Strong opinions, weakly held

A profound thought on the EssJay affair

David Robinson at Freedom to Tinker makes a profound observation about what the EssJay affair that involved Wikipedia and The New Yorker teaches us. The professional fact checkers at The New Yorker were fooled just as completely by Ryan Jordan as the editors at Wikipedia were. His argument is that The New Yorker still provides value because people at least expect it to be correct, whereas they don’t have that expectation for Wikipedia. I’m not so sure.


  1. If The New Yorker decided to do an article on my employer, and my boss introduced me to the reporter as an alumnus of MIT, I don’t think the reporter, or even the fact-checker, would demand that I show them an official transcript before describing me as an MIT alumnus in the article. So I can’t fault The New Yorker for extending the same level of trust to one of their online sources.

  2. I disagree with Seth. To wit, the fact checkers at The New Yorker clearly did drop the ball when they took Essjay at his word, just as Jimbo Wales dropped the ball when he failed to vet Essjay prior to appointing him to Wikipedia’s ArbCom. It was a perfect storm of fraud and gullibility, wherein Essjay’s initial deception was bolstered and bootstrapped by his reputation as a trusted Wikipedia contributor, and those who had rational doubts about Essjay’s credentials failed to speak up. Even now, there’s a large contingent of high-ranking Wikipedians with administrative privileges who are loyal to Essjay and are censoring much of the internal criticism of Essjay that would otherwise appear on Wikipedia. This reminds me of the Piltdown Man hoax, which was an obvious fraud that was exposed quite early, but was not properly publicized for decades because so many experts had bought into the lie. At the same time, I cannot fault Jimbo or The New Yorker for being deceived, as they have apologized and taken subsequent remedial measures. What I can and do fault is the culture of credentialism that is so easily exploited by impostors. For a longer tome on my views, please see my recent blog post.

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