more pressing concern that the "mainstream" media is incapable of basic fact checking than it is for a project that is written by random people from the aether of the internet: nobody relies on Wikipedia as a whistleblower that keeps governments in check. Ironholds (talk) 19:28, 26 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
But, that is, basically, a pure Tu quoque. I'd think it a parody to say something like (note tongue-in-cheek tone here please) "How can you criticize Wikipedia as supposedly being full of paranoid tin-pots bureaucrats when, my god, the New York Times helped start a war!!!". And you, Ironholds, how can you be so self-indulgent to write your rant about the unfair treatment of your beloved Wikipedia, when the entire human species is at risk from climate change!!! And of course, how can I write this trivial message, when the world might erupt in nuclear war!!! It's like post-modernism, even if you don't start out with absurdity, you get there pretty quickly. Seriously, not everything has to be devoted to the maximum problem. Especially when that's a way to deflect criticism of another problem, as it's being used here. -- Seth Finkelstein (talk) 19:43, 26 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Did I not just explicitly say above that not everything has to be devoted to the maximum problem? Some coverage of the larger problems might be nice, however, which is what I was attempting to provide. Ironholds (talk) 19:45, 26 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
I took your phrasing as rhetorical understatement, from context having other than its literal meaning. I'd seriously say there's quite a large amount of value in illuminating Wikipedia's problems given that it is often put forth as a model in many political discussions about organizing society. I believe Wikipedia is in fact under-criticized in a relative sense than mass media. That is, there's plenty of people making insightful critiques of the mass media, and more of them may not be the bottleneck. There's less good material of Wikipedia's dysfunction, since again, in a relative sense, it has far more promoters than critical examiners -- Seth Finkelstein (talk) 20:02, 26 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
I would agree with that, sure. Ironholds (talk) 20:04, 26 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
@Seth: Yes Wikipedia is flawed because it lacks common sense, but paradoxically that is also the reason it is successful. Using a model that allows "common sense" (i.e. original research) would quickly devolve into chaos since common sense is almost always relative, as is Truth. Kaldari (talk) 00:21, 27 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
@Kaldari - I don't think it's true that "it is successful" because of that system, except maybe in a very convoluted way. I think it's possible to have an open mind without having one's brains fall out, and it's possible to exercise scholarly judgment without turning into a crank-haven. I believe what's driving the attitude here is much deeper, a rabid ideological hatred of experts. You can see that all through Ironholds's post, which is just seething with bile, really snide and nasty in a common Wikipedian way. And this was met with endorsement per above! I keep getting tempted to write about it myself, but I'm rather hesitant to deal with that snide and nasty attitude full-on for this (and Roth doesn't need my defense). (pre-emptive point - I am aware I am not preaching to the choir here!) -- Seth Finkelstein (talk) 00:58, 27 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
That's slightly disingenuous, Seth; you're an intelligent guy :). If you thought that discussing it would lead to "bile, really snide and nasty in a common Wikipedian way" you wouldn't be discussing it with the person who has such a "snide and nasty attitude" - nor saying that about him on a page that all evidence says he watches :). Ironholds (talk) 04:49, 27 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
And for reference: I don't hate experts. I consider myself an expert in a couple of particularly narrow fields, and I'm not that self-loathing ;p. I have a dislike of people who believe that expertise excuses them from the need to abide by little things like "referencing" or "NPOV", which are sort of standard in academia and so shouldn't be too much of a surprise (I appreciate that's not what we're dealing with here, but since you brought my unspoken motives/opinions up...) Ironholds (talk) 04:52, 27 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
It's a matter of how big a target I want to make of myself, and if it's worthwhile. Your statement put things into binary categories where it's much more a matter of amounts. It's correct that I probably shouldn't have done this, but I'm not a perfect person in terms of always refraining from doing what I shouldn't do. But it's another logical fallacy to conclude from my arguably making a little mistake that I have no qualms about making a much bigger mistake. Anyway, it's a common response to say something like, I don't hate (category), I just hate (bad people in category). Sadly, the way this is often constructed makes it meaningless. That line about "... anyone who offers to let them touch his Pulitzer" is very revealing about the resentment. -- Seth Finkelstein (talk) 12:03, 27 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Not at all. Can I suggest you tie that "resentment" into the rest of that section, as well as my comments here? It doesn't tell you I resent (category), nor does it tell you that the distinction between that and "I hate (bad people in category)" is meaningless; I have an issue with people who think that their real-world achievements absolve them of any right to follow our rules relating to, for example, referencing and neutrality. That line was in the context of "people publishing stuff without checking it because, hey, he's Philip Roth" and should be read as such. I'm sorry if you feel that this distinction is "meaningless" to you. Ironholds (talk) 19:30, 27 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
I guess a better way of putting it would be; in reply to "why do you hate experts?" my answer is "I don't, I hate people who think personal knowledge voids any need for them to follow our internal rules or standards. Some experts are part of that group". My disapproval is neither of experts, nor exclusively of experts in that group. Ironholds (talk) 21:26, 27 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
I think you might not be getting the reference I was making, as you just did exactly what I'm talking about (scarily so). I didn't want to be specific in examples, since it risks being inflammatory. I'd rather not get grief for it, and I doubt anyone else cares by now, so I'll forgo elaboration. -- Seth Finkelstein (talk) 23:50, 27 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Oh, let me clarify, my remark about "rather hesitant to deal with that snide and nasty attitude full-on" wasn't meant to be directed at you as a purely personal matter. It refers to a widespread Wikipedia booster view, where that post is one instance, but many Wikipedia supporters write material of that overall tenor. But I didn't intend to single you out right there. -- Seth Finkelstein (talk) 12:43, 27 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]


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