The 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.”
Conservapedia 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.
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).