I received an anonymous email from someone who was concerned that the birthdate of author Howard Zinn was presented inaccurately in this anonymous comment that was left on this old thread on this blog.
The emailer explained that the birthdate misinformation from the anonymous comment had propagated via Google, and that someone had used it as a source of biographical information for the Wikipedia entry on Howard Zinn. The email quoted a purported transcript of a message from Zinn himself, attesting to his real birthdate, which was not the same as the one cited by our anonymous commenter or, apparently, Wikipedia. (I have no idea which of these birthdates, if any, is the real one, but that doesn’t matter for this discussion.)
The emailer was eager for any Zinn birthdate records on this blog to be accurate, and I reopened comments on the old post so that he could leave a note. Let no one think that this blog would deny Howard Zinn his rightful birth anniversary.
All of the above seemed kind of wacky to me, but the serious point is what it reveals (or confirms) about Wikipedia. Here was a biographical entry about someone whose life is no mystery, who is probably available by email and who probably has a publisher or agent who can provide accurate biographical data. Yet one of the Wikipedia authors relied on uncorroborated assertions from an anonymous comment in an obscure online discussion, apparently found via a casual Google search, as a source of factual information. And now someone is making the Internet rounds in an effort to clean up the sources of the misinformation that was being spread by Google, lest other Wikipedia authors repeat the first guy’s error.
Whatever else I learned from this curious experience, it is obvious that Wikipedia cannot be trusted at all, not even as a source of routine biographical information that has no political or ideological significance. Reader beware.