Blog Post

Philosophers and Hoaxes: Don't Blame Wikipedia


I'm intrigued that celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy was accused of "using Wikipedia" for his shoddy research and defended himself by saying "My source of information is books, not Wikipedia."   The book he read is a famous hoax, an account of the thoughts of famous Paraguayan named Jean-Baptiste Botul whose thought, of course, is "Botulism." Levy fell for the hoax, perpetrated by journalist Frederic Pages:  Weve had a big laugh, obviously, Mr. Pags said of Mr. Lvy. This one was an error that was really simple that the media immediately understood.

According to the article in the NY Times, "Mr. Pages has never made a secret of his fictional philosopher, who has a fan club that meets monthly in salons throughout Paris."   For the full article, see:


What interests me more than the spoof and certainly more than Levy is that Wikipedia was immediately blamed for the shoddy work.  In fact, if you try to type " Jean-Baptiste Botul" into Wikipedia's search engine, you are directed to the page for Pages and told he wrote two spoof books of philosophy purported to be by the imaginary Botul.


I am reminded of being an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, in my first tenure-track job after three-years on the market, sure i was never going to attain my goal in what was the worst job market for English Ph.D.'s ever, unrivalled until this year in fact.   The legendary historian of mass culture, Russell B. Nye, was my mentor; I was being hired to fill his slot after he retired.  I was so honored.  And then Russ, ever with the wink in the eye, started to lead me into his mischievous world.  Not only was he a great scholar, he had a penchant for poking holes in the pomposity of great scholars. 


Russ Nye loved, for example, to buy cheap books at thrift stores, books that he was sure would come into vogue again, and writing inscriptions in them:  "To Scott--Know you'll love this one.  --Hem."   And so forth.  He did it better, always thinking about the exactly right, plausible inscription and in a book that hadn't yet become valuable, and then he left it up to chance.  But he did it all the time, compulsively and passionately, for probably thirty or forty years.  (If you have a beloved presentation copy on your shelves, well, be careful!)   I bet there are hundreds if not thousands of signed books in prestigious collections that Russ thrifted and then passed on into the capitalist machinery of rare books.  


Russ's best and longest-running hoax spun out in the pages of important historical journals and then made it into the mass press, possibly (you'll have to check this out, I'm doing it from memory), The Nation and maybe even New Yorker.  He and colleagues not only invented a Civil War battle, but wrote scholarly articles about it, held panels on it, and then would denounce one another's shoddy scholarship, in print and on the lectern at conferences, even though they were all in on the joke.  It went on for years, with lots of side stops along the way.   They all played together in jazz bands, had "Bix Lives!" bumper stickers, and spun out their parodies of their beloved profession (they were also true-blue historians) on their way to jobs at weddings and proms in small midwestern towns. 


Pranksters reign!  My dissertation and three of my first books were on Ambrose Bierce, who made a career being cantankerous, and often would write an outrageous column for the San Francisco Examineri  and then would denounce it under a different pen name elsewhere and then would denounce the denunciation under a third name until the whole thing was spinning into a controversy that, as he said over and over, "sold newspapers."


It was great for me to learn early that one of my mentors was such a whimsical prankster as well as a serious scholar.  I'm not sure exactly what it taught me but I'm glad to have "prankster" in my arsenal of qualities that I realize do not necessarily contradict another quality I admire:  "impeccable scholarship."   Before Russ, who won his Pulitzer Prize the year he turned 30 and went on to write dozens of books, I'm not sure I would have believed those qualities could reside in the same person.  


Moral of this story:  You don't need Wikipedia to be a prankster.  You don't need Wikipedia to perpetrate a hoax.  All you need is an irreverent sense of humor and an anarchic delight in mischief-making.  



This post gives me hope that we might find ways to inject to humor in the course of our veddy serious, veddy stressful work/careers/lives.  I'v been following this particular hoax since the news broke in the English-language media, and, of course, it cannot hurt that "BHL" is a notoriously unbearable public intellectual it's so much fun to hate!


Thanks for the ideas, now I know how to make my posts seem more popular!

But seriously, this is a very interesting topic.  As a history major, many of my upper level classes require a few essays instead of exams, and every semester I hear different sides of the Wikipedia argument from different professors.  I have had some flat out say no Wikipedia whatsoever, others say be careful, and still others encourage it.  I have come to the decision that you can use Wikipedia just fine, however, I like to use Wikipedia to find the informations and use their listed sources to back up that information.