Friday, January 29, 2010

A historybusters' tirade...

Kamehameha V and Wikipedia:
A failure to fact check or proof read

I have tutored many history students whose teachers have told them “not to cite Wikipedia as a source,” yet they seem shocked when I explain to them why.

Recently, I spent quite a lot of time on Wikipedia, doing research for a set of Historybusters’ educational card decks. I needed the public domain images available on their site, but once again I was distressed by the quality of the site’s content. For those readers who are unfamiliar with Wikipedia, it is a volunteer, community-edited, free, on-line Encyclopedia. Any member of the Internet community may sign up to write articles, expand articles, or edit mistakes. Writers are expected to cite sources to primary documents in order to support any facts they include in their articles. A community of volunteer editors works to police new articles and ensure that additions meet Wikipedia’s expectations. This experiment in community editing has proven quite popular, and the site is usually the first link offered up on search engines like Google whenever students type in research word strings. Sadly, the site doesn’t always catch its mistakes or cite its contributor’s additions, which is why most educators tell their students not to use it.

Case in point:

According to the Wikipedia entry for Hawai’i’s King Kamehameha V, he “fell deeply in love with his cousin, Abigail Maheha at the Royal School. He was only 5 years old when he was caught sleeping with Abigail She became pregnant with his child when he was 15 and she 13. On February 4, 1846 when she was 6 months pregnant, she was removed from the Royal School, separated from Lot Kapuaiwa and forced to marry Keaupuni a commoner from Koloa Kauai, the gardener of her adopted mother Miriam Kekauonohi. These events could have led the young Prince to his renounce marriage for the rest of his life, including that to his adopted sister Bernice Pauahi Paki. She eventually married Charles R. Bishop.”

Now, I won’t even mention the poor writing quality with its passive construction and missing puntuation marks. Ooops, I guess that I just mentioned them. Ahh well. What I really wanted to point out is the lack of primary source references within this article. When I broke out my family copy of The Hawaiian Chiefs’ Children’s School by Mary A. Richards, which contains first hand accounts of her Grandparents’ experiences as the school’s teachers, I discovered that Miss Abigail Maheha was indeed “excused from the school activities,” on January 18, 1847, and on February 4, 1847, she was married to the commoner Keaupuni—“a scholar of the High School, but without any diploma.” I guess that I can forgive an online encyclpedia for getting the year off by one, after all, what is one year in the life of a nation. However, The Hawaiian Chiefs’ Children’s School makes no mention of Lot Kamehameha’s involvement in the event. It does however mention Lot’s brother Moses Kekuaiwa, who was expelled from the school over that same period because of ceratin “escapades, but lightly touched upon in his written confession.” It seems that Lot’s older brother was the lad who had the affair with little Abigail. So what is the big deal? Well, consider the rest of this particular Wikipedia entry:

“Rumors has it that (Lot) ask's Bernice to take the Throne. As Lot laid bedstricken, he answered those that came to visit him while preparations for his birthday celebration was underway: "The Good Lord cannot take me today, today is my birthday". He was steadfest, (onipa'a) he believed till the end that he would recover, meaning he never proposed the Throne to Bernice! What is true is that a rumor of such could be of great help in conniving everyone to believe that Bernice should inherit thru Princess Ruth the Bulk of the Kamehameha Lands. Today, the 300 plus descendents of Lot Kapuaiwa Kamehameha and Abigail Maheha thru their only daughter Keanolani, are the only Direct Lineal Descendents of the Kamehameha Dynasty, for Lot was the last of the Kamehameha's to sit upon the Throne, therefore making his Branch the Lineal Branch. All other branches are either collateral or issued of a branch that was not the last of the Kamehameha's to rule . About 150 of then still live on the island of Kauai with about 100 of them in or around the Town of Hanapepe.”

If you can get past the use of an exclaimation point in an encyclopedia entry without throwing your hands up in disgust, you can see that this entry wishes to claim that “the only Direct Lineal Descendents of the Kamehameha Dynasty” belongs to a family on Kaua’i and that the “Bulk of the Kamehameha Lands” should not have gone to Bernice Pauahi Bishop as they did. Now, I am not going to write a history paper explaining why such a claim seems totally unfounded to me. I will simply enourage you to research the lives of King Lot Kamehameh V and Bernice Pauahi Bishop on your own, without relying on Wikipedia or any seconday source. You might just discover the deep repect and affection they held for each other. You might also discover that Lot never “renounced marriage for the rest of his life,” he simply gave his blessing to Bernice’s choice of husband, releasing her from their expected royal betrothal with the words, “She is to good for me.”

Now don’t get me wrong. Wikipedia has its uses. I use it to find public domain images and remind myself of names or dates that I might have forgotten. I also have found some wonderful primary source websites by visiting the external links providied at the bottom of each Wikipedia entry. However, just as often, I have found patently commercial links that are full of specularion, gossip, opinion, and regurgitated wives’ tales. So if you do allow youself, or your young scholars, to use Wikipedia, teach them to be skeptical and always double check all Internet facts with multiple primary source materials.

A few people that I have shared this story with have suggested that I become an editor for Wikipeadia. I remind them that Wikipedia recruites a volunteer army. Editing and fact checking for Wikipeadia is a full time occupation, and I have my own wars to fight. Indeed, the volunteer army that Wikipeadia has asembled has done an amazing job. I simply suggest that we as participents need to be familiar with their fight, so we will not be misinformed by any of their overlooked battles.

I also suggest that when you do research, you try out the educational websearch available on our members' site. Here is the link:

As always happy historybusting...

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