Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Marxism for Beginners: Wikipedia?

So, you want to learn about Marxism, but you don't have much time or money. I bet the first option crossing your mind is Wikipedia. Yes?

Well, I'm not sure that's such a good idea.

You probably know that Wikipedia is entirely edited by its own volunteer community. To you and to me, lefties that we are, this sounds like a good initiative, right?

And it is … mostly. It has a downside, though: anyone can join the self-managed Wikipedia community, even people not knowledgeable about the subjects they edit; even unscrupulous people with their own agendas which they intend to advance through Wikipedia.

It happens. With reason or without it -- I am in no position to judge -- people have attempted defamation lawsuits against Wikipedia; if you believe the information provided by … Wikipedia (these two Google searches largely returned Wikipedia hits), those claimants generally lost their cases.

Don't get me wrong: I am neither implying that Wikipedia should have lost, nor am I speaking here of defamation; I am speaking of something more subtle. So, instead of speaking generalities, let's see what I mean. The screenshot below was taken today (3:18PM, Wednesday, 23 July 2014 EST):

Right-click to open in a separate tab.

That's section 11, "Post-Keynesian criticisms", of the Wikipedia entry "Criticisms of the labour theory of value" (the URL is visible, link).

Two citations support that section: Joan Robinson is the author of one, Philip Pilkington, the up-and-coming young Post-Keynesian, wrote the other (with a few changes, essentially the same content appears on another entry).

Joan Robinson needs little introduction (go ahead, I know you want to do it). I think she is wrong in her evaluation, but that's me. At any rate, she was a well-known and respected economist; her books still influence people, and for all those reasons, her opinion, even if questionable, has value as citation.

At the other hand, over the years Philip Pilkington has claimed to be many things (a non-exhaustive list: "London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group at Kingston University", here; "writer and research assistant at Kingston University in London", here; "writer and journalist based in Dublin", here), but, apart from op-eds, I am yet to see evidence supporting his claims.

Be that as it may: absence of evidence is no evidence of absence. But even granting his claims, on his word alone, one thing is clear: he is hardly in the same league as Robinson.

Judging by credentials, then, one must conclude that the Wikipedia editor responsible for those changes, by placing Robinson and Pilkington in the same bag, reveals either a curiously overinflated opinion of Pilkington, or an awfully poor opinion of Robinson.

But let's not judge only on the basis of credentials. Let's evaluate Pilkington's post: the citation to his work takes you to his personal blog. Skim the post if you have to, but check his comments.

In my opinion, the post is outrageously defective and I have made it abundantly clear before. But it's your opinion that matters now, so judge the quality of that Wikipedia entry by yourself on the grounds of Pilkington's academic credentials, and of the scholarly quality and neutrality of point of view of his citation (remember: neutrality of point of view was supposed to be an official Wikipedia policy).

While, in my opinion, the editor responsible for that section did a shamelessly shit job, I am sure that most Wikipedia editors take their task seriously.

While some Wikipedia entries are unabashedly crap, it would be unfair to claim that all of Wikipedia is crap. Probably most of it is quite valuable.

The thing is you don't really know on which side of the line the information you are reading is until you perform an exercise similar to the one I performed above at least with every citation. Unless, of course, you don't mind the risk of making a fool of yourself. Kinda sucks, eh?

That, if time-consuming, in limited amounts may even be valuable: it teaches you how economic theories really come to be accepted or rejected. That's how sausages are made, my friend. But it defeats the purpose, doesn't it? And it gets tiresome after a while.

So, if you want quick information on controversial subjects like Marxism, Wikipedia is a really poor choice: any crank could have a go at it. And some of them actually do. As a collection of links it still works well, but that's the best I can say. On other subjects it's surely better. (Here is a much more glowing review, which nonetheless makes the same point: "We found that Wikipedia was better at discussing hard-known facts, but poor at discussing controversial issues.")

And if you are a reader with a complain, well, forget about it.

As a member of the friendly Wikipedia Volunteer Response Team told me in no uncertain terms when, asking for his intervention as impartial arbiter, I complained about that entry and told him I'd never again donate to Wikipedia and would not hide my dissatisfaction:
"Do as you must do, but the fact remains that Wikipedia is neither a peer-reviewed journal nor a traditional encyclopedia governed by an editorial board."
As my complain was as appreciated and effective as my admittedly poor donations seem to be needed, I may as well save my money. So, there's a silver lining! Besides that, that statement sums things up pretty well.

Now, dear readers, it's your call. Do as you must.


  1. I see your war against Pilkington continues!

    I have to say, economics more than anything else is quite clearly biased on Wikipedia. Discussions of work on eg information asymmetry, which should be purely theoretical, instead contain paragraphs and paragraphs of politically motivated criticism and counter criticism that revolves around whether or not free markets are still Great despite the theory. Austrian gurus like Henry Hazlitt, who was frankly a bit of a nobody, have completely oversized pages. And, as you point out, some pages put debates in peer reviewed journals next to blog entries. It's an pen question whether the bloggers themselves might be somehow involved in this process :)

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. "I see your war against Pilkington continues!"

      Although he has his unconditional allies, I believe there are others who think very little of him. But you know that.

      I myself only took notice of him when he started speaking without knowledge about things I care about and am relatively knowledgeable in. And even in that case, he had to push me. Check my first and second comments in the comment thread below and Pilkington's first comment.


      "It's an [o]pen question whether the bloggers themselves might be somehow involved in this process :)"

      Perhaps less open, if one is willing to do the grunt work, search for things readily available and join the dots, than at first it may appear.