Friday, January 31, 2014

Why I hate Wikipedia, Part One

Many concepts seem great in theory. Then people get involved, and the so-called “great idea” rapidly goes to hell.

Communism is a perfect example.

So is Wikipedia.

I applaud the premise behind Wikipedia: an expanding roster of experts supplying information about the topics they know best. What could go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out.

Drummer Jerry Granelli, bassist Fred Marshall and Guaraldi, as captured on camera
for Ralph Gleason's documentary, Anatomy of a Hit. Guaraldi's trio was filmed during
its long run at The Trident, in the summer of 1963.
Wikipedia’s all-access submission model grants equal credence to anybody wishing to add, enhance or outright change an entry ... regardless of said individual’s actual credentials, and, most particularly, regardless of whether said individual might have an impish streak, or an axe to grind. Thus, some fantasy fan vexed over the omission of unicorns from a thorough discussion of equine history can simply add a reference to the horned critters, and hey, presto! An article of fact has been corrupted forever.

Okay, yes; I give Wikipedia’s “monitors” credit for modest efforts to weed out egregious examples of that nature. Unfortunately, most errors and fabrications aren’t that obvious, and therefore don’t get caught; Wikipedia simply doesn’t have the staff (or the inclination, in my humble opinion) to fact-check everything ... unlike, say, the folks behind centuries of The Encyclopedia Britannica, who do fact-check everything. Or even the editors at your local newspaper, who try their best to do the same. Information presented as authoritative deserves — nay, needs — to be vetted. Thoroughly.

Wikipedia authors, upon publication, don’t get vetted by anybody. Worse yet, mounting anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that the Wikipedia culture can be biased against efforts to correct untruths. Attempts to do so often anger those who posted the ludicrous blather in the first place, and they simply change it back. Make the attempt often enough, and you — the individual attempting to strike a blow for indisputable fact — risk getting branded a “troublemaker,” and subsequently blackballed.

Rather than a resource offering reliable information from that theoretical roster of experts, Wikipedia actually is an Internet outlet for those who shout the loudest and fight the hardest for “their” version of reality. Hardly the same.

And in the Internet age, bad information is much, much worse than no information at all ... because bad information spreads just as rapidly. Indeed, Wikipedia’s bad information spreads even faster, because this “resource” enjoys an undeserved reputation as an “authority.”

I’d laugh, if it weren’t so tragic.

My expanding knowledge of Vince Guaraldi aside, I’m reasonably informed about perhaps a dozen other people and topics. I can read those Wikipedia entries right now, today, and find mistakes ... sometimes quite serious mistakes. So let’s extrapolate: If I recognize errors in Wikipedia about stuff I know fairly intimately, how can I possibly trust entries on topics about which I know very little?

Very simple: I can’t. Nobody can.

I regard it as a point of pride that not one single Wikipedia listing will be found in the 23 pages of chapter notes and bibliographical sources in my Guaraldi biography. Every serious scholar should ignore the site just as thoroughly.

Does this sound unduly harsh? Tough noogies; the truth hurts.

This rant is prompted by the Wikipedia entry on Guaraldi, which until very recently included this sentence in a brief discussion of A Charlie Brown Christmas: “The soundtrack was recorded by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, with drummer Jerry Granelli, and Puzzy Firth standing in for bassist Fred Marshall, who was ill at the time.”

Hard-working Internet aggregators quickly promulgated that little detail, which soon came to the attention of the late Fred Marshall’s grown children. Who were not pleased, to put it kindly. They thought this particular controversy was long past, Marshall himself (he died in 2001) having been instrumental in getting Fantasy Records to properly credit Marshall and Granelli, rather than Monty Budwig and Colin Bailey, on all Charlie Brown Christmas CDs released after 1999.

I played a minor part in that incident. As author of the only Guaraldi web site of note in the mid-1990s, I was contacted by both Marshall and his longtime companion, Dorian Makres. They wanted suggestions on how best to handle the situation; they also asked if I’d help spread the word. Absolutely, I replied; I quickly posted the details on my site and subsequently included a sidebar on the topic in my first book, 2000’s 50 Years of Happiness: A Tribute to Charles M. Schulz, in the chapter about Guaraldi.

(Bassist Eugene "Puzzy" Firth was a member of Guaraldi's trio for a time, from mid-1965 through early 1966, usually in the company of drummer Paul Distel. But not during any Christmas recording sessions with Granelli.)

As I mentioned above, Marshall prevailed, back in the late 1990s. And there the matter should have rested.

If not for Wikipedia gumming up the works.

Dorian got in touch again a few months ago; so did Marshall’s son. To their chagrin, they were finding multiple Web references to Puzzy Firth’s supposed presence during the Charlie Brown Christmas recording session(s). I easily traced the offending sentence to its Wikipedia source, which didn’t surprise me at all. I’ve long been aware of errors in Wikipedia’s Guaraldi entry; some have vanished over time, while fresh inaccuracies have crept in. (By way of example, as I type these words, the opening sentence in the section Early Career and Grammy Award reads thusly: “Guaraldi’s first recording was made in November 1953 with Cal Tjader and came out early in 1954.” Wrong, on two counts: The recording session was in November 1951, and the 10-inch LP was released in December 1953.)

I’d not seen the Puzzy Firth claim before, so it was a relatively new “addition.” It could have been there for several months, though, as I hadn’t visited the site in awhile. I reported back to Dorian and — with a long-suffering sigh — warned that eradicating the error might be difficult, depending on the persistence of the individual who had inserted it in the first place.

But one must try, right? Dorian duly set up a Wikipedia account, returned Marshall to his rightful place in history ... and was stunned when the sentence was changed back, not even 24 hours later. And so it goes, with Wikipedia.

Dorian was determined, bless her, and she seems to have prevailed. For the moment. As I write these words, Marshall once again has his place of pride. I remain skeptical, however, that this will last.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Even if the Wikipedia entry remains correct (in this one respect) moving forward, the damage has been done, because the untruth has spread. Do a Google search on the phrase “Puzzy Firth standing in for bassist Fred Marshall,” as I just did, and you’ll get a disheartening 2,300 results ... and that doesn’t include all the entries written by people who slightly modified the wording. One couldn’t possibly correct them all; it would be akin to stomping cockroaches in a squalid tenement (an apt metaphor). For every few you squish over here, several dozen more will appear over there.

One cannot fight Wikipedia’s authors — or the naïve individuals who blithely source them  — on their own terms. One can only rebut by publishing actual, vetted fact under a banner that (one hopes) will, in time, be recognized as a more reliable authority. I strongly feel that this blog is just such a site.

For the record, then: It is absolutely untrue that Marshall was replaced by anybody during the Charlie Brown Christmas recording sessions he made with Guaraldi and Granelli. I can state this with certainty because I took the obvious step of contacting Granelli himself, and putting the question to him.

Jerry’s reply: “No, that’s Fred all over.”

Good enough for me.

Fairness dictates, however, that I acknowledge that the who-did-what-when credits issue regarding A Charlie Brown Christmas continues to percolate. Stay tuned.

It's also important to clarify that we're talking here solely about the Marshall/Granelli recording sessions. There's strong evidence to suggest that Paul Distel and Puzzy Firth joined Guaraldi for other (multiple?) studio sessions that involved the music for A Charlie Brown Christmas ... but whether their tracks got used on the final album remains the sticking point.

Oh, and one last thing: If you’re wondering why this blog entry is headed “Part 1,” it’s because I’m sure I’ll soon have cause to submit a Part 2...

1 comment:

Nihiltres said...

You're somewhat mistaken on how Wikipedia works. While on the surface, yes, anyone can submit changes that are not vetted before "publication", there's a deeper system that has a much better epistemological foundation.

The core of Wikipedia's epistemology is based on verifiability: Wikipedia itself, based on contributions that include pseudonymous and anonymous authors, isn't "reliable", but it can be reliable indirectly by referencing sources that are more conventionally reliable.

If you see an error on Wikipedia about Vince Guaraldi, don't simply replace it with the truth: add a reference to a secondary source that confirms what you're saying. In your particular case, even referencing your own book(s) might not be a bad idea, despite the conflict of interest (you have a good-faith interest in correcting the facts). As an expert, though, you can presumably reference a wider variety of sources, including secondary sources that you used in your own research, for public benefit. These references anchor assertions to fact, and will easily settle disputes in their favour as long as no other (reliable) sources contradict them.

So yes, you can, in fact, take on Wikipedia's authors on their own terms, because those "own terms" are framed by the scholarship that we value. Wikipedia isn't perfect: it's an ongoing project, and the world too often takes its drafts for final copy. That being established, I can only invite you to help improve what drafts exist.