“Original research” at Wikipedia

I’m currently completing my online transcription of Strabo, and reached XIII.1.36, in which a woman named Hestiaea is mentioned as follows, in toto:

Demetrius cites also Hestiaea of Alexandreia as a witness, a woman who wrote a work on Homer’s Iliad and inquired whether the war took place round the present Ilium and the Trojan Plain, which latter the poet places between the city and the sea; for, she said, the plain now to be seen in front of the present Ilium is a later deposit of the rivers.

I’d never heard of her, and was curious to see if anything else had been said of her, so headed over to Wikipedia; and found an article which called her “Hestiea of Alexandria Troas”, and said by way of prooemium that she wrote influential critical works on the epic poems of Homer, repeating the statement in a section titled “Published Works”, as follows:

During her lifetime Hestiea became an influential critic and grammarian and published her works. Her works of criticism on Homer’s epics were commented on by Strabo in his work Homerica. Specifically, she published a treatise on “the possibility that the War of Troy had occurred in contemporary Ilium”.

This was footnoted with a citation of Charles MacLaren, The Plain of Troy described. . . (1863).

Since the Wikipedia statement was completely wrong, I replaced it by this:

Hestiea is known to us from the following single brief sentence by Strabo in the Geography (XIII.1.16, C599): “Demetrius cites also Hestiaea of Alexandreia as a witness, a woman who wrote a work on Homer’s Iliad and inquired whether the war took place round the present Ilium and the Trojan Plain, which latter the poet places between the city and the sea; for, she said, the plain now to be seen in front of the present Ilium is a later deposit of the rivers.”

— giving my reasons as:

(1) why cite a secondary work instead of the ultimate primary source? (2) no indication that she was famous or influential; (3) the article misunderstood the purport of her work.

to which I could have added that Strabo wrote no work titled the “Homerica“, and that, though plausible from the context, the Alexandria that Hestiaea was from was not certainly the one in the Troad.

Within a few hours I was of course reverted, with the following comment:

Reversed your deletion of material; point (3) that you made is your opinion/interpretation; you can’t just up and delete sourced material from Wikipedia. Do you have evidence to back up your claim that the paper misinterpreted her work or Strabo’s? Another point I want to mention is that Wikipedia’s policies are to discourage original research, which would be an obstacle to basing the article on primary sources, which is what you wanted, if I understood your edit comments correctly. And she’s notable as a rare example of a female Hellenic scholar, giving her some importance in women’s history; reference to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party installation.

The MacLaren book, by the way, is online at Google, and far from stretching Ms. Hestiaea in the direction Wikipedia took her, is quite sober about her, saying merely this, again, in toto (p61):

“He [Strabo] refers to Hestiea, a lady of Alexandria Troas, who had published criticisms on Homer, and came to the same conclusion [that the Trojan Plain was narrower at the time of the Trojan War].”

The citation of Strabo has become original research, and a clear misinterpretation of the comment on Strabo by a 19c hack takes precedence over Strabo himself, requiring “evidence” to fix. Then we wonder why Wikipedia is such a mess.

The key, of course, is in the political propaganda of Judy Chicago: what is really sacrosanct is the use of Hestiea’s bare name, making her (maybe) more than she was, in order to pump up a feminist agenda. Golly, A Woman In Antiquity Who Wrote.

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36 Responses to “Original research” at Wikipedia

  1. cheeseeating says:

    I think you slightly misunderstand the way things work in wikipedia. The “no original research” rule is in place to make sure that wikipedia is not deluged by the work of 21st century hacks who have all kind of axes to grind. You’d be surprised at their number and industriousness. The no OR rule allows to eliminate most of their incursions in a principled way, serving as a gate–keeping technique.

    Now, you are of course a bona fide academic who knows what he is talking (em, writing) about. But how can other wikipedia editors tell?

    On a practical note, I’d suggest replacing the 19th century reference with a new one – surely someone has written on Hestiea since then in a scholarly publication. I’m sure no good wikipedians would object to that.

  2. cheeseeating says:

    By the way, is McLaren a hack or not? You seem to agree with his interpretation. And what has Judy Chicago to do with it?

  3. Bill Thayer says:

    Having wasted a good deal of time over a span of several years, now many years behind me, editing Wikipedia, I’m familiar with the reason for “no original research”, and I agree, it makes good sense: as you say, I’ve seen lots of attempts to perpetrate agendas on Wikipedia.

    But replacing a 19c secondary citation (which doesn’t in the least say what the Wikipedia article says) by the ipsissima verba of the author that that 19c author specifically refers to — tell me in what way that’s original research?

    No, MacLaren was not in the least a hack, actually. An acerbic characterization by yours truly, who has seen too many similar 19c works though by people who definitely were hacks.

    Here in fact, we have the Axe to Grind winning out over a sober report of what is known, because it accommodates the running bias in Wikipedia. I have nothing, far from it, against reporting on the greatness of ancient women, endless examples of which are provided to us by history: but turning an apparently minor author into an icon for the sake of modern propaganda is ahistorical.

    Judy Chicago is the genesis of the article: there is no doubt in my mind that Hestiaea would not have her article in Wikipedia (based on a single sentence in Strabo!) were it not for her resuscitation by the feminist artist. Ms. Chicago has done something good in celebrating ancient women and their contributions; but Truth is the best celebration of all.

    And no, I’m not a bona fide academic, or indeed an academic of any kind; but I can read, and have the texts of Strabo and MacLaren in front of me, and can’t pull nonsense out of them.

  4. cheeseeating says:

    Okay, then we are less at a difference here than I thought. I was just afraid that you were throwing the baby out with the water – wikipedia is a tremendously good thing and I hate seeing it disparaged. Bad experiences occur there, of course, like in every place. Do you want me to lend a hand in fixing this? I tried to find something about Hestiaea on Google Scholar but didn’t.

  5. Bill Thayer says:

    Wikipedia is useful in certain areas: in medicine and the sciences, I’m told, it’s pretty good. But in the humanities — which look so much easier, hey everyone understands that stuff — Wikipedia gets a “D” from me. It’s useful for one thing — finding links to sources — and even then not always: especially that link rot is increasingly unpoliced, i.e., more and more external links are 404′s. But less trivially, here’s a case in point: you want to know where our information about this obscure woman comes from? Why from a specific passage of Strabo. Someone adds the citation in, it’s deleted.

    No, Wikipedia is not — for the humanities — a good thing. It’s so unreliable and ridden with mistakes that nothing it says can be trusted, and certainly not adduced in evidence for anything.

  6. Roger says:

    The question we have to ask about Wikipedia “policies” is where do they come from, and how are they enforced. They are devised in the main by anonymous teenagers, and they are enforced capriciously, without common sense or judgement, by the same anonymous teenagers.

    The question with Wikipedia is the same as for any website: is what it says accurate? At the moment, the “policies” are used as excuses to prevent accuracy.

    I am coming to the view that — for the humanities — Wikipedia is increasingly a parasite on the internet, and that we would be better off without it. While it exists, it blocks the creation of the necessary resource, through the old paradigm that moderated fora always die when competing with unmoderated fora on the same subject.

  7. cheeseeating says:

    @Roger: I am afraid you are just ranting now. Case in point: I am not a teenager (in fact I have a Ph.D., but not in history). Neither are many other editors.

  8. Roger says:

    @cheeseating: I have no interest in the claims of people who don’t dare put their name to their statements.

  9. cheeseeating says:

    @Roger: If you meant me, I just mailed you my name. You can look me up :)

    Anyway, I invite you to consider the wikipedia policies: they are mature, neutral, serious and moderate. Are they likely to be the handiwork of teenagers or of more serious people?

  10. Bill Thayer says:

    Yeah, Roger, that’s not as fair as it could be — much like my own marking Charles MacLaren as a hack . . . — like our pseudonymous friend says, there are plenty of people editing Wikipedia (including the person who mindlessly reverted me) who aren’t teenagers at loose ends. But both the (very many) teenagers and the bias in Wikipedia are part of the same problem: while democracy is a very good thing in terms of the equal rights and value of every human being, knowledge is not a democracy. Crowd-sourcing will ultimately produce not knowledge of things themselves, but our own reflection, the Zeitgeist of our time.

  11. cheeseeating says:

    @Bill Thayer: I am very much in agreement with you point (re: Zeitgeist). However, I like to think that on the more arcane subjects (such as Hestiea about whom I never heard before – so thanks for that! :)) the ones who will care more will be the experts (or at least knowledgeable people) and so those articles will end up shaped by them and not by the “crowd”. Perhaps I am wrong, time will tell.

  12. Bill Thayer says:

    By the way, Cheese, your pseudonym is nicely appropriate to the discussion at hand: Strabo repeatedly points to the eating of cheese as the defining mark of a civilized people. (See for example Sir Thomas Browne and his annotator — not me — in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, VI.7.)

  13. cheeseeating says:

    That’s hilarious! I always knew that my predilection for cheese marked for great things – but this? :) :)

  14. Bill Thayer says:

    You are quite right about the arcane subjects. For the reason you give, the less important the article, the more likely it is to be OK; which is why I was so disappointed by the turn of things this morning. I very rarely edit Wikipedia, only doing so when I feel it likely to do some good.

    But even in the arcaner articles, problems occur. For articles beyond the ken of our own time, Wikipedia usually starts by cribbing from the 1911 Britannica (which, understandably, Wikipedia in general then disparages!) — OK so far — then “adjusts” these articles. Unfortunately, many editors can’t read, and a decent EB article is often turned into hash.

    Case in point, the article Gaetano Vestris, where several errors were introduced. It was bad enough that I felt compelled to put up the original EB 1911 article, untinkered with. A comparison of the two is instructive. (Checking just now, I notice that since I put the EB article up, the Wickedpedia entry has gotten slightly worse.)

  15. Roger says:

    @Cheeseeater: A casual search reveals this information on the ages of editors from Wikipedia itself:


    - 25% are minors (below 18).
    - 50% are at or below 22 years of age.
    - 75% are at or below 30 years of age.

    - About half have no higher education, and/or are still in primary or secondary school.

    Now you objected — rather rudely — to my statement “They are devised in the main by anonymous teenagers, and they are enforced capriciously, without common sense or judgement, by the same anonymous teenagers.” Perhaps you would offer evidence that this is wrong, if you believe that it is?

    Note that it’s not much of an objection to reply, “I’m 25 so clearly this is rubbish”. Nor “I know at least one other editor who is 50″.

    Likewise you made the claim that the Wikipedia policies content is “mature, neutral, serious and moderate”. Why? Have you investigated these policies? Who created them, when, and why? What they changed, and why?

    Why not look again at the post? Why are we here? Because … of a stupid editor and a stupid policy.

  16. Roger says:

    I agree that more obscure articles tend to be left alone, because none of the people who have power in Wikipedia care about them. Thus the expert can actually do something (unless he is unfortunate enough to attract the attention of a troll).

    That isn’t exactly a resounding endorsement of Wikipedia, its (actual) policies, or those contributing to it.

  17. cheeseeating says:

    @Roger: With all due respect, I think you have an undue fixation on power in wikipedia.

    The whole idea is that there is no one editor or group of editors with more power than other editors! Then how are articles to evolve? By concensus. If somebody reverts your edits, you can argue with them (and in many cases they turn out to be reasonable and smart people and one of you ends up convinced of the other’s point). If this doesn’t work, the argument can be taken up in a larger forum.

    Now this does tend to produce rather mellow results on the topics du jour. Case in point: the Haffez al-Assad article. Take a look at its talk page and you’ll see what I mean. On the other hand, the arcane subjects are less interesting to the general public and therefore on them the experts can do more experiments.

  18. cheeseeating says:

    PS. There are admins of course. They ban the actual trolls – have you me them. There are people who randomly insert expletives into articles, who push political agendas agressively, etc. They are the real trolls, not the regular folks who sometimes misguidedly apply the policies.

    Btw, are you familiar with the term “wikilawyering”? Look it up if you aren’t. I think it’s a sign that the wikipedia community does take itself cum grano salis.

  19. cheeseeating says:

    have you me= have you met

  20. Roger says:

    Yes, that is how Wikipedia is supposed to work, according to its PR (I use the term as a shorthand; the process is more complicated than that) and the claims of those who believe it.

    Wikipedia does not, in fact, work like this. The existence of wikilawyering — I see that you know the term — should tell you that it does not work like this; that the system of consensus and policies is apparently being gamed by some individuals for advantage.

    But actually it’s worse than that. I can tell you that, in fact, the whole “system” of “consensus” and of sensible, agreed “policies” is imaginary. It isn’t being gamed at all. It just doesn’t work like that. None of those “policies” mean anything unless the people with real power want them to.

    May I suggest a look at the Wikipediocracy blog? Have a read through the articles. Have a look into the Fae affair. Think about the Roth scandal; and go and read the Human Stain article, and see who edited it, who caused the scandal, and what happened to them.

    I know that you believe the PR. I believed it myself for years. (You do realise, I suppose, that both Bill and myself were Wikipedia contributors for many years?) But the truth is otherwise.

    Of course you could just ignore what I say. The PR is very good at dismissing criticism. But the web is littered with embitted ex-Wikipedians. There is a reason for this.

    You talk about the admins, under the pardonable impression that these are in some way serving the purpose of the project. The anonymous admins are at the root of many of the problems; people obtain the tools to block and ban, not as public spirited souls, but for selfish reasons.

    I’m very sorry to disillusion you, although I fear that only hard knocks will cause you to listen. But Wikipedia is a nasty, unsafe place, in which such things as “attack pages” are commonplace. And the belief you have — essentially manufactured by the owners of Wikipedia — means that you run the risk of harm if you are involved with it. Seriously … you need to look into this more deeply. For your own self-protection.

    Incidentally your comments would receive more attention if you did not invariably begin them with a personal remark. Hmm?! :-)

  21. cheeseeating says:

    @Roger: Can you post links to pages about the Fae affair and Roth scandal?

  22. Roger says:

    Sorry: really tied up.

  23. Bill Thayer says:

    Cheese, I wouldn’t characterize simple statements of fact as “experiments”!

    Yes, in practice there’s often a “winning side” for each Wikipedia page: a person or small group that controls the page, and imposes its bias on it. And bias there is, in spades.

    And Roger does address something I’d stayed away from: civility is not WP’s strong suit. I finally left when someone threatened to bash my head in, or some similar very violent language that on the street would have constituted actionable assault.

  24. Bill Thayer says:

    And finally — after this somewhat tentacular side trip — that section of Strabo is up onsite, Book XIII, chapter 1 (part 2), the Hestiaea passage being in XIII.1.36.

    And it’s good to see that someone at Roger’s Wikipediocracy board has caught me out in a false statement: there’s an even more obscure reference to this woman in an author known as “pseudo-Didymus”, previously unknown to me. They’ve actually, against their better judgment, gone in and fixed the WP article, and so far haven’t been reverted. That’s the way WP is supposed to work. . . .

  25. cheeseeating says:

    Perhaps there is hope after all!

    And I was really aggrieved to read about your harrowing experience involving threats. Very sorry about that.

    My experience so far has been different: somehow in a year and a half of editing articles, mostly about history, 95% of the people I came across were open-minded, reasonable and cooperative. The other 5% were various combinations of bigoted, stupid and narrowminded but even they were relatively polite.

    (I’ll try to respond to Roger’s points later, I too have work to do…)

  26. Roger says:

    The reference to “pseudo-Didymus” is the really interesting bit! Clearly a scholiast on the Iliad.

    My guess would be that the reference is to vol. 3 of “Erbse, H. 1969-88, Scholia Graeca in Homeri Iliadem, 7 vols. (Berlin)”.

    The guide to ancient scholia is Dickey’s “Ancient Greek scholarship” (2007), for producing which solid piece of work — instead of some “research” — she was sacked by her university. This tells me (p.7):

    “The greatest producer of composite commentaries, and probably the most prolific of all ancient scholars, was the Alexandrian Didymus Chalcenterus (“brazenguts”), who lived in the second half of the first century bc and the beginning of the first century ad.18 Didymus is said to have written 3,500 or 4,000 books and was nicknamed bibliolathas” because he allegedly could not remember what he had written. He put together the writings of Aristarchus and other scholars in order to compile hundreds of composite commentaries on Homer, Demosthenes, and other literary works, as well as producing lexica and monographs; the remains of his commentaries are our primary source of knowledge of the Alexandrians’ critical work. Most of the commentaries survive only in extracts preserved in later works, …”


    “This Didymus is (probably) to be distinguished from a number of other scholars named Didymus, including Didymus minor / Didumos” ho neuteros”, a Greek grammarian in Alexandria in the 1st cent. AD; Didymus Claudius, a Greek grammarian in Rome in the early 1st cent. AD; Didymus son of Heraclides, a Greek grammarian in Rome in the mid-1st cent. AD; and Didymus the Blind, a theologian in Alexandria in the 4th cent. ad. See NP iii: 553–4, RE v.i: 472–4, and Fraser (1972: ii. 686).”

    and (p.20):

    “The D scholia are unfortunately named after Didymus, with whom they are now known to have no connection; they are also known as “scholia minora” or “scholia vulgata.” They are the largest group of Homeric scholia, and our earliest manuscript evidence for them is older than that for the other types of scholia, for the chief witnesses to the D scholia are manuscripts Z and Q, which date to the ninth and eleventh centuries respectively.”

    There is a pirate PDF of the book doing the rounds, but I ended up buying the (reasonably) book as well – how else can one absorb so much hard info on so obscure a subject?

  27. Bill Thayer says:

    Aha. The true Didymus (underlying the pseudo-, whoever he — or she — might be) is someone we know about; although I’ve transcribed so much stuff I can’t remember everything I have onsite, I do actually remember the Gut-of-Brass part, who wouldn’t? Ammian, XXII.16.16, Isidore, VI.7.

    It looks like Didymus had a lot of twins. . . .

  28. Roger says:

    I’m guessing that “pseudo-Didymus” means a scholion in the D scholia, and printed by Erbse. (I have no access to the latter or I would look). The scholia on the Iliad are all stuff written in the margins of various of the medieval manuscripts of the Iliad.

    Alternatively it may be a scholion, which is attributed to Didymus in whatever source is quoted, but the scholars don’t think it is him.

    I wish we could get to this.

  29. Love history dearly and correctly.So sorry Wiki has become a question mark since I use it for most all my inquires.When has history been superceded by people too small to admit being incorrect and/or responsible about it?What are good Wiki alternatives?Please help.Need truth and top notch redearch to satisfy appetite for history and current events.Garry in Kentucky.

  30. Bill Thayer says:

    The best alternative is still, and for the foreseeable future — let’s call that 7 or 8 years, progress moves fast! — a reputable print encyclopedia (the Britannica has moved online, but of course it’s a pay site), your public library, or, if you’re lucky, a university library.

    Now you shouldn’t get too discouraged. Wikipedia almost never will tell you that the American Revolution was fought between Germany and India in the 11th century, and for rough approximations, it’s fine, although I wouldn’t write a term paper citing it. But for details, or when a balanced viewpoint is needed, or at least something whose bias is stated, head for a printed book. The main problem with Wikipedia is essentially that it can’t be trusted on any one point; but add to that also, that bad writing, often the effect of writing by what is essentially a committee, can make the articles very confusing and very open to misinterpretation. Dio Chrysostom, in an amusing passage, describes what a horse would look like if designed by Wikipedia: 77/78.22

    As a rule of thumb, the more recent the history, the less good the online resources. Two reasons for this: (1) recent history means recent writing, and books recently written remain under copyright, so cannot be put online, barring special circumstances; (2) the more recent the history, the more we bump into editorial agendas, often sponsored by governments, religious denominations, political parties, etc.

    So classical Antiquity remains the best-covered history online; and I don’t say it because I deal in it (although I’ve helped, of course), but because very early on, university professors got involved in putting it online. Why? I’ve never figured it out.

  31. Bill Thayer says:

    And PS: will be interested to see what you do with your blog space. I have a patch of Kentucky on my site — mostly the little town of Jenkins in the far SE corner; my main Kentucky page is here.

  32. Thank you very much for your prompt reply.I read Wiki every day,but with a grain of salt lately.I greatly admire R.E.Lee,like most all history(especially the ancients[Sumer,Egypt and for some reason my interest in Greece and Rome is nothing like it used to be])but Lacus Curtius I find endlessly fascinating and bottomless(very good.)I keep up with Livius also.Roman-Britain is also a great favorite.I am rambling.So,I am a Kentuckian through and through have seen your Kentucky sites and enjoyed them.Kudos to you and the Livius people and keep it up…..I will watch and keep in touch.Garry in Kentucky.

  33. Bill,since you mention the SE corner of the state of Kentucky,did you watch any of the recent Hatfield/McCoy Feud on TV?I did not since TV is so busy dramatizing they forget there is an factual story behind it all.But regardless,in the 70′s,I met an old man in Louisville who was born and lived in that part of the country and had seen old Anse and he said that the old rascal always sat on his porch with a shotgun in his lap and he said just the look in the old mans eye was plenty enough to discourage greetings.This is when he himself was very young.Good stuff!Garry in Kentucky.

  34. Bill Thayer says:

    No, although I was aware of it; not much of a TV person, except for baseball games. The feud was right next doors, the next county over from Jenkins where I usually go when in Kentucky — visiting a friend — and amusingly, I’ve never seen such a concentration of lawyers’ offices in my life as in Pikeville (diary, June 22, 2006) although I think for a different reason altogether: county seat in a coal mining community.

  35. Bill Thayer says:

    Oh, and another PS: Roman-Britain.Org is very, very good — the best site out there on any part of the Roman Empire — and gave us quite a scare when it was offline for what I think was several months. Interestingly, once I alerted Twitter to it, it came back online within 2 days. Just possibly, Kevan didn’t realize there was a server problem or something like that, and someone got back to him. Twitter can be useful.

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