February 22, 2007

Wikipedia's Bad Writing and Good Facts

by PG

Of course, the Wikipedians have already responded to the NYTimes article about Middlebury College's history department's banning citation of the online encyclopedia. Though the article concludes, "And yes, back at Wikipedia, the Jesuits are still credited as supporting the Shimabara Rebellion," within hours of the article's online publication, someone had added "citation needed," and by the time I read the article today, another person commented,

The offending sentence from the article was (now deleted): "... the rebels themselves were backed by the foreign power of the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Church." which is in fact accurate, but ambiguous. The students at Middlebury took it to mean physical backing (troops, supplies, money, etc..) which is wrong - when the original author (I assume) meant it to mean the Jesuits were "rooting" for the rebels to win (obviously). Just a case of poor writing on Wikipedia, but the facts were not wrong. With that said I support Prof. Neil Waters in not allowing Wikipedia, or any encyclopedia, to be cited by history students - professional historians don't cite encyclopedias.
The "don't cite Wikipedia because you shouldn't cite encyclopedias at all" line is the official one. The NYT article quotes Wikipedia co-founder Jimbo Wales as saying, “Basically, they are recommending exactly what we suggested -- students shouldn’t be citing encyclopedias. I would hope they wouldn’t be citing Encyclopaedia Britannica, either." But while citing encyclopedia entries on a topic of which one is supposed to be demonstrating expertise is obviously bad work, what about the citation to Wikipedia for simple facts that are not in themselves the point of one's writing?

A quick Lexis search shows the online encyclopedia to have been mentioned 1885 times in decisions, Supreme Court briefs and legal periodicals. Wikipedia has been cited in everything from a recent Posner opinion giving background about the defendant ("Radomski is a former trainer of the Polish boxer Andrew Golota -- the world's most colorful boxer. See http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Andrew_Golota") to an amicus brief in the Supreme Court Seattle school assignment case* that cites Wikipedia multiple times on controversial subjects such as race, anti-semitism and apartheid, and defends it as "[a] source arguably more accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica. See www.nature.com/news/2005/051212/full/438900a.html." The Nature piece does acknowledge, however, that the quality of writing in Wikipedia is worse than that in Britannica, and this amateur style and lack of editing in the former appears, in the case of the Jesuits in the Shimabara Rebellion, to have caused there to be a sentence easily misinterpreted in such a way as to create factual error.

The Posner citation is harmless; even if the Andrew Golota entry is full of errors, it's an amusing parenthetical. The Seattle amicus brief is far more problematic, given that its arguments rest on a discussion of race and discrimination, but Wikipedia remains in the footnotes. In the case of Gilroy v. Letterman, I fear that if the plaintiff cited Wikipedia accurately, the online encyclopedia provides false hope to litigious lunatics: "UNPOPULAR SUBJECTS: THE BASIS COURTS MAY USE FOR DISMISSAL: Wikipedia encyclopedia stated that 'unpopular subject(s)' are the real reason that courts Dismiss cases when they provide 'Delusional' as their reason for dismissal."

* This brief is an astonishing piece of work, written by Timothy Don-Hugh Mak. An Australian with a Columbia LLM (!), he concerns himself with the litigation because his niece and nephew are American citizens whom he fears will be discriminated against because they are Asian, it claims that Mak "was the first person to question the legality of race-based affirmative action programs in Law Schools in the United States; and the first person to point out the deleterious effects of these policies on Asian students in particular"; that Asians are systematically disadvantaged by affirmative action programs; that the black and Latino students admitted also are not truly advantaged due to high dropout rates; and that such programs exist for the benefit of the white Establishment.

Based on this detailed statistical analysis and research, the main effect of affirmative action is simply to allow the not-particularly gifted offspring of the white Establishment to progress through selective high schools and universities unmolested by "unseemly" numbers of highly competitive Asian-American students.
The equation is simple: Replace hard-working ("nerdy"?) Asian-Americans with under-prepared and under-qualified minorities, thus lowering the grade averages required for the relative "success" of the "established" student population.
Thus, in one elegant move, affirmative action makes it easier for the offspring of the white Establishment to score reasonable grades and simultaneously eases their misplaced guilt over the abject poverty and disadvantage of blacks and Hispanics in their midst.
See, Asians are better at everything, including conspiracy theories. Beat that, Black Panthers!

February 22, 2007 05:41 PM | TrackBack

"Astonishing", "outrageous"....these are just some of the comments I've received regarding the brief. Frankly I'm astonished by the astonishment.

I openly admit I've always suspected that I'm completely mad (or at least have strong psychotic tendancies) and I'm happy to be proven crazy - by someone (anyone?) simply going to the data and showing me I'm mad. I've clearly laid out how my hypothesis can be disproven. Let's forget the ad hominem attacks and simply GO TO THE DATA.

A good starting point would be for Princeton to the release the data that many have been asking for. For those who want to prove that I'm a psychopath, I encourage them to go to http://www.petitiononline.com/prince07/ and sign the petition.

Once Princeton releases the data and proves I'm mad, I'm happy to go and get the appropriate drug treatments recommended for paranoid psychopaths.

I'll no doubt meet Pulitzer Price-winning wsj reporter Dan Golden at the rehab center as well. He's equally as insane.

Posted by: Timothy Don-Hugh Mak at February 27, 2007 02:59 AM

Mr. Mak,
I don't believe I've used the word "outrageous" about your brief, nor did I challenge your data in my post. What I'm doubtful about is your statement that affirmative action is for the benefit of the white Establishment, and the implication that there is a conspiracy of white privilege at work to maintain itself by keeping Asians down. Your data may show that affirmative action isn't as disadvantageous to whitefolks as the number of white plaintiffs in challenges to the policy -- such as the white plaintiffs Grutter and Gratz -- would seem to indicate. But it still doesn't do much for the claim that affirmative action helps white people and this is why the white Establishment maintains it. One can agree with the data while finding the conclusion you've drawn from it to be ridiculous.

One datum on which you rely that I would question is the claim that affirmative action does not benefit African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans who wouldn't have been admitted without it because such people all end up failing anyway. This is intensely variable depending on the institution. The University of Michigan undergrad, because it is a "sink or swim" kind of place, tends to have low black graduation rates because it fails to provide academic support to the students it admits under affirmative action. The University of Virginia, in contrast, is much more supportive and assigns tutors and peer advisors to black students, with a resulting graduation rate of 87% within 6 years -- hardly a sign of failure, particularly when the overall graduation rate is about 92%, at a public school that's 7% black, 3% Latino and negligibly Native American.

When you were an LLM at Columbia, I'm sure you observed some black, Latino and/ or Native American students whom you assumed were "affirmative action admits." Perhaps you recall who some of those people were? I could Google their names to see what their future has been, or ask the alumni office -- no doubt these failures of Columbia Law School weigh heavily on them.

Posted by: PG at February 27, 2007 03:56 AM

Fair point.

I've simply combined the Espanshade and Chung regression analysis with the work done by Richard Sander to come up with what I think is a fairly obvious (and not particularly astonishing) point.

If you cull Asians at the front gate and let in other minorities (including legacies) for reasons other than academic performance, the question is: What are you left with on graduation day? I speculate on what "residue" you're left with, but fortunately all of this is easily able to be disproven.

If you think I'm over-reaching on the issue of "intent" or "mala fides", that's perfectly understandable and I accept (both here now and in the brief) that these perverse effects may be unintended. Regardless of the issue of malicious intent, the one redeeming feature of my "astonishing" allegation is that it can be statistically proven - or disproven.

Contrast this with the circular platitudes on the benefits of "diversity" - which are neither disprovable nor even particularly plausible.

If you are correct, and I am a paranoid Asian version of the Black Panthers (armed only with an LL.M.?), the graduation rates for those admitted under affirmative action should not be "significantly" lower (in a statistical sense) than the rest of the student population. That's an easy thing to prove (or disprove). We are just a "reasonable sample size" and "standard deviation" away from the real answer - one way or the other.

If only the Ivy League colleges and the University of Michigan would release the data on graduation rates so we can all have a good look. I would encourage you to lobby the Ivy League and "elite" public colleges to release this data, as I'm sure you're as keen as I am to see what it reveals.

Again I'm prepared to immediately and unconditionally recant every allegation in the brief (and apologize for any inconvenience caused) if someone can access the data and show me I'm wrong.

Rest assured, I'm searching the internet right now for good rehab centers. I'm ready to book in for full drug treatment ("Class A paranoid psychopath") as soon as the statistical analysis is completed.

P.S. Please don't get me started on whether academic grades and SAT scores are a reasonable criterion for admission. I know all the arguments for "wholistic" review. They are "wholly" unconvincing. Whether you are a lacrosse player or not isn't used in many other countries as a criterion for admission to an academic institution, but is often useful for admission to a sporting club. The question is whether the Ivy League colleges are academic institutions or private sporting clubs. Perhaps half and half?

Posted by: Timothy Don-Hugh Mak at February 27, 2007 06:33 PM

Again, you write as though I've said things that I haven't -- I don't think I've raised the issue of what the proper criteria for admissions are. You seem to be shadowboxing against critics who have not appeared on this blog. That said, removing the athletics component probably would have *improved* the average level of academic achievement by African Americans at my alma mater, given that many athletes in the major sports such as football and basketball were admitted for what they could contribute to the team and not for what college could do for their minds; athletes in team sports routinely have less time to study than do non-athletes or those in individual-oriented sports like swimming, golf, tennis, and the pressure on football and basketball players to practice instead of study is the most intense.

Colleges and universities DO release information on their graduation rates broken down by race. I was not pulling my statistics about the University of Virginia -- normally considered an elite public school and superior to UMich -- out of thin air. I refer you to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which gets its numbers from the NCAA, for this very data that you seem to believe is so secret. (And you wonder why you come off as paranoid...) You will see that at some small, elite colleges like Smith and Wellesley, black students actually graduate at higher rates than white students, and at Wash U (which both of my siblings attended for professional school), black and white 6-year graduation rates are the same. Perhaps you don't consider these to be elite institutions, but I did ask that you point out the Columbia Law alumni whom you consider to be the failed residue of affirmative action policies.

Posted by: PG at February 27, 2007 07:08 PM

You're fighting bravely. On quicksand.

Gentle giant, keen photographer and brilliant mind Thomas Sowell has written extensively on this issue. I can't express myself half as well as he can, so I'll simply refer to you to his incisive analysis on this issue: http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=OGNlMTk1YmRmYzVjYjU1OGRhZGEzZjc4ZWZiZDNkNDA=

Evidently he's as paranoid as I am (Quote: What has happened to graduation rates of black students after being redistributed within the University of California system? Those who have asked that question have been denied the information.)

Graduation rates are kept confidential by many of the "elite" colleges, and your smattering of relatively trivial data doesn't change that. Your diligent research hasn't told me what the graduation rates are at Stanford or any of the Ivys, nor at U of M. Perhaps you've got contacts at your alma mater who can get you the data?

Your tendancy towards ad hominem attacks (do you also want to shoot the postman when a bill arrives?) and the strange need for me to regurgitate individual cases from a decade ago is a curious obsession but really doesn't progress the argument one way or the other.

Tell me when when you need some rope and I'll pull you out. I'd hate to see you drown.

Posted by: Timothy Don-Hugh Mak at February 27, 2007 08:24 PM

I am asking you for individual cases because you don't seem to be interested in aggregate data. I figured you must be basing your assumptions on personal experience of affirmative action's having admitted students who were doomed to failure, and so I want to know who those students were.

The JBHE article I linked in my last comment has black and white graduation rates for Stanford, all the Ivys and UMich. IT'S NOT CONFIDENTIAL. Perhaps you find it perfectly reasonable to keep asserting a claim that I disproved with a single Google search, but to me repeated claims about "secrecy" even in the face of information to the contrary is a typical trait of paranoia. If you don't bother to read the information I provide, I'm not going to waste my time discussing the matter any further -- you'd clearly rather maintain your ignorance (justifying it with some conspiracy of silence by elite colleges) than click a link and learn some facts.

Sowell says he's been "denied the information." That sounds like he called someone and they refused to collect data on his behalf. Guess what, no one at the UC system is getting paid to be Sowell's research assistant, and sadly, Sowell doesn't seem to have the initiative to put the information together himself, even though the NCAA has race-divided graduation data. UCLA and Berkeley both are on the JBHE chart; UC Santa Cruz's stats are here. The NCAA gets these numbers -- for the last time, they are not secret, not hidden, not confidential. They are available to anyone who isn't too lazy to run a Google search, or to click the links that someone else has provided.

Posted by: PG at February 28, 2007 01:46 PM

I have the strange sensation of trying to save a drowning man, only to have him spit in my face when I try to throw him the rope. It's funny - and yet kind of sad at the same time.

I've looked at your data. You need comparative data on average grades and graduation rates that covers ALL the students across the "racial groups" (however defined) at the "elite" schools (Ivys, Stanford, U of M, etc. Take your pick). The task is clear and nothing you've posted comes even close to that.

The stuff you've thrown up is so obviously, jaw-droppingly, trivial/irrelevant to the big picture issues I don't know what to say. Other than urge you to read Dan Golden's recently published book (and his numerous wsj articles on this issue over many years), and take another look at Thomas Sowell's extensive contributions in the area.

Your arrogance far outstrips your intellect.

I'm really worried for your local postman. Please resist the urge to shoot him, I beg you.

Posted by: Timothy Don-Hugh Mak at February 28, 2007 05:55 PM

Your comments on this post thus far have said:
If only the Ivy League colleges and the University of Michigan would release the data on graduation rates so we can all have a good look. I would encourage you to lobby the Ivy League and "elite" public colleges to release this data, as I'm sure you're as keen as I am to see what it reveals.

Graduation rates are kept confidential by many of the "elite" colleges, and your smattering of relatively trivial data doesn't change that.

Having presented you with graduation rates, now you're saying that unless I have average grade data for ALL racial groups (which, given the low representation of some groups such as Native Americans at some schools, probably would violate educational privacy by making GPAs identifiable with individuals), my data is "trivial." The UC-Santa Cruz data I linked (which I did because Sowell notes it as a school that has increased black enrollment since the end of affirmative action in CA) does have all racial groups listed, and the NCAA has similarly organized statistics for most major colleges, including the Ivys, Stanford and UMich. I'm not going to go through all of their data to pick out the charts for every one of those schools. Someone who cared more about the statistics than about making peculiar insults about shooting the messenger (note: you need to have a real message before you qualify to get shot) would be doing that himself.

Your assertion, and Sowell's, was that graduation rates were being kept secret, confidential, undisclosed. Now faced with publicly available charts of graduation rates broken down by race, you're saying that graduation rates aren't enough, you need average grades too. I don't play games where people change the rules in the middle. But I will e-mail Mr. Sowell the NCAA website and recommend that he -- and you -- do some research before declaring there to be conspiracies of silence around graduation rates. Your claim of conspiracy was what I found odd about your amicus brief; having disproved that there is any such attempt to keep graduation rates of different racial groups a secret, I'm not going to keep pointing you to data that you clearly never tried to find, else you never would have claimed that it was "secret."

I ask about your personal experience of affirmative action because you cite it in your brief (e.g., in footnote 18, where it's put on par with a study and a federal case) as a basis for your claims. Yet you refuse to discuss that experience and to point out the African Americans and Latinos at Columbia Law during your time there who were unworthy of admittance. Your brief, incidentally, contradicts your comments here, as you claim in footnote 17, "Note that one would have to show graduation rates and average grades for blacks and Hispanics admitted under affirmative action are not substantially lower than those for Asian-Americans – not whites – to disprove my thesis, but the data is available..." (emphases in original). Why the change from then to now about whether data is available?

Posted by: PG at March 1, 2007 09:45 AM

Having noticed several visits to this page from a single IP address, I am concerned that someone has commented and the comment did not go through. In fighting spam, this blog system is hypersensitive to use of terms that frequently show up in spam, including "info" and any word that includes that string. If you write a comment and it is not published immediately, please paste it to an e-mail and send to the e-mail address posted at the top right of this page for PG.

Posted by: PG at March 20, 2007 03:43 AM

Sorry, I've been incredibly busy. I did try to make another contribution a while ago but there were problems with the link (the CIA must be monitoring my e-mails). I've given more than enough "info" for you and others to chew on. I'm now looking at you through my rear-view mirror, as you slowly sink into the quicksand in the distance. My bumper sticker reads: MY KARMA JUST RAN OVER YOUR DOGMA.

Posted by: Tiimothy Don-Hugh Mak at March 20, 2007 11:55 PM

Up to 12 months ago we financially contributed funds to Wikipedia but no more, for we thought that it was a good idea and where its thinking was in unison with our own at that time - using knowledge for the good of humankind. When we as novices tried to place our Swiss charity within Wikipedia we were absolutely savaged by the editors. They in fact blocked our right of reply, which is documented by themselves.
Thereafter we even sent our registration documents via email to the then executive director of Wikimedia, the holding organization, to prove that our international group was registered as a Swiss charity. He did nothing at all. A few months later he resigned with another top Wikimedia executive, 'Jimbo's second in command. The greatest problem with Wikipedia that we now find is that they are highly selective in who should place information and where therefore they will never really have a web-based encyclopaedia that is unbiased and totally factual. It is totally at the whims of the few enlightened ones who control what should be a great reference. Unfortunately we now see that it is not.

For anyone interested further on how Wikipedia editors work, the full account including all emails is now posted on our website within our scientific discovery newsletter - http://www.thewif.org.uk/version2/nlett/class/main0.html. Overall, it is time we feel that Wikipedia looked internally at itself and that they concluded that they have major problems with the way they treat new entrants. This analysis should especially be directed towards the attitude of their editors, who remove the right of reply and delete super-quick for reasons not based on evidence but only on hearsay. By the way also, the Wikipedian Editor Zoe who first blocked us and the initial instigator of all the basic trouble, fell out with 'Jimbo' and where she as well left a few months later. Apparently she had made a vendetta against a certain professor according to 'Jimbo's' opinion. Thereafter she took her bat and ball homey and has never been seen since. I believe she also threatened the embattled professor at the time - the web link is

Dr. David Hill
Chief Executive
World Innovation Foundation Charity
Bern, Switzerland
(reg. no. CH- - 11th July 2005)

Posted by: David Hill at July 29, 2007 05:41 PM
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