Britney vs. Beatrice, aka On the future of [non-]popular knowledge

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2008/01/04 10:16 -05:00, original URI:

Written in Dec 2007....

A few years back I picked up a first edition copy of The Secret Archives of the Vatican, by Maria Luisa Ambrosini, and it is something I have looked at from time to time.

I am not sure why it fascinates me, but it does. An amateur historian, the unmeasurable and unfathomable amount of information contained in the twenty-five miles of documents only partilly explored is staggering to me, and this book's window into it and the interesting and odd jump into it keeps me on the edge of my seat whenever I pick it up and read a bit of it.

The other day I was reading and a cross-reference led me to the chapter on Beatrice Cenci (a victim of at a minimum attempted incest at the hands of her father, and the subsequent murder plot of her father by the family), a tragic and terrible story, and a bit toward the end of the text that caught my eye after the family had been jailed awaiting trial:

Public opinion was strongly on Beatrice's side; crowds shouted for "the Roman virgin" and prominent citizens sent in petitions for clemency. but the sentence of execution stood. "The pope is stern, not to be move or bent, a marble form, a rite, a law, a custom, not a man." Situational ethics might not have a name for another three hundred years, but Clement [VIII, pope from 1592-1605] had recognized the concept and rejected it.

[omitting paragraph on the execution itself]

It caught my eye at first because the notion that situational ethics existed in the minds of rulers and leaders even before it was well described was interesting to me -- it gives lie to the faulty notion so often expressed about language controlling thought rather than the other way around.

But then the text continued:

And Clement, in the country for the weekend, raised his arms and gave her a plenary absolution as he had promised to do. A year later he pardoned young Bernardo, though the enormously rich Cenci estate remained confiscated.

This does imply a certain seriousness of the idea here and I was interested in finding out more about the eventual absolution by Clement. I turned to the nearest alternate source (the Beatrice Cenci article in Wikipedia) and was disappointed to see that no mention of the plenary absolution or indeed any forgiveness by Clement VIII was mentioned. The story seems a bit changed by this lack, with the pope given a much darker view of the whole situation.

You can also find the text in a Google Books pointer to the later 1996 edition of the book, also -- even page references are unchanged for the information.

And then I was left wondering whether the problem was in the book or in Wikipedia (obviously it could be either).

It is most easy and perhaps most likely to blame Wikipedia for the lack given the nature of the source material in the book, but in coming to that conclusion I thought about this world where so many people get their news from The Daily Show and their knowledge from Wikipedia and found myself frightened for how much we lose in the way of knowledge by moving so eagerly to a model that is likely to have fuller coverage on Britney Spears and the next crotch shot that the Paparazzi pick up then on knowledge that has existed for centuries and relies on the interest of others in order to made and kept a full an accurate accounting.

Of course someone might update it after reading this, hopefully after looking at the identical text qand slternate sources in the later version rather than taking my word for it!), but the larger issue is that only knowledge that has champions has a safe home there -- and not all knowledge has either popularity or champions to defend it in its unpopularity. And Wikipedia, that works so hard to build consensus (usually a good thing) can work against the agenda of preserving knowledge when it is not as popular....

Books can have biases too, so perhaps this is an unavoidable situation, but I think about the accounting in parchment in the Vatican Archives entitled Report on the Death of Giacomo and of Beatrice Cenci, and of Lucrezia Petronia Cenci, their stepmother, for patricide, in Rome on Saturday, September 11, 1599, under the Pontificate of Clement VIII and on what the last 50 reports written by students based on Wikipedia have said about this woman.

And what those reports will say about our own cultures, looking through the prism of information in Wikipedia.

I know I look at Wikipedia more differently than I did before, nervous about the next 50 reports ten years from now will say, with "better" information at the possible cost of popularity deciding about the nature of coverage and to some extent of accuracy....


This post brought to you by 𝍃 (U+1d343, aka TETRAGRAM FOR DOUBT)

John Cowan on 5 Jan 2008 1:10 AM:

If there is an error known to you on a Wikipedia page, and you surf away from the page without fixing it, you have made yourself responsible for that error.

Michael S. Kaplan on 5 Jan 2008 1:18 AM:

I'm sorry John, but that is just crap. There is no term of use that requires it that I have ever agreed to, and if there were one, I'd stop using it. It is not the responsibility of the reader who wants information he trusts to fix it when it is broken....

And I think my point stands, in any case -- what is built by the public sill focus on Britney and Paris and Lindsay and their hijinks, rather than on the sort of things that encyclopedias used to be better known for trying to cover. Becuse it is clear where more of the work is being done. :-(

Michael S. Kaplan on 5 Jan 2008 1:22 AM:

Additionally were *I* to "fix" such a thing based on me reading a book in an area in which I have no expertise other than having read the book, and further if THAT is acceptable, then this is yet another strike against the quality of Wikipedia research. Me, as a non-Catholic, kinda-agnostic heathen, would hopefully offend any good Catholic if I took upon myself at the notion that someone thought it would be acceptable for me to do such an edit....

John Cowan on 7 Jan 2008 4:29 PM:

Well, I did say "known to you", which presumably means you do have the expertise to recognize the kind of errors I am talking about.  I certainly wasn't talking about this case in particular, about which I know nothing.  But if you found an error in describing Microsoft's i18n in some article, for example, ...

And of course it's not a matter of terms of use.  It's a matter of tikkun olam.

Michael S. Kaplan on 7 Jan 2008 9:32 PM:

I tend to be more of a conscientious objector when it comes to Wikipedia -- when I see something inaccurate in my sphere of knowledge then generally I write about it here and someone more knowledgeable about the world of Wikipedia usually jumps into fix it (I don't even have an account on the site!)....

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