The End of Encyclopedias?

EncyclopediaThe radical 18th-century thinkers who proposed democracy instead of aristocracy, legislatures instead of kings, and freedom instead of tyranny, also made a revolutionary proposal about knowledge. They imagined an encyclopedia that would make all significant knowledge available to everyone.

Denis Diderot thought his pioneering Encyclopédie, published just before the French Revolution, would make people “more virtuous and more happy.”

Encyclopedias were too expensive for anyone but the rich, until affordable popular encyclopedias came onto the market in post-World War II America. What a boon for the homework assignments of my generation of baby boomers, and everyone since.

A huge team of experts created summaries on thousands of subjects in every field of knowlege. For those with a serious interest in some topic, the encyclopedia might just be a begininng, but it was a reliable first step. The whole intention behind the encyclopedia was to provide complete, verifiable and neutral information.

Those shelves of identically bound volumes are antiquated now, made superfluous by one of the characteristic inventions of the 21st century, the online encyclopedia. Instead of going home to consult the expensive volumes of “World Book,” students now consult Wikipedia for free on the Internet.

Wikipedia embodies the democracy of authorship and universal accessibility, has 10 times more entries, and is always up-to-date.

But just as this democratic dream seems to have come true, the whole idea of encyclopedias is being challenged. Andrew Schlafly, the son of Phyllis Schlafly, has created “Conservapedia,” an alternative encyclopedia for conservatives. Conservapedia’s home page appears to set traditional standards for inclusion: Its first “commandment” is “everything you post must be true and verifiable.” Is Conservapedia “a clean and concise resource for those seeking the truth,” as it claims? A glance inside Conservapedia shows something very different.

In the world of Conservapedia, and in much conservative politics today, truth is partisan. “We do not allow liberal censorship of conservative facts.” What are conservative facts, as opposed to plain old facts? Let’s read a few facts from Conservapedia’s home page: the chair of the Democratic National Committee is a “bozo” and atheists have a zero IQ.

The article on “Evolution” provides an example of how knowledge has become partisan through distortion. It begins by claiming that “a majority of the most prominent and vocal defenders of the evolutionary position have been atheists.” This is supported by a reference to the journal “Creation.” Quotations from scientific works of the past century are reproduced if they appear to cast doubt on evolutionary ideas. The scientists quoted approvingly in the article all support the creationist idea. In a section on debates between creationists and supporters of evolution (in which it is stated as fact that creationists nearly always win), there is no mention of the Pennsylvania federal court case, where the judge decisively repudiated the teaching of creationism as science. Evolution as a theory is linked with communism and Nazism. Toward the end of the article comes the clincher: “Americans most likely to believe only in the theory of evolution are liberals.”

Alongside atheists, liberals are the big fools in Conservapedia. Their article “Liberal” begins:

“A liberal (also leftist) is someone who rejects logical and biblical standards, often for self-centered reasons. There are no coherent liberal standards; often a liberal is merely someone who craves attention, and who uses many words to say nothing.”

One of the many transgressions of liberals is their insistence that history be verifiably true and inclusive of all people. The discomfort that many conservatives feel with the facts of American history has been recently demonstrated by the Texas School Board’s attempt to rewrite our history by removing mentions of the slave trade, reducing the role of minorities, and downplaying Thomas Jefferson because he promoted the separation of church and state.

The proper interpretation of history is very important to Conservapedia. An entire lecture course in American history has been created to substitute for “liberal textbooks,” which invariably distort history by denying these conservative facts:

  • “Most great contributions to western society have been made by conservative Christians.”
  • “Martin Luther King was a Republican who preached Conservative values.”
  • “Thomas Jefferson was not as successful or important as liberals claim; he failed personally and as president, and little in the Declaration of Independence is attributable to him.” Jefferson’s views on religion are so uncomfortable to conservatives, that his historical role is just erased in the Conservapedia.

Conservapedia’s editors give this tip on how to learn history: “Beware of over-reliance on authority. Unless we’re talking about the Bible, authority is not always going to be correct.”

The liberal conspiracy to distort the truth, as displayed in all previous encyclopedias, is everywhere, especially in most colleges. “Liberal college counselors lure students into liberal arts, education, and the social sciences. The kids prefer liberal courses to more substantial courses because they are easier and they get higher marks. They have to study less in these programs, but what they learn is mostly left-wing political indoctrination and secular humanism. It is a pity that parents pay for this kind of education and banks loan money against it. They will be sorry.”

Physics too can be dangerous. Conservapedia says that Einstein’s relaitvity theory is “a liberal conspiracy”: “The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.”

Conservapedia’s fact-checkers made important discoveries about President Obama: his political ideas are “Maoist,” his birthplace is uncertain and “Obama is likely the first Muslim president.”

Steve-HockstadtConservapedia is mainly silly, reflecting Schafly’s cranky ideas, such as that vaccines are a conspiracy to poison us. But the wider idea that science, and other kinds of knowledge, can be “liberal” or “conservative” is dangerous. This is exactly the argument that German Nazis and Soviet Communists used to reject “Jewish” or “capitalist” ideas.

Like them, the Conservapedia uses political criteria to decide what knowledge is. Most of the world’s scientists are wrong. Most of the world’s historians are wrong. Most of the world’s encyclopedias are wrong. Because they are liberals, atheists, homosexuals, what they say must be wrong. We are right, because we speak truth.

Steve Hockstadt

Mr. Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).


  1. Timeparticle says

    I enjoy conspiracy theories as much as the next guy… maybe more. I have never really thought of them being Liberal or Conservative. They only seem to be revealing a truth against what we have been told by the media and government.

    For instance, how could WTC 7, a smaller building at the world trade center, fall as if it were expertly demolished? According to the media, a localized fire nearly instantly brought down the building. So, Mr. H., is the presumption Liberal or Conservative?

    There seems to be a growing number of doctors moving away from programmed infant vaccines. In fact, they say that vaccines aren’t really doing what they are supposed to be doing. They feel the products used in the vaccines may not be healthy for us, over the long run. It may be possible that Big Pharma money may be influencing medical practices. So, is that a Liberal or Conservative strategy?

    Scientists seem to agree that Earth’s climate is getting warmer, on the average. The disagreement is the “Why”. Warming trends have been recorded well before the Industrial Age, but why. We are just beginning to understand how the Sun’s magnetic influence effects the climates of the planets of our Solar System. Could the growing alterations in the magnetic shifts alter certain natural cycles of Earth’s climate? If so, is this a Liberal or Conservative viewpoint on global warming effects?

    Then there is Senate Bill S510. Senate Bill S510 makes it illegal to grow, share, trade or sell homegrown food.

    “If accepted [S 510] would preclude the public’s right to grow, own, trade, transport, share, feed and eat each and every food that nature makes. It will become the most offensive authority against the cultivation, trade and consumption of food and agricultural products of one’s choice. It will be unconstitutional and contrary to natural law or, if you like, the will of God.” ~Dr. Shiv Chopra, Canada Health whistleblower.
    1. It puts all US food and all US farms under Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, in the event of contamination or an ill-defined emergency. It resembles the Kissinger Plan.

    2. It would end US sovereignty over its own food supply by insisting on compliance with the WTO, thus threatening national security. It would end the Uruguay Round Agreement Act of 1994, which put US sovereignty and US law under perfect protection. Instead, S 510 says:
    Nothing in this Act (or an amendment made by this Act) shall be construed in a manner inconsistent with the agreement establishing the World Trade Organization or any other treaty or international agreement to which the United States is a party.

    3. It would allow the government, under Maritime Law, to define the introduction of any food into commerce (even direct sales between individuals) as smuggling into “the United States.” Since under that law, the US is a corporate entity and not a location, “entry of food into the US” covers food produced anywhere within the land mass of this country and “entering into” it by virtue of being produced.

    4. It imposes Codex Alimentarius on the US, a global system of control over food. It allows the United Nations (UN), World Health Organization (WHO), UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the WTO to take control of every food on earth and remove access to natural food supplements. Its bizarre history and its expected impact in limiting access to adequate nutrition (while mandating GM food, GM animals, pesticides, hormones, irradiation of food, etc.) threatens all safe and organic food and health itself, since the world knows now it needs vitamins to survive, not just to treat illnesses.

    5. It would remove the right to clean, store and thus own seed in the US, putting control of seeds in the hands of Monsanto and other multinationals, threatening US security. See Seeds – How to criminalize them, for more details.

    6. It includes NAIS, an animal traceability program that threatens all small farmers and ranchers raising animals. The UN is participating through the WHO, FAO, WTO, and World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in allowing mass slaughter of even heritage breeds of animals and without proof of disease. Biodiversity in farm animals is being wiped out to substitute genetically engineered animals on which corporations hold patents. Animal diseases can be falsely declared. S 510 includes the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), despite its corrupt involvement in the H1N1 scandal, which is now said to have been concocted by the corporations.
    Fresh food that lasts from eFoods Direct (Ad)

    7. It extends a failed and destructive HACCP to all food, thus threatening to do to all local food production and farming what HACCP did to meat production – put it in corporate hands and worsen food safety.

    8. It deconstructs what is left of the American economy. It takes agriculture and food, which are the cornerstone of all economies, out of the hands of the citizenry, and puts them under the total control of multinational corporations influencing the UN, WHO, FAO and WTO, with HHS, and CDC, acting as agents, with Homeland Security as the enforcer. The chance to rebuild the economy based on farming, ranching, gardens, food production, natural health, and all the jobs, tools and connected occupations would be eliminated.

    9. It would allow the government to mandate antibiotics, hormones, slaughterhouse waste, pesticides and GMOs. This would industrialize every farm in the US, eliminate local organic farming, greatly increase global warming from increased use of oil-based products and long-distance delivery of foods, and make food even more unsafe. The five items listed — the Five Pillars of Food Safety — are precisely the items in the food supply which are the primary source of its danger.

    10. It uses food crimes as the entry into police state power and control. The bill postpones defining all the regulations to be imposed; postpones defining crimes to be punished, postpones defining penalties to be applied. It removes fundamental constitutional protections from all citizens in the country, making them subject to a corporate tribunal with unlimited power and penalties, and without judicial review. It is (similar to C-6 in Canada) the end of Rule of Law in the US.

    So, is this a Liberal or Conservative viewpoint?

    Ask the backers of the bill…

    Sen. Durbin, Sponser
    Lamar Alexander [R-TN]
    Jeff Bingaman [D-NM]
    Richard Burr [R-NC]
    Roland Burris [D-IL]
    Saxby Chambliss [R-GA]
    Christopher Dodd [D-CT]
    Michael Enzi [R-WY]
    Kirsten Gillibrand [D-NY]
    Judd Gregg [R-NH]
    Thomas Harkin [D-IA]
    Orrin Hatch [R-UT]
    John Isakson [R-GA]
    Edward Kennedy [D-MA]
    Amy Klobuchar [D-MN]
    Tom Udall [D-NM]

    As Progressives, it may be wise to take heed to what the theorists are saying, even though they appear to be of a politically sided. The phrase “Follow the money” is a sound via to sort questionable subjects, today

  2. says

    It is incredible to to me the extent to which people who are obviously reasonably intelligent, and nominally sane, buy into paranoid conspiracy theories that I can only call crazy. One friend of mine, a Caltech staff employee, e-mailed me link to a Conservapedia page listing “evidence” for a vast conspiracy by powerful elites to sell the hoax of global warming to the public.

    I am slightly ashamed to say I ignored it in disgust (“See?! See?! He didn’t even look at it!!” I can hear the conspiracy faithful crying), but for 40 years since I was a graduate student I’ve been watching honest scientists worrying over this issue in the pages of Science and Nature, and I am seriously supposed to waste my time critically studying this stuff? When, after all, I am not qualified myself by experience or training to make an independent judgment.

    Because the issues of climate, and global climate change, are enormously complex, the mass of evidence and honest opinion is simply vast. It is easy to cherry-pick the literature for an apparently impressive list of fringe opinion, especially if you ignore genuine experts (“elites”) who have studied the subject for years, and instead depend on secondary and tertiary sources, and who like Shlafly, filter the evidence with the answers they want to get. And then you get a pool of hundreds or thousands of these patriots who only talk to others of like mind, to confirm their opinions.

    Well, it is really very difficult, and in the end it mostly comes down to whom you trust. Practically none of what we think we know really comes from our own, primary experience and expertise. After all, I just announced that I refused to seriously examine my friend’s article, based on trust criteria. We really have little choice, in practice.

    And the fact that there have indisputably been government lies and cover-ups, feeds healthy skepticism and corrupts it into insane paranoia. Even Liberals know better than to trust the government too much.

    Education is surely the only answer, but it is not simple to teach sanity and good judgment. I am a physicist, but we need the humanities just as much as the sciences to deal with all this.

    And we need to be more aware of just how fundamentally difficult (and dangerous) the problem is, so we can work against it intelligently ourselves.

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