The Pirate Hoax

A friend asked me what I think about the story in the Chronicle about the professor who encouraged his students to create a hoax story about a pirate in order to teach them about students about vetting the quality of their sources as part of a history class. They created a blog about the fake history and added a Wikipedia page about the fictional pirate. Then they “Facebooked, Twittered, and Shoutwired it.” The professor pulled the plug when he found out that some of his historian colleagues were buying into the hoax.

So what do I think of it? I think it stinks.

My issue is not with the hoax part. In fact, I think it was a clever way to teach students some important lessons in an engaging and hands-on way. Nor do I feel bad for the professor’s colleagues who were fooled. Any professional historian who buys into some bogus information on the web should probably be taking that class rather than teaching somewhere. I also think the Chronicle‘s headline, “Teaching by Lying,” is cheap. I had absolutely no problem with anything this professor did—until he told his students to write the fake Wikipedia page.

Think of it this way. Suppose there was a community garden in town. A botany professor wanted to teach his students about the dangers of shoddy pest control. So he encouraged his students to plant a crop in the community garden and deliberately infect it with aphids. Sure enough, the other plots in the garden became infected too. Would that be OK?

Because that’s what this guy did. A lot of people put huge amounts of time and effort into creating the public resource that is Wikipedia. By deliberately planting a hoax article—and inviting the Chronicle to write about how he and his students got away with it—he deliberately infected the entire garden with a credibility bug. Everybody already knows that gardens are susceptible to diseases and need constant vigilence, so it’s not like he was performing some enormous public service by proving it. No, what he did was malicious and showed a careless disregard for the effort that Wikipedians put in. Worse, he taught that disregard to his students.

If he wanted to have his students create a hoax using their own blog, that’s fine. Caveat emptor. But teaching students vandalism is not what I call responsible education. How can you teach students academic integrity while teaching them to disrespect the integrity of others?

Next time he wants to teach about the quality of information on the web, I have a different suggestion: He should have his students volunteer as Wikipedia editors, checking new articles for proper sourcing. In fact, maybe he should do some of that himself as an act of community service in pennance for his vandalism.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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9 Responses to The Pirate Hoax

  1. Matt Ball says:

    Wikipedia had the “credibility bug” before this professor drew some more attention to it.

    He has highlighted to his students and the internet that no individual document can be treated as 100% reliable. A publicly modifiable document is a lot less than that.

  2. Michael, I completely agree with your article. This is very similar to a number of similar titillating stories where some person did something wrong or stupid on purpose – got away with it – and then call a press conference as if there are some sort of “genius”. All systems where humans are involved are inherently imperfect. It amazing me how much energy is put into attacking Wikipedia from many angles and it is also amazing to me how much intelligent people who are otherwise quite rational – have a deep seated fear of Wikipedia. I think that the source of this fear of wikipedia is that it is a Bazaar – not a Cathedral. Folks like professors have spent their whole life to get to a position where their position (at the front of the class) gives them “authority by position” – they have earned their authority (tenure) and it cannot be taken away from them. Truly democratic efforts like Wikipedia do not respect titles such as “Full Professor” and Wikipedia does not give special voting privileges to Full Professors. These people with fancy titles prefer a structure where those “with a title” can override that without a title by fiat. Those who have earned their “Cathedral Membership Level 26″ card generally prefer that things be done “Cathedral-style” because then their hard-earned membership card has some value. In the Bazar, everyone is a “Level 1″ – and if you stop contributing – you move to “Level 0″. Those of us who are Bazar-dwellers accept this as “how things should be”. We are regularly visited by Cathedral-citizens who try to tell us the value of membership cards and and when Bazar-dwellers say “no thanks” – the Cathedral-citizens move into “discredit the Bazar” mode – and claim that they are doing it in the name of the “greater good” and that they are “protecting everyone” from the terrible Chaos of the Bazar. Ah well – the beat goes on.

  3. One more comment – you seem to flip perspective halfway through your article on whether the history professor is a “good teacher” for clever using a hoax as a teaching device – or if the professor was a “bad teacher” for encouraging aphid infestation and Wikipedia vandalism. You start by saying “it was a clever way to teach students some important lessons” – but then in the rest of the article you are pretty down on the whole thing. So do you think that Wikipedia vandalism is a clever teaching method or not? I think I know your answer. You might want to clarify for your blog readers.

  4. Chuck, I think teaching students how to construct a hoax is a valuable way to get them to learn how to police for authenticity. The teaching *method* is sound and even clever. However, having them do so on somebody else’s site, a place where a lot of effort is going into creating a factual and balanced record, is what stinks. Do what you want on your own domain name, but don’t pollute somebody else’s.

    Matt, nobody needed to draw more attention to the fact that Wikipedia has vulnerabilities. It is widely known. Therefore, vandalization served no public good while harming the people who are working to maintain it. The professor could have achieved the same pedagogic ends by confining the students to constructing their hoax on their own blog.

  5. Pingback: Pirate Hoax « Michael Korcuska Sakai Blog

  6. Sorry Michael – I can’t resist the temptation to exaggerate dramatically to make a point. Since hoaxes are apparently a good teaching device – I am teaching a class on intellectual property and want to show that few people read terms and conditions on web sites. I will set up a national essay contents where kids describe how challenging their life has been and how they met and overcame the challenge – the headline on the promotion says that top 100 essays get a trip to a theme park. In the fine print it says that to win the trip to the theme park – their parents must come down and attend a two-day presentation on a new condominium park and travel is not included. I could imagine that my point would be driven home for my students when they see the winning children bursting into tears. What a great learning experience for my students – and it really shows the fragile nature of online terms and conditions agreements. Or perhaps – hoaxes are hoaxes – they hurt people and hurt reputations. It would even be a great learning experience for the essay writers and their parents – the web should not be trusted and parents need to take every terms and conditions agreement to a lawyer before you let a 14 year old surf the web. A teacher who uses a hoax as a device – and leads students in a hoax or even requires students to be part of a hoax – in the name of “learning” is just a very un-creative teacher – period.

  7. Patrick Masson says:

    Seems like Professor Kelly could have used any story by Jayson Blair in the NY Times to make the same point. In fact, this might have even provided a more lasting lesson: anyone can dupe Wikipedia (so the argument goes), but the “newspaper of record?”

  8. Alexa says:

    Even if we didn’t know Wikipedia has vulenerabilities, it is slightly pointless anyway. It’s equally possible to hoax traditional media in this way. My friends and I successfully hoaxed the Sunday Times while studying, not for a class assignment, but for fun.

  9. Pingback: Dr. Chucks Blog » Blog Archive » Pirate Story Hoax – Michael Feldstein’s Blog

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