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Thursday, February 9, 2012
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Like most other people who use the internet for reading and research (even if my own research isn’t too important), I rely a lot on Wikipedia. In fact, I used to be a minor contributor; I started entries for one topic and greatly expanded two others. I haven’t stayed up with that, but I still go there a lot as to get a rough overview on an unfamiliar topic when needed.

The question is, how accurate and unbiased is a “crowd-sourced” library out there on the cloud? According to a short review on this topic, a 2005 article in Nature magazine said that Wikipedia is about as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica. Another article in “Reference Sources Review” (not a very popular and well known periodical, but it sounds authoritative nonetheless) said that the big Wiki is roughly 80% accurate versus 95% being the gold standard of professional publications. Not bad for what you don’t pay for, although I’d like to think that Britannica is closer to the 95% mark than Wikipedia’s 80% (given all you have to pay for a Britannica set or even its website and CD’s)(although you probably could still walk into a library and find a dusty copy of the Britannica ready on the reference shelf for your perusal)(but who goes to libraries anymore? I don’t, but I honestly do miss them; maybe when I retire . . . )

Up to now, I haven’t found any obvious mistakes on Wikipedia. My biggest complaint to date is that when you look up a scientific concept having to do with quantum physics or cosmology or such (like quantum decoherence or the fine structure constant) you get barraged by heavy, complicated math expressions and ethereal physics concepts. I’m looking for something more intuitive, step-by-step, laid out with examples and diagrams. Obviously, these articles are written by science grad students anxious to show off the intellectual fruits of their academic labors. Too bad that you need to be a grad student yourself, if not an experienced physicist, to get anything out of these articles.

The other day, I happened to be discussing my favorite spiritual author, Thomas Merton, with someone who had been recommended one of his works, but was not otherwise familiar with him. I advised this young seeker to read up on Merton’s life story before dipping into his books; his story in itself is just as interesting and intriguing as anything Merton ever wrote. A few days later, it occurred to me that the Wikipedia would be the logical starting point on a Thomas Merton journey for anyone under 40. So I took a look, and was impressed by the depth of detail that had accumulated there regarding the lively, paradoxical Trappist monk who died unexpectedly in 1968.

But after getting half way through the Wikipedia article, I started thinking, “this isn’t the Merton I came to know”. In the 1990’s, I went on my own “Merton journey” and read a lot about him and a lot by him. Merton was a spirit who lived deeply and emotionally, a man in search of something undefined and undefinable. He was a highly talented man, a gifted writer and thinker, a Catholic priest and celebrated author on religious topics, and an outspoken opponent of war and oppression and yet a pious Trappist who retired from community life into his own private hermitage in the woods (but not far from the abbey that continued to support him). And yet he was also a troubled man, a man with doubts and fears, a man who could hurt others and himself, an impulsive man who might go off on an entirely new life-path at any moment. He prayerfully acknowledged his faith in God, his belief in Christ, and his loyalty to the Roman see. And yet, deep within, his spiritual wanderings took him far afield from Rome’s teachings; towards the end of his life he was arguably becoming increasingly “eastern” in his interests and thinking. Ironically, he died while on a journey to the east, accidentally electrocuted in Thailand.

Despite all that, the Merton being presented in the Wikipedia article was clearly loyal to the Pope and steady in his faith. His college fling with Communistic atheism and his “fast-paced city life” as a young man were given short shrift by whomever had formulated the Merton story for the big Wiki. But what tipped it for me was how the article handled his late-life romantic affair with a young nurse, just a few years before his death.

I won’t go into that story right now, except to say that yes, Merton was a practicing 51 year old Catholic priest and a Trappist hermit within the Abbey of Gethsemane during the whole crazy affair. There are various articles about it, and an entire book is devoted to it, i.e. “Beneath the Mask of Holiness” by a fellow named Mark Shaw. Merton’s own published diary notes make it very clear that this was a really involved, very emotional situation, not just a few glances and witty comments between two people passing in the night. Obviously, some pious Catholics might find this aspect of Merton’s life to be quite scandalous, a possible “source of misunderstanding” for the faithful.

So, the Wiki article authors decided to get out a bit of whitewash. Here is the quote that really gets me:

In April 1966, Merton underwent a surgical procedure to treat debilitating back pain. While recuperating in a Louisville hospital, he fell in love with a student nurse assigned to his care. He wrote poems to her and reflected on the relationship in “A Midsummer Diary for M.” Merton struggled to maintain his vows while being deeply in love with the woman he referred to in his personal diary as “M”. He remained chaste, never consummating the relationship. After ending the relationship, he recommitted himself to his vows.

This makes Merton sound like a spiritual hero, a man who successfully resisted the temptations of the flesh for the better cause of God’s service. The next to last sentence is the real stand out, claiming to know that Merton’s vow of chastity was never violated. I really think this sentence is misleading and inappropriate. I have never read of a quote from Merton claiming that he never shared any sort of sexually-oriented physical pleasure with “M” (note that there is no citation supporting the sentence in question). By contrast, I have read Merton’s published diary (Learning to Love) from the time of his affair, and it says to me that he did have physical intimacy with his romantic partner.

I don’t have the book handy right now, but I clearly remember passages where Merton expresses guilt and regret for some of his meet-ups with M. He makes it clear at one point that he spent an afternoon or evening alone with M in the office of his therapist, Dr. Wygal (on a weekend, when the Doctor was not using it; he had lent Merton the keys), and calls what happened “the worst”. I have not read Mr. Shaw’s book, but on his web site, he posts a few sentences from Merton’s collected writings about his involvement. Here are a few relevant comments:

“[I recall] her body, her nakedness, the day at [Dr.] Wygal’s, and it haunts me.”

“My sexuality has been made real and decent again after years of rather frantic suppression . . . . I feel less sick. I feel human.”

“So one thing on my mind is sex, as something I did not use maturely and well, something I gave up without having come to terms with it. That is hardly worth thinking about now – twenty-five years nearly since my last adultery.”

I regret taking such a prurient interest in whatever did or didn’t happen between Thomas Merton and M. It really shouldn’t matter that much; neither of them were badly hurt, and both got on with their lives, perhaps the wiser. Merton certainly seemed a deeper soul for it, and “M” never sold her story to the press to embarrass Merton or the Church. They supposedly stayed in touch for years after the “glory days” came to an end, by letter.

But I think that the interest shown here in this Wikipedia article in banishing any suspicion that Merton and M might have shared some physical intimacy in the midst of their highly emotional interactions is equally unhealthy. Merton was Merton, not a pious kewpie doll for the edification of the Church and its faithful. He was a man, a sinner, a struggler, a man in love with God and life, but also a man with a dark side. He was a complex entity, and that’s why I advised my young friend to find out more about his interesting and convoluted life. I had hoped that the Wikipedia might be a good jumping-off point for that, but all I found was a marble statue with a metal halo surrounding a beatific, innocent face.

So yes, perhaps Wikipedia can be hi-jacked by people with a bias. And yes, I can re-register with Wikipedia and try to do something about this point in the Merton article. And yes, maybe I will. But for now, just a cautionary tale, that the Wikipedia might not always give the most objective and most useable point of view on any one topic at all times. It is subject to self-correcting processes which might eventually right whatever wrongs it contains. But on the Wikipedia, the full story behind a topic may be a work in progress, as much as anything that I say here on my little corner of the net admittedly is. Keep that in mind — for both Wikipedia, and for anything that I might serve up right here!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:57 pm      

  1. Jim, I see 2 articles in one in this particular entry: One about Wikipedia and a second article about Thomas Merton as portrayed in Wikipedia. Therefore, I have decided to address the issues separately.

    As to Wikipedia: The first time I checked in on Wikipedia I was somewhat “astonished” to see the “edit” where one could go in and change an article—even me! I found myself wondering then just how accurate the articles could be.

    But then I also heard that you wrote one or two or more articles for Wikipedia, and I tho’t, well Jim’s scholarship is great. If everybody of the caliber of Jim writes these articles they should be fine. And indeed, over time I’ve found myself going to Wikipedia when I wanted some info and trusting the info more than I had before.

    Another thing that I’ve noticed on Wikipedia, which also raised my opinion of it, was that I found on looking up some articles a notation to the effect that the article needed either rewriting or editing, giving fair warning to the reader that it might not contain accurate info.

    Then too, you have an excellent point: An encyclopedia for “free”. . . who can (even should) complain about that? The most one should be is thankful for it, I guess.

    Now as to Thomas Merton in Wikipedia: I myself found Merton in the early 1960s. (I think it was, maybe late 1950s.) In his first book Seven Storey Mountain he had a way of describing the romance of the religious life that was very compelling. Later journals of his, though they still kept that aura of romance about them, became a little more realistic.

    You are 100% right (at least from what I’ve read about the situation) in your “story” of what happened between Merton and M. Except I think you give Merton a little too much consideration, but then I’m looking at it from a woman’s standpoint. It is possible Merton and M arrived at some mutual understanding and remained friends over the rest of his lifetime.

    He did better by M than he did by the mother of his child and his child. He became a father as a young man in France, I believe it was, well before he became Catholic. Basically, his family “bought off” the mother together with her child—paid them to “go away”. Unfortunately, both were killed in WW II. His silence on them as a part of his life is deafening. Perhaps Merton learned a thing or two about love later in his life and was able to treat M better than he did those he had obligations to in his earlier life.

    I should say also that I find none of the above “scandalous” in any way. These situations simply show Merton as the human being he was, giving hope to the rest of us.

    As to the article in Wikipedia, specifically: It seems to me that either the editors of Wikipedia asked for some Roman Catholic “expert” to write the article and “got” an ultra-conservative RC or some ultra-conservative Roman Catholic individual wrote the article; an article “approved” by Rome, perhaps. According to what I’ve been reading lately there are a whole *lot* of Roman Catholics around, especially those belonging to Opus Dei, Legion of Christ, and Communion and Liberation who seem unable to think for themselves and can only bow to every “special” word that comes from the mouth of the Pope or any of the Vatican officials. My bias is showing here, I admit.

    And to pursue my own little side point on a side issue regarding ultra-conservative RCs: I find myself wondering if they will finally “become” the Church, as seems to be their fondest wish (a reform of the reform) and if anybody else who wants to exercise his/her informed conscience in any regard will be pushed out of the RCs. But this is another whole issue, and I digress again.

    This group is also particularly known for somehow making sure that women “stay in their place”—my words for what seems to be their attitude. If you’ve noticed, any mention of birth control and/or abortion sends myriads of these individuals into a frenzy of judgmental worry—always blaming the women–that family life as we know it will die and that women will somehow escape from the submissive role they are “ordained” to play in the Roman Catholic church. But I digress for yet a third time.

    I do think that you’ve summed up well both the issues Wikipedia has and the article in Wikipedia on Merton. I’m not too sure how you feel about my “digressions” but here they are. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 10, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

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