I had high hopes for Wikipedia. Having grown up with the Encyclopedia Britannica, I knew that its articles combined a fulsome array of factoids -- at least, those accepted in the historical moment in which its entries were written -- with a literary flair that gave the reader a three-dimensional sense of the subject.
If you can find it on the internet, I recommend as a quintessential example of both best and worst—high literature and low accuracy—the extraordinary appreciation of Charles Dickens by G. K. Chesterton in the 1929 Fourteenth Edition of the Britannica. It is one of the most insightful biographical essays on an author’s life.
The central problem with Wikipedia, the people’s encyclopedia intended by its very inclusivity -- anyone can generally offer edits -- to correct for editorial bias, is that those with the time and incentive to lean in with spin end up controlling history.
I am reminded of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s adage that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Case in point: back in 1981, I set out with a team at ABC News to investigate allegations of deadly “yellow rain” being dropped on Hmong villages in Laos.
The Hmong had assisted the U.S. in its “secret war” in Laos, and it made horrific sense that this hill tribe might be targeted all these years later for biochemical experimentation and annihilation. Look for the Hmong now, and you will find more than 65,000 living in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, a long way from home but a safer zone.
I had experienced dreadful delay in getting to Southeast Asia to investigate the story. Not because we had to travel first to Canada to find an antimalarial for the strain of illness prevalent where we were going -- the pills themselves could kill you, so they weren’t legal here -- but because the higher-ups at the network didn’t want to buck the prevailing theory propounded in The New York Times by an esteemed and insistent Harvard professor.
The twist was that the professor believed Secretary of State Alexander Haig was using the allegations to shake up the unratified SALT II treaty with the Soviets. Thus, not without some weird science you can read about in the current Wikipedia entry on “yellow rain,” this academic advanced the so-crazy-it-must-be-true theory that swarms of bees dropping feces explained the deadly mycotoxin falling like pollen on the Laotian hilltops.
For The New York Times then, and today’s Wikipedia guided by unseen hands, case closed.
The problem is that the science our team brought back and subjected to rigorous testing told a different story -- one you won’t find in Wikipedia, even though we broadcast it in December of 1981 in a report, “Rain of Terror,” read into the Congressional record. Our report advanced hard science: an editorial in The Wall Street Journal termed it “Quite simply the single best piece of television journalism we’ve ever witnessed.” We had chosen fact over politics.
From an obliterated village in Laos, we brought back -- in a vial smothered in duct tape and taped to a passenger’s leg on a commercial flight -- a sample scraped from leaftops in Laos. For chain of custody, I watched the sample opened and separated at the Arthur D. Little Labs in Cambridge, with half sent to Rutgers.
The revelation was not in a finding of the disputed T-2 mycotoxin -- bees might theoretically spawn it -- but in the dispersal agent present in both samples: polyethylene glycol. Today you’d call it a “weaponizing agent.” Back then, it helped your deodorant spray spread across your armpit. Or poison in the air. Bees couldn’t manufacture polyethylene glycol, and they sure didn’t excrete it.
Hard on the heels of our broadcast, reports of “yellow rain” abruptly ceased. Investigative journalism had cast reasonable doubt on the bee feces theory.
You’d hardly know that today. In fact, though no-one ever managed to disprove our findings, Wikipedia makes no mention of them. As they say, history is written by the victors. A truism oft attributed to Winston Churchill but, ironically, nowhere to be found in his writings and speeches. Harvard stoops to conquer Wikipedia.
We didn’t tape the “yellow rain” vial under an armpit, but let’s give Wikipedia the benefit of the doubt: the forces of open-source editing are not without their pollenated view and strange stuff can pollute scientific samples. I only know what we saw, carried and tested. And an encyclopedia that leaves out any mention of what we found shows that it is by definition incomplete and easy prey for partisan revisionist history and fractured science.
Chesterton, in his day, also trimmed facts to fit, so we cannot simply hail Britannica. Pick your poison. The rain it raineth every day, from Twelfth Night to Laos. Caveat emptor. Float like a butterfly, stink like a bee.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.