Thursday, April 30, 2009
Primary Sources 101 and Pseudopedia revisited
Nearly a year ago, I wrote an essay here on the unreliability of Wikipedia as a source for information, given its generally poor grounding in primary sources.
Today, a reader referred me to the Wikipedia entry on the increasingly famous—Blogospherically, that is—Barbary Pirates quote. Once again, Wikipedia disappoints.
To recap the overarching issue here: There are two facets to the problem of primary sources:
1) the reliability of a verbatim quote of the original source being used;
2) an adequately thorough reference to that original source.
On both accounts, in terms of this Barbary Pirates quote, Wikipedia fails. I have already exhaustively analyzed the proper nature of primary sources and their referencing in this specific context in three separate essays—here, here and here.
Today, I just want to present the inadequacies of the Wikipedia entry on the Barbary Pirates quote. With regard to #1 above, we see that the Wikipedia entry varies from the actual quote which I finally found and provided (see the third linked essay above for full details).
Wikipedia: “concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury”
Actual quote: “concerning the Grounds of their pretentions to make war upon Nations who had done them no Injury”.
In this phrase alone, we see four variances—three in terms of incorrect capitalization or non-capitalization of words, and one in terms of actual wording (“the pretensions” for “their pretensions”).
A tangential fault in this particular locus of the Wikipedia presentation is in the grammatical syntax of the introductory phrasing:
Upon inquiring "concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury", the ambassador replied...
The grammatical syntax of the phrasing demands the interpretation that it was the ambassador who was doing the inquiring which is then quoted. This is flatly incorrect: it was Jefferson and Adams who did the inquiring of the ambassador. A second grammatical/syntactical flaw here involves the clear, but incoherent, implication by the Wikipedia author as he segues into the quote that it is the ambassador actually speaking, whereas it is clear from the primary source in the Boyd edition that Jefferson and Adams were paraphrasing him. The Wikipedia implication is incoherent because as the reader goes on to read the quote, he can plainly see that it is making third-person references (e.g., “in their Koran”; and more vividly a little later on, “He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel...”: a person speaking is not going to say about himself, “He said...”!). Thus, when the Wikipedia introduces this quote with—“...the ambassador replied:”—it strongly implies that what follows will be an actual quote, not just a paraphrase.
[... the ambassador replied:] It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.
The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.
a) the first “it” is capitalized, thus ignoring the fact that what the ambassador replied does not start the sentence as it is presented in the primary source, but begins after “The Ambassador answered us that...”
b) the phrase “founded on the Laws of their Prophet” is absent—this is of some significance, seeing as most Westerners today are still ignorant of the fact that the vast majority of Muslims do not merely follow the Koran, but also the Sunna, which is precisely the “Laws of their Prophet” (i.e., the Hadiths and Fiqh)
c) Wikipedia has “...all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners...”, while the actual quote is “...that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners...” (right here we can count three variances)
d) Wikipedia has “...whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave...”, while the actual quote is “...that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners...” (here the variances are so great and convolved, mere attempts at enumerating them is pointless).
As I stressed in my previous essays on primary sources, a primary source is a quote, and a quote must be both verbatim and singular: one cannot have multiple renderings of a quote floating around—at least not if one wants to provide verifiable proof of a claim being made.
The Wikipedia quote goes on to mention the further spicy detail about how Muslim pirates actually go about their business of seizing ships and boarding them. I regret to say that I cannot remember clearly whether that additional detail was in the source I found when I was at the library and had the book in hand. If it was, I must have decided against including it. I would have made that decision based on my estimation that the main quote was more than adequate to convey the astounding fact of a respectable professional Muslim—i.e., an official diplomat—in 1786 matter-of-factly justifying piracy on the grounds of the Koran and the Sunna; and that thus the extra spice about pirates boarding ships would only distract from this “money quote”. In addition, my focus on that “money quote” without the added spicy detail concerns the fact that the quote that has been bandied about on the Blogosphere, in my experience, has never included that added spicy detail.
To be tentatively fair to Wikipedia at this point, it could well be that there exist—in the primary sources themselves—at least two versions of this account. We cannot accord Wikipedia this benefit of the doubt, however—not only because of the variances we broke down above, but also in terms of the second facet I listed above: to wit, an adequately thorough reference to that original source.
I.e., if Wikipedia had provided a complete reference to their quote, then one could more easily locate that reference, adjudge that it is indeed a credible primary source, and then conclude that there must be, originally, two versions—i.e., that Jefferson and/or Adams had paraphrased their encounter with the ambassador on some occasion other than the one which I located as reproduced on pages 357-9 in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (34 volumes on the shelf), Julian P. Boyd, Editor, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1954. And if such a second original version exists, it would be nice if someone would actually acknowledge their existence as such, analyze their discrepancy, and then reference both adequately. Even nicer would be the location somewhere, perhaps in a study by a credible historian, of an explanation for why Jefferson and/or Adams produced a second version. Of course, apparently we cannot rely on Wikipedia to do any of this. They must have more important things to do.
Let us examine the Wikipedia reference for this quote: footnote 22.
It takes us to this citation --
"American Peace Commissioners to John Jay," March 28, 1786, "Thomas Jefferson Papers," Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827, Library of Congress.
-- followed by this link: LoC: March 28, 1786.
The reader who follows that link will see it is a photograph of what is supposed to be the handwritten original. It looks like the page is dated "March 28, 1786" -- thought that "8" could also be a "6" (or even a zero). Also, the photographic reproduction compounded by Jefferson's doctor-like handwriting makes for painful, and mostly unsuccessful, reading. I can barely make out in the first sentence "a conference with the Ambassador of Tripoli," and try as I may, I can't seem to find on that page any of the other crucial wording of the famous quote. Apparently, Wikipedia reproduced the wrong page.
Secondly, there's a problem with that official title. The actual title of the original which I beheld in my hands (albeit, typographically reproduced by the editor of the Jefferson papers, Julian P. Boyd, noted above) says "American Commissioners to John Jay" not "American Peace Commissioners to John Jay". As to the rest of the Wikipedia title, it apparently refers to the handwritten original whose photograph (of the wrong page) they provide. However, the Wikipedia citation lacks the elementary nuts and bolts of any proper citation: a date of publication, notation of the editor or editors for this “General Correspondence”, and pagination.
The second part of footnote 22 leads the reader to a citation -- The Atlantic Monthly (Volume 30, Issue 180, October 1872). "Jefferson, American Minister in France" -- a source which Wikipedia provides a link to leading to a free Google book which contains it.
Aside from the relatively minor discrepancy that, in the immediate secondary source, Cornell University Library’s “Making of America” series that provides journals from historical archives, the “monthly” is not capitalized, we see immediately that this must have been the source which the Wikipedia author used for his quote, as the two are identical. I already analyzed the problem of the Atlantic monthly quote in the above linked essay. While the 19th-century writer who provided it, James Parton, seems to have been a credible historian otherwise, his handling of this quote is rather sloppy -- perhaps because of the venue in which he was writing. And, of course, the main problem with it is the presentation of multiple variances in wording compared with the actual primary source from the Boyd edition.
Once again, we consult Wikipedia and find it wanting at the precise and crucial point where it all matters most: the primary source that would verify a given claim, and the proper reference citation to that primary source. Thus Pseudopedia remains the better name for that rather bloated, vulgar and, unfortunately, promiscuously utilized enterprise which bills itself as a “multilingual, Web-based, free-content encyclopedia project”.