Thursday, March 01, 2007

Larry Sanger proven right about Wikipedia

Larry Sanger has long argued that Wikipedia is anti-intellectual. And, sadly, he has been proven right, by Jimbo's recent fiat appointment of Essjay to the English Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee. This person, who apparently lied to the Wikipedia community -- and to the New Yorker (scroll to bottom for editor's note about Essjay's deceptions) -- for months about basically every aspect of his identity, including his academic credentials. Amongst the lies Essjay told is that he was a leading scholar in Roman Catholicism. Jimbo -- and much of the Wikipedia community, apparently -- has apparently chosen to forgive Essjay his deceits and appointed Essjay to the Arbitration Committee, where Essjay will be called upon to decide if other editors are behaving in a manner which is beneficial to the project.

Quite frankly, a man who would lie about his academic credentials, and then use those credentials to add undue weight to his own opinions in debate on Wikipedia, does not deserve to even be allowed to edit Wikipedia, let alone sit in judgment over those who do. For examples of where Essjay has done this, see this comment (about Catholic Confession), this comment (about another aspect of Catholicism), this comment (about another Christian topic), and this comment (another Catholic topic). Essjay has no more right to claim to be a scholar of Christianity (and certainly not "Wikipedia's leading scholar on Catholicism"!) than I do, and yet his totally inexpert opinion has been given undue weight because of his lies. It is a travesty that he holds a position of high authority in this community; that he does certainly has a great deal to say about how little the Wikipedia community cares about writing a factually accurate encyclopedia.

I confess that I liked Essjay when I knew him, and in general his judgment was, in my experience, reasonably good. However, I shall never be able to trust him again, not after finding out the extent to which he lied to the Wikipedia community, to others, and (most importantly, from my point of view), to me. The best interpretation of this entire situation is that Essjay created a false identity to preserve his anonymity and then got caught up in it. However, if you want a false identity to protect yourself, that's fine, but don't elaborate it with false claims intended to puff up your own authority and prominence.

Over the past few years, a number of people with included false claims on their resumes or CVs have lost academic leadership posts (for example, Eugene R. Kole, former President of Quincy University, who resigned when two of the degrees he listed in his biography were found to be fictitious). It is startling and telling that Essjay, after revealing similiar lies, is not only not censured, but in fact elevated to one of the highest positions of responsibility that Wikipedia has. Clearly Jimbo has decided to demonstrate just how much unlike academicia Wikipedia is.

Update: Apparently Slashdot is talking about this now. Also, there's an apology (if you can call it that) on Essjay's user talk page at enwiki. I especially like the "If I leave Wikipedia, the terrorists will win" at the bottom. Nice.

2nd update: This is apparently a hot topic on the blogs. See, for example, Freakonomics, Blog World, Infothought, and Rough Type, just for starters.

3rd update: Not only is this getting even more blog play (MetaFilter, Digg, XODP, and Larry Sanger; see also Technorati), but the mainstream tech media is also starting to get involved. This is going to get ugly fast.