Wikipedia is the best way to counter pseudoarchaeology

I was glad to see a brief nod to @Wikipedia in a recent Input article on pseudoarchaeology in social media. Its importance in countering pseudoarchaeology and disinformation about the past is often neglected.

Ask yourself: what do you do when you encounter a new idea and want to check it or read about it further? For most people, the answer is “look it up on Wikipedia”. Editing it is one of the most effective public engagement tools out there, and has almost no barrier to entry. Pseudoarchaeologists know this very well. They relentlessly try to add their newest theories to articles, rewrite biographies of advocates to remove criticism and make them sound more legitimate, and ‘edit war’ with regular editors to keep their changes.

On the other side you have a small group of volunteer editors, almost all not professional archaeologists, fighting to keep articles in line with mainstream science. It can seem like a thankless task, but it works. To take a petty-but-satisfying example from the Input article: “When Graham Hancock’s Wikipedia page was edited in 2019 to include references to him engaging in pseudoarchaeology, it set off a stream of furious commentary […] calling it ‘attempted character assassination.’”

But Wikipedia editors rely on academics to give them the ammunition for this battle: “editors look to the consensus of professional archaeologists in deciding whether to label something ‘pseudoarchaeology’ or list it as a credible theory”. verything on Wikipedia must be cited to ‘reliable sources’ (e.g. journal articles). If there are no critical reliable sources, then its editors cannot fight pseudoarchaeology effectively. And they cannot create those sources themselves: that’s the job of archaeologists. This is why the widespread belief that “giving alternative theories professional attention only serves to legitimize them” is so frustrating. As an archaeologist, you might know that the latest ‘alternative theory’ is rubbish. But others probably can’t spot that without help. Writing rebuttals and critiques to pseudoarchaeology might seem like a waste of time, but if archaeologists don’t use make their knowledge available to Wikipedians, there is no way that Wikipedians can make it available to the public.

As an archaeologist, you don’t need a big social media following to effectively combat pseudoarchaeology. Just use the tools that are available to you—your privilaged ability to produce ‘reliable sources’ in your area of expertise—and Wikipedia editors will do the rest.

Adapted from the original Twitter thread on 2023-04-13.