Wee-key-pedia guilt

Thu 13 Jul 2006 07:07 PM

I have been working on a draft of 'Epistemology and the Wikipedia', a paper which I am going to present next month at the NA-CAP conference. In researching the paper, I have occasionally been struck by an interesting phenomenon. Let's call it Wikipedia Guilt.

The premise of the Wikipedia is that the community will extend and correct it. This is underscored by the rhetoric of Wikipedia's champions. "If you don't like an entry," they say, "write a better one." When I encounter an entry that is shot through with errors, I could do something about it. Often, I do not because-- although I can recognize an article as bunkum-- I lack expertise to replace it with anything authoritative. Yet in researching the paper, I have not even made changes to the entries on philosophical topics that I know a lot about. Although I can rationalize this as critical distance, complaining about solecisms is also a variety of Bad Faith: The entries are hokum partly because I tolerate their persisting as hokum.

To be frank, I try to avoid the Wikipedia when I am not wearing my critical epistemology hat. Nevertheless, I recently succumbed to pangs Wikipedia Guilt and rewrote an entry. This is how it happened:

Cristyn and I were discussing the phrase church key. To me, the canonical church key is made from a single piece of metal with a can punch on one end and a bottle opener on the other. Cristyn was unsure why such a gizmo should be called a church key, except derivatively from earlier gizmos that had looked more like keys.

My first stop for etymology is always the OED, but it just defines 'church-key' as 'the key of the church-door.' No help. On to the web.

Among other pages, my search turned up the Wikipedia entry. This is what it said:

In Medieval Europe, Monks and Nobility were the only brewers. Lagering Cellars in the Monasteries were locked, as the Monks guarded the secrets to their craft. The monks carried keys to these lagering cellars on their cinch - or belts. It was this key from which the "Church Key" opener gets its name. : Source: Anheuser-Busch Knowledge Base; Internal Dbase
This is a nice story, with an ersatz citation to give it some gravitas. It is almost certainly apocryphal, however, even if the citation is legitimate. The History of the entry revealed that it had been written recently, completely overwriting a more modest entry that merely described what church keys are. This bit of verbal flotsam does not even bother with description; it is all about the bogus etymology.

Feeling a twinge of guilt, I wrote a new entry. Because, you know, I am now an authority on this kind of crap.