If Wikipedia is bad, then Conservapedia is the utter pits. 2

We teachers have a bias against Wikipedia as reference material for students. While many entries are well written and accurate, there are many that are plain junk. It might be hard for a student to tell the good from the bad, so we typically advise either avoiding Wikipedia for formal research papers or supplementing it with more traditional sources.Enter Conservapedia, a so-called “trustworthy,” wiki-based encyclopedia. Founded by conservatives who believe Wikipedia has a liberal bias, Conservapedia endeavors to provide a more palatable online source to students, scholars and the idly curious.

Some of the science blogs I read have been dumping on Conservapedia lately, so I thought I would take a peek. I started with something I know pretty well, physics.

Now, Conservapedia is still being developed, so I was not expecting as an elaborate entry on physics as Wikipedia has. I was mortified, however, to read this entry, which I will reproduce here in its entirety to save you a click.

Physics is the study of nature, and is the science of studying the laws of God’s universe. Galileo was the first to discover and propose some of the fundamental laws of physics that we still realize today. He began by studying how a ball rolled down an incline and showed that its speed would be proportional to the height it started at. A scientist that studies physics is called a physicist.

Other famous physicists include Aristotle, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Carl Gauss, Isaac Newton, James Maxwell, Erwin Schroedinger, Ernest Rutherford, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Joseph Taylor, Lyman Page, Leon Cooper, and James Valles, Jr.

That’s it. Really. At least so far (I hope). Not only is it about as short as a grade school science glossary entry, it has enough factual and grammatical errors in it to make me wonder if a grade schooler wrote it.

First off, physics is a study of nature, not the study. It focuses on the interplay of matter, energy, space and time and the laws that govern and explain them. It does not study the laws of God’s universe; it seeks to discover and refine the laws of the universe. Many physicists would leave the God part out.

Galileo was in fact one of the first to discover some of the fundamental laws of motion, a subset of physics. His contemporary, Johannes Kepler, also derived three laws of planetary motion.

The word “realize” is not the best choice for this sentence, by the way. And “that” should not refer to people.

Galileo did not begin by rolling balls down ramps, and their speed in any event would not be proportional to their initial height. It would be proportional to the square root of the initial height, a fact which Galileo, a mathematician, was no doubt aware of. This is a glaring factual error, and one wonders who C-pedia recruited to write the entry.

The laundry list of physicists includes many names that crop up often in physics texts, save the last four, who are all living physicists. While Messrs Taylor, Page, Cooper and Valles have all made valuable contributions to modern physics and astrophysics, they are somewhat more obscure than the gentlemen preceding them. Their inclusion in this pantheon of physics greats is therefore a bit puzzling.

As for Aristotle, I personally would leave him off the list entirely, since his statements about motion, forces and celestial motion were patently wrong. Galileo got into worlds of trouble challenging those statements, incidentally.

My curiosity thus whetted, I decided to read the C-pedia entries on Aristotle and Galileo, since their conflicting ideas about nature figured so prominently in the first major skirmish between science and religion.

The Conservapedia entry for Aristotle is mercifully longer and more detailed that the one for physics. It is still brief compared to Wikipedia’s article on him. C-pedia identifies him as the first recorded deist, a point I cannot comment on authoritatively, but it seems to be quite a stretch.

The Galileo entry approaches a more professional level, complete with a reference list. Someone needs to copyread it more closely than C-pedia has. I caught a typo or two. It’s really short compared to its Wikipedia cousin.

I expected C-pedia might gloss over Galileo’s trouble with the Roman Catholic Church over his challenges to Aristotelian cosmology and physics, but the article handles his arrest, trial and sentencing frankly, if briefly.

Whether the article is less biased than Wikipedia’s is debateable. The C-pedia writer closes with a sentence praising a particular Galileo expert as “the most original and important scholar” to study the Italian. While no doubt true, the remark seems out of place in an unbiased reference work.

One of the principal goals of Conservapedia is to give “equal time” to beliefs associated with conservative Christians, in particular, evolution and creation. Dinosaurs figure prominently in this debate, as many creationists insist God created dinosaurs, along with all the other creatures, on the sixth day. The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., exemplifies this belief.

So, I decided to check out the Conservapedia article on dinosaurs. Like the previous three I sampled, there is a relative dearth of information, at least in comparison to Wikipedia and most printed encyclopedias. There is at kleast a fairly comprehensive, if dubious list of sources.

Predictably, the article also seems somewhat biased toward the creationist interpretation of dinosaur fossils.

For one, it offers a long list of purported sightings of modern-age dinosaurs, like the Loch Ness monster, to support the creationist idea that the dinosaurs are not entirely extinct. It reminded me of the cheesy, speculative, breathless “science” programs on the Discovery Channel. Such conjectures do not belong in a science article.

The choice of qualifying words in the evolution perspective section lead me to suspect some latent anti-evolution bias. Take this one, which refers to the widely accepted theory that an asteroid impact 65 million years ago caused mass extinctions worldwide: “The dust from this impact is supposedly still visible as a line of metal of extraterrestrial origin …” [Emphasis mine.] Why use the word “supposedly” when it’s a fact that a layer of iridium has been detected in 65-million-year-old rock layers all over the world? Iridium is not commonly found terrestrially, and certainly not all over the place at the same time.

Here’s another example of subtle bias: “[E]volutionary scientists claim the similarity in the bone structure between birds and dinosaurs show that modern birds are a descendants of dinosaurs …” The word “claim” suggests the the conclusion is at best dubious. “Conclude” might be a more neutral word to use.

Finally, the article devotes just four paragraphs to the evolutionary perspective, compared to nearly three times that many for the creationist argument. It’s just like the “fair and balanced” reporting of Fox News Network — fair and balanced in the conservatives’ favor.

Basically, I came away from my initial visits to Conservapedia unimpressed and downright suspicious. From a teacher’s standpoint, I would not recommend Conservapedia to any student, no matter what her or his grade level might be. The articles (so far) are much too brief and poorly written, and might contain factual errors. If Conservapedia is trying to improve upon Wikipedia’s track record of reliability, it’s failing miserably so far.

That some articles might be biased is also disturbing. No source is completely unbiased; that’s why teachers (and professors and newspaper editors) stress the importance of a variety of sources when doing research. Conservapedia’s bias is transparent and blatant compared to Wikipedia’s, and disqualifies it as a useful reference in my book.

At least until it provides a comprehensive episode guide to Star Trek.

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2 thoughts on “If Wikipedia is bad, then Conservapedia is the utter pits.

  1. Reply eljefe Aug 24,2007 1:57 pm

    For some undefinable reason, conservatives, while embracing the “Internets,” simultaneously decry its supply of pr0n to the unsuspecting masses. Of course, their definition of pr0n could include nanosecond glimpses of naked female breasts (Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction a few SuperBowls back) or the word, “vagina.” They seem unable to comprehend or accept the utility of having a free, uncensored pipeline to information, no matter how prurient. These are the same people who lobby networks to pull “objectionable” programming, rather than taking the more direct approach of just not watching the stuff.

    Perhaps a student could find his way from WikiPedia to some naughty bit of information. I doubt it would be to a hardcore pornsite, unless the wiki editors are falling down on the job. He would have much more luck finding hardcore porn by using Google with the SafeSearch feature turned off.

    Of course, they probably figure Google is evil, too. Let’s see if they can come up with ConservaGoogle and bollix it up as badly as their so-called online encyclopedia.

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