by Greg Mayer
Close readers of WEIT will know that I rarely cite or link to Wikipedia (other than for images), and that I have occasionally promised to at some point say more about this. This won’t be a full account, but a recent spectacular example of Wikipedia’s ability to spread error has been reported by Eric Randall at The New Yorker, and deserves a mention: the coati has been widely cited as the “Brazilian **rdv*rk”! (See note below.)
Coatis are New World members of the order Carnivora, in the same family as raccoons. Indeed, they look very much like raccoons with long noses and skinny tails. They are not at all related closely to aardvarks, which are are of course African, and members of the very distinctive mammalian order Tubulidentata. (Their name means ‘earth pig’, from Dutch/Afrikaans). Here’s how the coatis’ new name got started and spread:
In July of 2008, Dylan Breves, then a seventeen-year-old student from New York City, made a mundane edit to a Wikipedia entry on the coati. The coati, a member of the raccoon family, is “also known as … a Brazilian **rdv*rk,” Breves wrote. He did not cite a source for this nickname, and with good reason: he had invented it….
Adding a private gag to a public Wikipedia page is the kind of minor vandalism that regularly takes place on the crowdsourced Web site. When Breves made the change, he assumed that someone would catch the lack of citation and flag his edit for removal.
Over time, though, something strange happened: the nickname caught on. About a year later, Breves searched online for the phrase “Brazilian **rdv*rk.” Not only was his edit still on Wikipedia, but his search brought up hundreds of other Web sites about coatis. References to the so-called “Brazilian **rdv*rk” have since appeared in the Independent, the Daily Mail, and even in a book published by the University of Chicago. Breves’s role in all this seems clear: a Google search for “Brazilian **rdv*rk” will return no mentions before Breves made the edit, in July, 2008. The claim that the coati is known as a Brazilian **rdv*rk still remains on its Wikipedia entry, only now it cites a 2010 article in the Telegraph as evidence.
This kind of feedback loop—wherein an error that appears on Wikipedia then trickles to sources that Wikipedia considers authoritative, which are in turn used as evidence for the original falsehood—is a documented phenomenon. There’s even a Wikipefeedback loopdia article describing it.
The erroneous name has now been removed from Wikipedia, and a note on its origin and fate, citing Randall’s piece, has been appended to the coati article.
This episode reminded me of one of my own earliest experiences as a Wikipedia editor: getting rid of an article about an “event” made up by another Wikipedia editor. Sometime about early 2006, I became aware of an article in Wikipedia on the “W*ll**ms R*v*l*t**n”. This was supposed to be a development in the history of evolutionary biology brought about by George C. Williams (who was indeed one of the 20th century’s great and influential evolutionary biologists). But I had never heard of such a thing– and I’m an at least reasonably well-read evolutionary biologist, plus I knew Williams at Stony Brook. I tried to find out if anyone else had ever heard of it. Here’s what I posted on Williams’ Wikipedia talk page:
I’ve already noted this on the talk page for “W*ll**ms R*v*l*t**n”, but this term seems to be a strictly Wikipedia term, invented for Wikipedia. All the references I can find to it online, including in chat groups, seem traceable to the Wikipedia entry. I’ve never encountered it in the literature of evolutionary biology, or anywhere else in print. It’s also not a terribly appropriate term. I have nothing but the greatest admiration and appreciation for Williams’ contributions, most notably his Adaptation and Natural Selection, but his critique of group selection and advocacy of gene-level selection were much more a “restoration” than a revolution (Darwin clearly rejected group selection, with the clear exception that he contemplated it as a possibility in social insects); furthermore, a number of others at about the same time (e.g. W.D. Hamilton) and slightly later (e.g. Richard Dawkins) had as much or more to do with the elaboration of a strictly gene-centered view (especially as opposed to an individual selection view) as did Williams, so it doesn’t seem as if it should bear his name, or at least not his alone.But, regardless, Wikipedia should not be in the business of inventing terms. 08:34, 8 January 2006 (UTC)
Some Wikipedia editors were sure they had heard the term, but on checking their supposed sources, none could find any uses of the term that had not originated in Wikipedia. Another, more experienced Wikipedia editor, Samsara (at the time an evolutionary genetics grad student at Edinburgh), joined me in the attempt to verify the term, but there turned out to be no non-Wikipedia uses of the term that did not trace back to Wikipedia. The article was deleted. (Most of the discussion of this was on the now deleted talk page of the now deleted article.)
When Wikipedia is used as a source, errors can spread rapidly, because it’s not just used by lazy students in term papers, but also by legitimate newspapers and publishers, and especially because there are whole websites that just copy from Wikipedia, and thus seem to form independent confirmations of the errors. Of course, errors in the old, print Encyclopedia Britannica could be perpetuated and recycled too, but the internet allows errors to spread faster and further, and the Encyclopedia Britannica would never have let a a not particularly knowledgeable 17 year old to author an article.
Note: in order to prevent Google searches turning up yet more usages of the spurious terms (and thus testaments to their use and verifiability), I have not used either neologism in this post, replacing vowels with ‘*’s.
h/t Tracy Walsh at The Dish