The Perils of Crowdsourcing History

The Perils of Crowdsourcing History

by Nick Kersten, Librarian-historian

crowdsourcing (n): the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers. (www.merriam-webster.com)

 

In the fall of 2012, I had an American Church History class with Dr. John Woodbridge, former editor for Christianity Today and prolific author. On the first day of class, he asked us to identify the most important question we could ask of a historian. When no one volunteered an answer, he suggested that we should ask, “What are your assumptions?”

There is wry wisdom in this advice: everyone comes to history with assumptions, and knowing them can help us understand how we should evaluate what we read from a given writer.

The task of historians is to sift through the data surrounding an event, and determine what actually happened as best they can. All historians are servants to the information they steward and interpret; no historian can treat as fact something they do not know.

Nevertheless, all historians are subject to the same errors of human fallenness that afflict us all—both on their own part and on the parts of those who were present at an event. People do not always see the same events in the same way. As stories are passed from person to person, they tend to morph subtly over time. In such an environment mistakes are easy to make.

One of the more difficult tasks in the field of history is correcting a mistake once it has been made and reproduced. When a historian makes a mistake, it is often copied by other historians and students of history before it can be corrected. The result of this passing along of mistakes is that people often passionately believe something about an event which is not true. In some cases, entire events have been proposed and ultimately accepted on the basis of faulty assumptions or incomplete data.

Unfortunately, Seventh Day Baptist history is not immune from these sorts of issues. Even more unfortunately, some of these errors are still being propagated—and in some cases by Seventh Day Baptists.

With the arrival of the internet, propagating errors has never been easier. So-called “crowdsourced” media like Wikipedia are particularly vulnerable to the propagation of error, because anyone can make a change to an entry without respect to the facts, and without having to cite a reputable source. Careful SDBs have noticed many of these errors in their meanderings on the internet, and have forwarded links of the offending pages to us. We are grateful to have these links so we can try to correct known mistakes the best we can, though of course it is impossible to correct everything that is factually incorrect on the web!

The effects of ignorantly repeating “untrue” history are potentially devastating and detract from our larger witness around the world, making us appear either unwilling or unable to tell our own story. In an effort to combat some of the more popular or egregious errors, this space in the coming months will be highlighting and dispelling some popular mythology about SDB history.

I invite you to become part of the correcting process! If you see something online or in print which doesn’t appear correct to you, please let us know here at the Society, and we can investigate for you. If you are fuzzy on the facts, the Society does have copies of our history materials available for sale!

We encourage you to get informed, and then get involved with the work of disseminating our history by telling the story supported by the facts!

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