STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When President Obama and Mitt Romney debate tonight, many people will ask if their claims are true. Each one has already been asking that about the other side.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They will try to distract you and sometimes - how do I put this nicely? They will just fib.
MITT ROMNEY: The president tends to - how shall I say it? - say things that aren't true.
INSKEEP: How shall I say this? Politicians do sometimes misplace the facts like travelers who left their luggage at home, but it can also be hard to establish what the truth is. That's the subject of our next story - which is not strictly about politics, but is about facts that became intensely political. It's about the seemingly simple effort to record some basic facts on Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia. Our story begins in the class of a college professor, Timothy Messer-Kruse.
TIMOTHY MESSER-KRUSE: Well, it does. I was teaching my labor history class - well, by now, 10 years ago.
INSKEEP: At Bowling Green State University, where his class covered a landmark moment in American labor history.
MESSER-KRUSE: I was teaching about the very famed Haymarket affair of 1886 in Chicago, in which anarchists and labor activists had a meeting at Haymarket Square, and police intervened; and someone threw a bomb, and that explosion led to the death of a number of police officers.
INSKEEP: You hear, in the professor's voice, how familiar this all is; material that's been known for generations. Police made arrests for the bombing, and eight men were tried and convicted of taking part in the conspiracy.
MESSER-KRUSE: This was all in my labor history book, and the text we were using said that the trial was a real travesty of justice because no evidence was presented, linking any of the defendants to the bombing. And when I taught that class, a student raised her hand and said, "Professor, that's very interesting, but the textbook also says that the trial went on for six weeks. Can you tell me what they talked about, if there was no evidence?" And I wasn't able to answer her question.
INSKEEP: There it is. The first of the moments in this story where an accepted truth suddenly seems problematic. Wondering what was discussed at the trial, the professor found the trial transcript.
MESSER-KRUSE: And I began reading through it, and it was almost as if I was reading about a different event than the one that I had learned about myself, in my own academic training.
INSKEEP: Apparently, there was evidence presented against the defendants. You could still question the fairness of the trial - just not in such a simple way. Messer-Kruse published academic articles on his findings, and soon arrived at another of those moments where the truth became problematic.
OK, so you repeat this thing that's been repeated for more than a century; your student says, what? You decide to look it up. You discover these documents. You have the documents in front of you. Then you go to Wikipedia. What did Wikipedia say about this incident?
MESSER-KRUSE: Well, Wikipedia did say such things as, no evidence was presented at the trial. And so I simply tried to make a small edit.
INSKEEP: He wanted to change the online encyclopedia, which anybody can edit as long as they follow Wikipedia's rules.
MESSER-KRUSE: I think my original attempt to change Wikipedia stood for maybe a minute or two before it was reversed, and I was scolded for violating some of Wikipedia's five pillars of policy.
INSKEEP: Other Wikipedia users, elsewhere in the world, rejected his changes. He tried to change the facts again and again, but the text was changed back. Sure, he had original trial documents - primary sources, as they're called; the raw material of history. But Wikipedia rules don't easily accept them. The rules demand a secondary source - for example, something published in a book.
STEVEN WALLING: Wikipedia, just like any encyclopedia, is a collection of distilled knowledge.
INSKEEP: That's what we heard when we called Steven Walling, who works for the foundation that runs Wikipedia.
WALLING: We're not going to rely on individuals; we're going to rely on what reliable, published media have said about a particular issue.
INSKEEP: So Wikipedia is not a compilation of things that have happened in the world. It is a compilation of what reasonably reputable people have said has happened in the world.
WALLING: Yes. We do not rely on what exact, individual people say, just based on their own credibility.
INSKEEP: Wikipedia does not want to risk some rogue editor inventing history. It relies, instead, on the passion of thousands of people who constantly check on each other, and cite books or articles in their footnotes. It's a fairly sophisticated version of crowd-sourcing - many people providing bits of information. And that process really bothered labor historian Timothy Messer-Kruse. He believed he had the truth - primary documents - right in his hands, but couldn't shove it past the crowd.
MESSER-KRUSE: Wikipedia is built on this philosophy that knowledge is best expressed when it's accumulated from many, many individuals. And, you know, it goes all the way back to Francis Galton - the great statistician's observation at an English county fair, that all the individuals who guess the weight of a prize ox in some lottery, when you constructed the mean of all their estimates, it actually was the weight of the ox. The problem, though, is that with history, we don't have direct experience of the past.
INSKEEP: Not everybody has the same, perfect view of the ox.
MESSER-KRUSE: Or even a view of it at all. I mean, the ox died 125 years ago.
INSKEEP: Messer-Kruse has since published two books laying out his view of the Haymarket bombing trial, but he still has trouble with the crowd. His books are outnumbered by other histories. Other historians have focused on some brutal facts that even Messer-Kruse has to concede. For example, the defendants were not actually accused of throwing the bomb, but of conspiring in a plot; and they were tried amid great public hysteria. Messer-Kruse has a minority point of view.
MESSER-KRUSE: There certainly was a lot of pressure, I think, to venerate the memory of men who had already been celebrated as labor's heroes.
INSKEEP: Prominent people really did think the trial was unfair, at the time. And Messer-Kruse contends, that allowed generations of writers to...
MESSER-KRUSE: Excuse, or wish away, a lot of the other evidence linking some of these men to a conspiracy.
INSKEEP: Do you think that some historians were wishing away the evidence?
MESSER-KRUSE: Yes, I do.
INSKEEP: And here's the point where it becomes clear that we're talking about something much bigger than edits on Wikipedia. History is a powerful force, a powerful political force. Even as scholars quietly refine their understanding of the past, politicians loudly use it. You hear this every time a modern-day presidential candidate mentions Abe Lincoln, or what the Founding Fathers really intended when they wrote the Constitution. If their claims seem dubious, their critics push back.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Nobody ever tells you what really happened. Here's what happened.
INSKEEP: That's one thing former President Bill Clinton was trying to do, in his famous Democratic convention speech this past summer. Our constant debate over the facts is of great interest to David Weinberger, who wrote a book called "Too Big to Know."
DAVID WEINBERGER: There isn't universal agreement about anything - about anything on the planet, especially in areas like history.
INSKEEP: For centuries, the historical record has been a constant work of interpretation, of editing and improving and hopefully, bending the story a little more toward fidelity; a little like that process of thousands of people editing and re-editing Wikipedia.
WEINBERGER: The truth is not a solitary thing that stands by itself, the way ink gets pressed on paper; but rather, it comes from human sources. They're fallible, and they are subject to different points of view and thus, they are in disagreement. And so it seems to me that Wikipedia, in its form - and the Web overall - is a better representation of what human truth is like.
INSKEEP: Even if not everybody can be completely satisfied. Timothy Messer-Kruse, who challenged the common view of the Haymarket trial, still cannot say that he has prevailed. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for the Haymarket affair, it includes his view now, below the quotes of other historians. Generations from now, his version of history might well become accepted truth. For now, he has to be satisfied that at least, he's part of the argument. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.