Friday, January 23, 2009

Fish in a barrel: another look at Conservapedia

In my estimation, the sort of far-right people who are drawn to something like Conservapedia, similar to Christian homeschoolers, are characterized mainly by a resentment of authoritative knowledge. The whole notion that some people know more than other people about stuff, unless the source is a personal revelation from a higher power, is anathema. This permeates everything they think about. The media is a vast conspiracy to bring down good, decent men like GWB. Scientists are priests of Satan whose primary goal is to undermine God's word. Public schools are instruments of evil to get to your kids. The entire frakkin' world is run from the shadows by Scary Foreigner George Soros, or minions laying the groundwork for Antichrist -- the two of which are not mutually exclusive. Etc.

Nobody except a trusted religious leader has the right to tell you what to think. Evidence that stands in contradiction to your point of view can be safely disregarded, because the people with the authority of being educated wield awesome power and they are thoroughly skilled at trying to trick you. The only way to avoid falling under their sway is to skip straight to your faith, so you can bypass learning things.

Wikipedia may be kind of a mess, but my observation is that most prominent articles tend to converge to a consensus over time. This is because Wikipedia has smart standards in place requiring credible sources and authorizing the deletion of agreed nonsense. It's not perfect, but the major articles on scientific and historical topics tend to be a mostly reliable starting point to learn the subject.

Conservapedia was started explicitly because they hate that consensus. Consensus without a divine authority means that The Conspiracy now controls it. It doesn't mean that there are "right" answers that can be determined through analysis; it means that the evil people who are everywhere have managed to crowd out dissent.

So on those occasions when I've read articles on Conservapedia, it hasn't surprised me at all to find that the text of the articles were a patchwork of contradictory opinions, while the comments sections were all flame wars. There's no way to resolve these flame wars, because their opinions are guided by their faith.

Here's a perfect illustration: the discussion page for Evolution.

"After much debate, the Conservapedia Panel has finished reviewing the Theory of Evolution page. We have determined that the article will remain protected indefinitely, to protect it from inevitable vandalism. We have decided that the article will not be changed in any major way. However, we agree that the article lacks an adequate, concise explanation of the Theory of Evolution."

Oh sure, the page fails to actually convey any useful information, but who gives a damn? The Panel Has Spoken. As much as they are opposed to Authority, they still love Authoritarianism, because their faith guides them to The Truth. Lower on this page, you'll find a hilarious discussion about the main picture at the top of the evolution page, which was Hitler. It's Godwin's Law invoked without a trace of irony. The "reasonable" contributions to this discussion came from those who objected that, sure, obviously evolution caused the holocaust, but wouldn't a picture of Darwin be slightly more representative?

I read their evolution page in the early days of Conservapedia, and it was obvious what was going on: There were a small minority of people who, though conservative, accepted mainstream science; they got in pissing matches with the swarms of young earthers, old earthers, and intelligent designers, all of whom also disagree with each other. Without a reliable reference to go back to, the only standard is who can be the most persistent pain in the ass about making their preferred changes stick.

So now the guy with the biggest stick, the Conservapedia Panel, decides that they should just go ahead and trump all the arguments only by declaring fiat victory -- even while they're admitting that the final product fails to even adequately explain the subject.

But you want to know something even funnier? If you go back to the front page, you'll find that Evolution was selected as their Article of the Year. That's actually the best thing they have.


  1. Woah wait, wasn't conservopedia some sort of parody site? What was the name of that paradox?

  2. I got it! here

    "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing." -- Poe's Law

  3. Conservapedia's articles are just plain insane at places, and their evolution, atheism and homosexuality ones are by far the most wacko of them all. I've never found a more useful site to link to under the header 'this is what fundamentalist christians really think.'

  4. resentment of authoritative knowledge.
    Nobody except a trusted religious leader has the right to tell you what to think.

    Your post seems to have a split personality; perhaps we mean different things by "authoritative". To me, an authority is someone whose word makes something true: the Pope decides what constitutes sin, and is therefore the authority on Catholic sin. The Supreme Court is an authority, in that its job is to decide what the law means.

    This is in contrast to an expert, someone who is more likely to be right than a lay person, by virtue of having studied the matter at hand.

    So the problem as I see it with Conservapaedia is that to these people, knowledge is not something people figure out for themselves; rather, knowledge has to be handed down from above, whether from parents, teachers, priests, or a god. That is, they see scientists not as experts, but as authorities.

    Of course, if "I believe X" is just a restatement of "my authority says X", then there's no way to settle disputes, and shouting matches ensue. One bit of irony is that this looks a lot like the "everyone creates their own reality" that postmodernists are accused of, often by right-wingers.

    As far as I can tell, a lot of people do think that knowledge has to come from some authority, and what you believe is a matter of allegiance to one authority or another.

  5. Hmmm, there's that pesky equivocation fallacy again. Merriam-Webster tells me that "authority," among other things, may mean either "an individual cited or appealed to as an expert" or "persons in command."

    I use using the word in the sense of the first definition, which is why I contrasted it with "authoritarianism." I can understand the confusion, and I think we are saying the same thing in the end, but maybe you put it better.

  6. I think we're mostly in agreement. But the point I was trying to make was that it seems to me that in many right-wingers' eyes, people are incapable of figuring stuff out on their own, at least the important stuff like the meaning of life and the origins of the universe. That sort of thing has to be handed down from above. And furthermore, when someone says that God created humans or that species evolve, it's not so much a statement about what's most likely to be objectively true, but rather a declaration of allegiance to a particular tribe.

    This would explain why people like Ray Comfort like to say that atheists reject God because we don't want to submit to him, or that we worship ourselves; or the accusation that liberal university professors indoctrinate their students. For them it's not a matter of getting at the truth, but of being seduced by a competing tribe.

  7. Glad to see Conservapedia is getting some of Kazim’s razor. When I stumbled upon it purely by accident I honestly thought it was an intentional piece of great satirical comedy.
    How dismayed I was when I realised the truth.
    In all honesty, I don't think the rest of the world has heard of or even cares about Conservapedia. I wish to protect free-speech but it certainly has more than it's fair share of dubious, unfounded, dogmatic and simply untrue "facts". Alarm bells start ringing the moment you land on its home page. One to ignore for sure.

  8. Sure the pope is an expert on catholic sin because they made it all up. It's easy to be an expert on a work of fiction when it's your work of fiction.

  9. Holy shit, their article on the Bible says Moses wrote the Torah. These people are nimrods.

  10. Anonymous12:21 PM

    I look at Conservapedia every day to see who they tar and for what reason. Also the "facts" they spew can be hilarious.