The Wikipedia Problem

One of my favorite Hollywood stories involves Gene Wilder’s one condition for playing Willie Wonka in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory:

“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”

Asked why, Wilder said, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

It’s a great story that really showcases Wilder’s brilliance. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it actually happened.

I found the story on Wikipedia’s entry about the movie. The citation on that article goes to a Yahoo! TV article titled, “Gene Wilder’s Willie Wonka Demands Revealed.” That article links back to a website called Letters of Note, which presents the anecdote as part of an article that does provide some interesting movie lore in the form of a hand-written note from Wilder to director Mel Stuart. However, that note discussed Willie Wonka’s outfit, not the character’s introduction. The article provides no source for Wilder’s “one condition,” but does provide three links in the opening paragraph. Unfortunately, each of those links goes back to Wikipedia.

The story has made the rounds around the Internet, including sites such as Quora, The Huffington Post, and Reddit. But they all cite the Letters of Note article and nothing else.

I’m not saying the story isn’t true, but I have no way of knowing how accurate it is because there’s no actual source. On one hand, Letters of Note seems to do its homework. On the other hand, I can’t tell if the introduction of that much-cited article is something unearthed in connection with Wilder’s letter, a simple anecdote, or paraphrased from an unreliable source.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Even when the information turns out to be accurate, that’s sometimes a matter of luck rather than solid research. How do I know this? Because a blog post I did on the history of Wonder Woman is a cited source on Wikipedia.

The “Fictional Character Biography” section of Wikipedia’s Wonder Woman page cites my blog five times. Fortunately, this was one of the few times when I cited a source, indicating that I drew upon Carol Strickland’s history of Wonder Woman’s costumes for additional information. However, a lot of my article came not from that website but from my own recollection of Wonder Woman’s comics.

Were my memories accurate? Did I pay more attention to areas of Wonder Woman’s history that I found more interesting and ignore other parts? Or did I rely on other online sources (maybe even Wikipedia) to help fill in the gaps of my memory? I wrote that blog entry six years ago, so not even I remember what steps I took to ensure accuracy.

My point is not that reality is a lie. Rather, it’s that we are more likely to find the truth if we look more closely at our sources. Humans don’t really look for information; we look for stories. When we find a story we like, we seek out the facts that support it. That gives us a huge degree of tunnel vision. Sometimes we find a real fact, but other times we collectively agree on a convenient fiction instead.

It’s not a huge deal when you’re looking up movie trivia, but people often apply the same slipshod methodology when approaching science, politics, and health. Be wary of supposed facts that don’t trace back to multiple reliable sources. Be especially wary of them when they tell you what you want to hear.

About Charlie Brooks

Charlie Brooks is an author, blogger, and game designer. His latest novel, Conquest of Greystone Valley, is on sale now.

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