Last modified on December 28, 2018, at 15:59

Hearsay society

Sapere aude! The Enlightenment thinker John Locke.

The hearsay society is a term used to describe a prevailing current of thought, stemming in large part from the popularity of Wikipedia, that discourages making statements unless a reference can be found to others having said them already; and if a reference is found, then the statements are considered true regardless of whether the reference consists of unreliable hearsay. This is a form of intellectual cowardice, and can lead to the propagation of misleading, incorrect or deliberately untrue information, while some individuals abandon even the attempt at using their own logic or thinking for themselves. In the hearsay society the use of hearsay is so rampant that participants can lose the ability to recognize the difference between what is hearsay, and what is not.

Notable examples

  • When confronted with the logic and even miracles performed by Jesus, Pharisees insisted that Jesus cite "authorities" for his truths. Imagine listening to the Prodigal Son and then asking the absurd question, do you have any references for this?
  • Philip Roth: An absurd situation took place at Wikipedia when author Philip Roth was trying to correct a serious misstatement that his novel “The Human Stain” was “inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.” This alleged allegation was in no way substantiated by fact as the novel was inspired, rather, by an unhappy event in the life of author's late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton. The correction was refused on grounds that Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” wrote the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”[1] Consequently, author Philip Roth had to publish an open letter in The New Yorker to satisfy the editors of Wikipedia[2] while complaining that items entering Wikipedia are not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip—there is no truth in it at all.[1]

Wikipedia's role

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is fundamentally based on a form of hearsay. Assertions made in Wikipedia articles are required to be supported by references; this superficially gives an impression of rigor, but in practice it leads to a parrotting of the opinions of others and a negation of the individual's ability to use his intelligence to make connections and insights based on logic. Wikipedia typically dismisses logical inferences as original research; according to Wikipedia policy, this is contrary to the aspiration (itself highly problematic) that articles should present topics from a neutral point of view. As a result, such inferences are swiftly deleted, regardless of their insight or obvious truth.

While original research is permitted on other Wikimedia projects, such as Wikiversity and Wikibooks, these sites are typically obscure and have negligible impact compared to Wikipedia. They may even have been established deliberately to channel original thought away from the mass exposure it would receive on Wikipedia.

Thanks to the growth and popularity of Wikipedia, the flawed expectation that all statements must be referenced has spread elsewhere, both in online communities and wider society, to the point where many are reluctant to express any view unless others have said it first. The result is a hearsay society, where popularly-espoused "facts" are repeated and circulated endlessly, while truths and new insights are shut out, ignored or actively censored. Influenced by Wikipedia, some individuals will vehemently demand references in all kinds of situations where it is patently unnecessary or even absurd to do so.

Degradation of standards

An insistence that all statements must be referenced also leads to a gradual lowering of standards for what references are acceptable. For example, a contributor might want to add obvious statement A to an article, but has difficulty finding a reference. He eventually finds statement A made in source B, which is of questionable quality; he adds the reference and the source is allowed to pass in that instance because of a commonsense desire among those involved to have statement A in the article. But future contributors can then take that use of source B as a precedent and use it to reference other, more questionable statements. Over time, this flawed system inevitably leads to progressively worse and worse sources being used, resulting in ever more hearsay and misleading or wrong information diluting the usable content.

Comparison with the Enlightenment

Voltaire: An opponent of censorship to his works who would not likely have approved of the hearsay society.

Ironically, this subservience to hearsay and the authority of others is antithetical to the spirit of the Enlightenment which gave birth to the first encyclopedia and the scientific method - even though many of its most diligent proponents would claim to be scientists themselves. The motto of the Enlightenment was Sapere aude! - i.e. "Dare to know [for yourself]!" rather than uncritically accept what you are told. This has been twisted out of all recognition by today's self-proclaimed "scientific community" and other groups, as they claim to idolize the great scientific thinkers while rejecting the spirit of inquiry that brought them their success.

The hearsay society attitude also compares unfavorably with Voltaire's famous attributed maxim "I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Those who insist on censoring obvious truths on the pretext that no one can be found to have said them before are effectively saying the exact opposite: "I do not necessarily dispute what you say, but I am nevertheless going to try to stop you from saying it."

Comparison with Declaration of Independence

One of the founding documents of the United States of America, the Declaration of Independence, begins by asserting certain truths as "self-evident". The Founding Fathers who wrote it did not see the need to look for references or other parties who had made the assertions before, and that tone of self-reliance and confidence chimes throughout the rest of the Declaration, and indeed has informed the US's enterprising and pragmatic spirit in the centuries that followed.

This example shows how Wikipedia and the hearsay society are at odds with the approach taken by history's great men - including those with great practical achievements as well as thinkers. The hearsay society might even be considered "un-American".

Conversely, socialist and other left- or liberal-leaning societies have been characterized by a deference to authority, even when those in authority are clearly mistaken or deliberately acting against the interests of the society in question. This deferential tendency is of a piece with the attitudes that drive the hearsay society - supposed authorities, whether scientific, political, social or trivial, are taken as arbiters of truth regardless of their real credentials, and even when individuals' own logic ought to guide them otherwise.

Biblical commentary


The similarities between the hearsay society and the Pharisees who opposed Jesus are marked. As a group, the Pharisees were characterised by a petty and inflexible adherence to rules whose observance had long been divorced from their original purpose; and by a scandalized reaction to anyone who dared to think for himself rather than accept the views of authorities who they saw as beyond question.

The hearsay society is perhaps the most common modern manifestation of both of these Pharisee-like tendencies. Where the Pharisees ignored or tried to suppress truths because they came from Jesus (a carpenter by trade) rather than the priests of the temple, the hearsay society similarly censors or refuses to acknowledge anything not recycled from a limited pool of approved sources. Where the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus for spurious violations of the Sabbath, so the hearsay society censors through recourse to rules on citation, regardless of how badly they might be misapplied, or how irrelevant they might be to the case in question.

Jesus's teaching

Jesus also touched more directly on the topic of hearsay when speaking to his disciples. Mark chapter 8 contains the following (verses 27-29):

And Jesus went out with His disciples into the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way He asked His disciples, saying unto them, “Who do men say that I am?”

And they answered, “John the Baptist; but some say Elijah, and others, one of the prophets.”

And He said unto them, “But whom say ye that I am?” And Peter answered and said unto Him, “Thou art the Christ."

There was a great deal of hearsay circulating about Jesus himself, much of it apparently unfounded speculation about his identity. Jesus warns his disciples to put what they have heard second-hand to one side, and instead make their own interpretation of the evidence they have seen: not "who do men say" but "whom say ye". Disregarding the hearsay, Peter then finds that he can provide the correct answer - despite its surprising and challenging nature, and despite his own lack of scholarly education.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Philip Roth (September 7, 2012). An Open Letter To Wikipedia. Retrieved on 03-June-2013. “Dear Wikipedia, I am Philip Roth. I had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel “The Human Stain.” The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip—there is no truth in it at all.”
  2. Cory Doctorow (19 September 2012). Why Philip Roth needs a secondary source. The Guardian. Retrieved on 03-June-2013. “Author Philip Roth had to publish a letter in The New Yorker to satisfy the editors of Wikipedia...”