The tragedy of Conservapedia

Every now and then I visit RationalWiki, to see what the crazy kids of Conservapedia are up to.

(I strongly recommend doing it this way, rather than injuring your brain on Conservapedia's own Recent Changes page. For a precis, check out RationalWiki's Best Of Conservapedia!)

Yesterday, this process led me to an excellent summation of Conservapedia's core problem, which I hadn't figured out before.

It turns out to be the same core problem that many cults, dictatorships and even owner-operated businesses have.

Constructive criticism of Andrew Schlafly
(click for legible version)

Conservapedia is, you see, constantly besieged by "parodists", people who're only there to pretend to be "radical conservatives", when they're actually writing satire. It's like Pretend Office, except malicious.

If Conservapedia were actually what it appears to be on the surface - just another manifestation of the USA's bizarre radical-conservative movement - then this wouldn't necessarily be a fatal problem. As a general rule, vandalism of Wikis is pointless (NSFW link), because it's so easy to fix. All you need is a decent population of sincere editors, plus maybe an automated tool or two (to easily deal with blatant stuff like page-blanking, single edits that make an established article 100 times its previous size, et cetera).

Unfortunately, though, Conservapedia isn't just "Wikipedia for neoconservative nutcases". It's actually a dictatorship, ruled by Andrew Schlafly.

(Who made it onto the Colbert Report the other day! Note that Stephen Colbert actually is a Sunday School teacher, and is... intrigued... by Schlafly's recent "Conservative Bible Project". The CBP is a "translation" of the Bible that's mainly being created by people who, like Schlafly, don't actually know Hebrew or Greek or Aramaic, but nonetheless feel up to the task of making the Good Book more aligned with radical-conservative ideology. The CBP is one of those things that's pretty much beyond parody; only if you've got Colbert's chops should you attempt to satirise it.)

Andrew Schlafly's problem is the same as that of various dictators and cult leaders: He rules his domain with an iron fist, and brooks no disagreement.

If you agree with Andy 99% of the time, and don't back down over that last one per cent, he'll ban you from editing Conservapedia.

If Andy were one of the great polymaths of our age then this would be a problem - because nobody knows everything - but could still kind of work. Unfortunately, Andy just thinks he's one of the great polymaths of this (or any!) age.

So when someone happens along who actually knows stuff that Andy doesn't about, let's say, relativity, and insists that Andy is actually wrong, Andy will briefly argue with them, and then ban them. (Andy pretty much seems to think that relativity as a "Liberal" plot. I kid you not.)

The above-screenshotted commentary...

Constructive criticism of Andrew Schlafly
(click for legible version)

...came in the aftermath of yet another long-term, trusted Conservapedia editor "coming out" as a parodist. It points out this fatal flaw; the only people who actually will agree 100% with Andy, going along with him on all of his weird quarter-baked notions and backing down instantly at the first sign of any disagreement, are the parodists. (Well, them and people who don't actually know anything at all, who may not be exactly the people you want contributing to your encyclopedia.)

So Andy's own egotism is destroying the greatest product of his ego. It's like a tragic play, except the audience is cheering at the end.

This is even worse than the problem expressed in the classic aphorism, "First-class men hire first-class men. Second-class men hire third-class men."

(I know that's sexist, but I think the original wording more clearly conveys the antiquity of the sentiment. And that saying always conjures up, for me, an image of some Stephen-Fry-ian chap showing a young colleague the ropes over cigars and brandy at the club. I find that image fundamentally incompatible with gender-neutral pronouns.)

Even with the occasional extension "...and third-class men fire first-class men", that aphorism doesn't cover the dreadful situation at Conservapedia, where a second-class (at best...) man is in charge of the whole shebang, and utterly determined to winnow the workforce down to nothing but people who won't do a lick of real constructive work at all.

In dictatorships and cults where the man (only occasionally the woman...) in charge will tolerate no disagreement at all, the result will be a bunch of yes-men who do, at least, have some interest in advancing the project, if only so that they can be promoted into more powerful positions.

On a Wiki, though, control-freak egotism from the boss is even more of a disaster, because it's easy for anybody in the world to casually throw a spanner in the works whenever they have a spare moment. And if your Wiki is about a contentious topic - in which category "the whole of human knowledge" probably qualifies - there'll be plenty of people who're eager to mess with you.

The reason why the above advice to Andy (as I write this, it's the eighth-highest-voted entry on Best of Conservapedia) is a screenshot and not just a link to the Conservapedia talk page is that Andy's response to this criticism was the same as it always is. He erased the criticism, and banned the user.

And on it goes.

12 Responses to “The tragedy of Conservapedia”

  1. reyalp Says:

    Ah, Conservapedia. It is indeed a great source of entertainment, but the number of people basically agree with the content is a bit frightening.

    The Lenski affair is a one of my all time favorite Schlafly vs. reality battles. I sure you can guess who came in second best.

  2. Erik T Says:

    Every time I hear of Conservapedia I need another drink or twenty. It's finals week, I'll fail my numerical analysis course*, and I blame you.

    Well really, I blame the fact that I'm an engineer and not a theoretical mathematician. But if there's anything I've learned from anything, it's that problems can be solved by a linear combination of a) blaming others and b) beer!

    * to be fair, the math kids are failing too.

  3. ImaFish Says:

    "just another manifestation of the USA’s bizarre radical-conservative movement"

    As an American, I'm as perplexed at our radical conservatives as anyone, but you guys in Australia are not much better. You have a group of conservatives that genuinely believe that you can accurately filter 100% of "criminal sites" off the net and that even adults should not be allowed to play violent video games.

    Wait a minute, that sounds like a nanny-state issue. Maybe your group is a part of a bizarre radical-liberal movement.

  4. Dustin Says:

    @ImaFish: That's the comment I was going to post!

  5. Red October Says:

    Both the left and the right would create a "nanny state" of sorts, for their own reasons, to protect their own pet freedoms, and clamp down on what they respectively perceive as harmful to their citizens. The right would be very, very offended if I had buttsecks with a man. The left would be terribly offended if it was so good that we had cigarettes afterwards. Ho hum, do you wish to be bent over forwards or backwards? That's all it comes down to.

  6. Bern Says:

    @ImaFish: I respectfully disagree with you on that. I don't think we have a bunch of conservatives in charge who genuinely believe that netfiltering is 100% accurate and that game censoring is a good idea.

    I think we have a bunch of conniving politicians who think that the best way to ensure they stay in power & get their real agenda pushed, is to pander to a couple of extremists who really *do* think you can filter the internet and censor games. For the children, don't you know.

    It seems to be working reasonably well for them so far. They haven't had any major policy defeats recently (acknowledging, of course, that their emissions trading bill was more about causing the opposition to self-destruct than it was about reducing CO2 emissions to, you know, save the planet, or something silly like that).

    They are, after all, politicians. They understand, better than almost anyone, that the *appearance* of Doing Something is far, far more important to the electorate than *actually* doing something useful.

  7. ImaFish Says:

    @Bern: pander to a couple of extremists.

    You seriously believe that your politicians are doing these utterly ridiculous things because of "a couple" of extremists. Two people? Seriously?!

    Obviously there are more than "a couple" of extremists in Australia. And they apparently have more power than the extremists in the US. The internet in the US is under no threat from our extremists and American adults are allowed to play games.

  8. Red October Says:

    Bern is 100% correct -the appearance of doing something is far and away more important to politicians and in fact to many people. This is why expensive and ultimately environmentally unsound hybrid cars are so popular and diesels and biodiesel conversions are so scarce.

    In the US we have our own extremists who have their way. Remember that there are people who think that a woman's nipples are massively offensive and if shown on TV before 9PM that surely the downfall of society as we know it shall occur. And who can forget what happened with the "hot coffee" incident?

  9. m0rm3gil Says:

    "You seriously believe that your politicians are doing these utterly ridiculous things because of "a couple" of extremists. Two people? Seriously?!"

    Yup. Two independent senators who hold the balance of power. Nick Xenophon and Steven Fielding.

    Wackos can have a surprising amount of influence in a hung parliament.

  10. reyalp Says:

    And they apparently have more power than the extremists in the US. The internet in the US is under no threat from our extremists and American adults are allowed to play games.

    Um no. That just tells us that US extremists have different priorities.

  11. a.beck Says:

    Hey Dan, you might want to put a warning somewhere near that (NSFW link) about a "last measure" link at the bottom of that page. Nasty stuff for anyone who inadvertently clicks it without knowing about the thing.

  12. Daniel Rutter Says:

    What's that? Something you clicked on left you frantically trying to close browser windows and then killing the browser task to make it stop, oh God, just make it stop?

    The kung-fu student may not complain, when whacked with the Master's walking stick.

    He must learn.

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