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Debunking The Wikipedia 'Brain Surgery' Myth

from the please,-please,-please-make-it-stop dept

Back in 2004, I ended up getting into an argument with a "technology columnist" from a newspaper over just how "repugnant" Wikipedia is (his viewpoint). After a series of emails back and forth, he trotted out the "brain surgeon" question, that seems to be standard fare among Wikipedia-haters. It goes something like this: "If you needed brain surgery, would you trust someone who was trained as a brain surgeon, or someone who learned brain surgery from Wikipedia?" An alternative version of the question is "would you allow a 'crowd' of people to perform brain surgery on you."

Since then the brain surgery "proof" of Wikipedia's problem has shown up plenty of times, with the latest one being pointed out by Slashdot quoting a professor who dislikes Wikipedia so much that she fails to see the problems in what she (supposedly an "expert") is saying. As she notes: If you are faced with the prospect of having brain surgery, who would you rather it be performed by - a surgeon trained at medical school or someone who has read Wikipedia?

So let's debunk this once and for all. First off, no one would want a brain surgery based on someone who just learned how to do brain surgery from Wikipedia, but that proves absolutely nothing. No one would want brain surgery done by someone who just learned how to do brain surgery from Encyclopedia Britannica either -- but you don't see this professor freaking out and trashing Britannica, do you? Wikipedia is a tool, just like Britannica, and it's not designed to be a reference on how to do brain surgery.

The second problem with the "brain surgery" example is the suggestion that experts and the folks working on Wikipedia are somehow mutually exclusive. It's this idea that no one who actually knows anything inputs information on Wikipedia, and the only people who do contribute know nothing. That's pretty clearly been proven untrue, so it's difficult to take this complaint particularly seriously.

As for the professor in question, let's take a look at some of her other statements:
"People are unwittingly trusting the information they find on Wikipedia, yet experience has shown it can be wrong, incomplete, biased, or misleading."
This has to be one of the funniest statements she makes, because every point that she makes can be equally applied to so-called "expert" resources or publications. And, there's a pretty big difference with most of those publications and Wikipedia: with those other sources, most of them can't or won't be changed when the "wrong, incomplete, biased or misleading" info is found. That's not the case with Wikipedia. Furthermore, in a bit of pure irony, this professor doesn't seem to realize that by making all of these incorrect statements, she's showing just how little you can trust supposed "experts" in the first place. After all, she's going on and on about trusting "experts" over the masses, while showing that she doesn't even understand how Wikipedia works at all, showing her own wrong, incomplete, biased and misleading positions.

This isn't to say that Wikipedia is perfect. It's not. It's got plenty of problems. But the lesson that this professor should be teaching is that you can't trust any source by itself, and you should double-check and confirm any information you find, whether it's from Wikipedia, a supposed "professor" or anyone else. It's not brain surgery to understand such a lesson.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    another mike, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 11:47am

    WebMD

    WebMD is medically reviewed. Can I have my brain surgery performed by someone who reads WebMD?

     

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  2.  
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    David Gerard, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 11:53am

    Brain not optional

    Well, we never promised you could read Wikipedia without engaging your brain at any point. I assume Prof. Lichtenstein's frustration is at students who flatly refuse to engage their brains; I think her error is blaming the materials rather than the lazy students. If people want to believe something they read on the Internet without having to think about it, they have problems Wikipedia can't help them with.

     

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    Anonymous of Course, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 11:56am

    But then...

    I wouldn't want a person who learned how to perform
    brain surgery from the finest text books available
    to work on me. Unless he'd practiced on others
    first.

    To draw parallels between journalism with brain surgery
    is farcical.

    I think that deep inside these oracles fear the great unwashed masses will learn of fact cheking and developing
    sources. Then they'll be obsolete. This is why wikipedia
    is so repugnant to them.

     

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  4.  
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    Fushta, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:03pm

    Ode to Professors

    "Thou dost 'profess' too much"

    Dear Professor,
    Check your brain at the door; you'll not be needing it where you're going.

     

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    moore850 (profile), Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:06pm

    Re: WebMD

    Furthermore, can you perform brain surgery because you read about it in a physical Encyclopedia at the library? I wouldn't even trust a brain surgery student to my brain. I would want the most experienced expert at it. Would you want Lance Armstrong as a bike teacher? I dunno, is he any good at teaching it, or can he only ride extremely well by nature? None of these things is connected to the other as the premise implies.

     

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  6.  
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    Joe Smith, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:08pm

    Below average

    50% of brain surgeons are below average.

     

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  7.  
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    David Canton, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:10pm

    Wikipedia brain surgery

    I've observed that when something new comes along, people tend to be overly skeptical about it. They accept the existing state of affairs without question, just because they are used to it.

    People can get all shook up about risks and problems with something new, even if they are similar to (or less than) the risks and problems with the existing model.

    I suspect there is a psychological term for this - but if not, lets call it "comfort zone inertia".

     

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    Aaron deOliveira (profile), Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:14pm

    breaking down the analogy

    to poke further holes in the analogy. aren't most surgeries these days performed by teams of surgeons rather than one individual? i'd imagine a team of surgeons would perform the same basic "group think" functions as wikipedia.

    also, the whole of wikipedia isn't edited by every user. the amount of information is too vast. if i understand correctly, there are pockets of experts that gravitate to subject matter that they care about.

     

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    GeneralEmergency (profile), Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:15pm

    Mike Masnick performs brain surgery...

    ...every day here on his TechDirt audience.

    And I are be doing fine again will did soon.

    Naw...Just kiddin' Mike.

     

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  10.  
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    Max Bonito, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:23pm

    Mass review

    Another thing to consider is that when you are dealing with a massive and active author group such as Wikipedia, then you will have every article perused, cross referenced, and attacked from every possible angle. True knowledge is not writ in stone, it is constantly changing. It is time for the older generations to accept that fact.

     

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    ironus, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:23pm

    Wikipage please

    The irony would to make a wikipage of this expert and reference her ability to do brain surgery.

     

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    Larry, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:24pm

    Re: Below average

    Every single time I see "statistics humor" I laugh chocolate milk out my nose!!

    I want my brain surgery done by someone who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night!!

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:27pm

    Wikipedia is great for finding out about pop culture, but is just way too opinionated for academic use. Just look at all of the policitian's pages. They are locked down and full of rhetoric.

     

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    Gabe, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:28pm

    A Crowd performs brain surgery

    An alternative version of the question is "would you allow a 'crowd' of people to perform brain surgery on you."
    If the choice is (A) Die (B) Allow a crowd to perform brain surgery, I would pick the crowd. It is playing the odds with the hope that someone out there among those people *is* a brain surgeon, but given the size of Wikipedia's viewing base it doesn't have that long of odds.

     

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    Joe C., Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:28pm

    Brain surgery

    Of course no one would refer to an online source for performing brain surgery. This is just a straw man arguement that is ridiculous to employ.
    Another consideration is that anyone in his right mind wouldn't consult anything but a brain surgeon to perform brain surgery. Pity on anyone who'd consult the Wiki for a final answer on any truly serious matter.
    I guess it goes to show that educated people can still do dumb things by enganging in such trivial issues as this.

     

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    Sean, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:29pm

    If some how the person was able to learn brain surgery just by reading Wikipedia and is allowed to perform the surgery then they would have passed the exams to practice medicine and would be one VERY smart person to do all of this only using Wikipedia. So I would trust this naturally gifted individual to perform the surgery. If the surgery was going to be performed in his fathers kitchen the "surgeon" needs his own brain looked at.

     

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    Ima Fish, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:29pm

    "The second problem with the "brain surgery" example is the suggestion that experts and the folks working on Wikipedia are somehow mutually exclusive."

    I'm not going to say that there are no experts writing on Wikipedia. However, there is certainly an anti-elitist bent on Wikipedia wherein experts are disfavored for novices.

    Heck, even if experts were given equal weight to novices, it still would lead to problems. At least if only brain surgeons wrote articles on brain surgery, someone reading it might be able to duplicate the process.

    However, if a plumber without any medical experience is allowed to describe the process of brain surgery, the person reading it would almost certainly fail at the attempt to carry it out.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:30pm

    What a complete logical fallacy those people have conjured up.

    Not only that, Wikipedia isn't a how-to or a guide on getting things done. It's simply an informational reference. So you can't learn how to perform brain surgery from reading it. People who hate Wikipedia are contradictory retards.

     

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  19.  
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    Kevin Lewis, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:31pm

    Wrong tool

    I think brain surgery actually falls into the domain of wikiHow, not Wikipedia, right?

     

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    shanoboy (profile), Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:38pm

    they're missing the point

    Wikipedia is a continually peer reviewed information source that works to make contributors site all their sources.

    I actually think its good for students because it points out how essays and research papers should be subdivided and sited accordingly.

    It's crowd sourcing at its best!

     

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  21.  
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    WarOtter (profile), Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:42pm

    Yeah but...

    The real question is:
    Would you ride in a rocket designed by brain surgeons who looked up Werner Von Braun on Wikipedia?

     

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  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:43pm

    Re: Below average

    Agreed, I worked with them in the past and would not want most to work on me. It takes 7+ years in their program and most don't cut it.

     

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  23.  
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    are often Untrustworthy, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:43pm

    Trusted Sources

    Peer review by 'experts' is no guarantee of accuracy. See the abstract in the link.

    BACKGROUND: standards in the use of statistics in medical research are generally low. A growing body of literature points to persistent statistical errors, flaws and deficiencies in most medical journals. METHODS: in this paper we present a comprehensive review of common statistical pitfalls which can occur at different stages in the scientific research process, ranging from planning a study, through conducting statistical data analysis and documenting statistical methods applied, to the presentation of study data and interpretation of study results. RESULTS: 47 potential statistical errors and shortcomings, differentiated for the distinct phases of medical research are presented and discussed. CONCLUSIONS: statisticians should be involved early in study design, as mistakes at this point can have major repercussions, negatively affecting all subsequent stages of medical research. Consideration of issues discussed in this paper, when planning, conducting and preparing medical research manuscripts, should help further enhance statistical quality in medical journals.

    http://www.citeulike.org/user/jonsta247/article/1559963

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:45pm

    Re: WebMD

    Yes you can. My parents did my brain surgery using WebMD, and as you can see, I'm perfectly fine.

     

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  25.  
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    Wes, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 12:53pm

    Wiki Haters

    I always stick by one principle of Wikipedia.

    If you see something that is incorrect. FIX IT!

    That is your duty as a user of the service. Wiki offers a world of free info to anyone who wants it. But with great power comes great responsiblility.

    How can a person complain about factual inacuracies without correcting them? Do they not understand that the information is not going to improve and in fact they are doing a disservice to all users who come after them.

    Stop hating Wikipedia and start fixing all these "inacuraices/wrong entries". Your whinning isn't helping anybody learn anything

     

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  26.  
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    Dolf, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 1:03pm

    Re:

    Wikipedia is great for finding out about pop culture, but is just way too opinionated for academic use. Just look at all of the policitian's pages. They are locked down and full of rhetoric.

    Bingo. I find Wikipedia to be a source of entertainment in more ways than it is a source of valuable information. The premise is flawed in that if you see a part you don't like you just tear that page out. I know that the articles are supposed to be checked routinely, but by replacing the wording or modifying the entry in the way you see fit you will deal the world a compromised version of history. It will be the history of the people that do the most editing providing any source they wish to suit their wants. Didn't like someone in history? Make their Wikipedia entry reflect that and back it up with a source that shows the same. Take Ann Coulter or Al Gore. People love them and people hate them. No on will ever be described as great or positively revolutionary because the people who hate them have just as much ability to post quotes as to why that person sucks, thus diminishing the person and their entry to anybody who relies on Wikipedia. This article ends with a truly great point of insight:

    "[Y]ou can't trust any source by itself, and you should double-check and confirm any information you find, whether it's from Wikipedia, a supposed "professor," or anyone else."

     

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  27.  
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    Mark Murphy, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 1:06pm

    Re:

    However, there is certainly an anti-elitist bent on Wikipedia wherein experts are disfavored for novices.


    It is possible that, in Wikipedia, "experts are disfavored for novices", but the article you cite doesn't say that, nor is it that great of a source.

    First, Mr. Sanger does describe Wikipedia as "anti-elitist", or, as he phrases it, "lack of respect for expertise". I have little doubt this is true in some areas of Wikipedia, and Wikipedia does not have a policy of measuring levels of expertise to determine worthiness of contributions.

    But, that's not "experts are disfavored for novices". Experts and novices are, in theory, on level ground, without any particular weight given to expertise. Moreover, with Wikipedia constantly seeking citations for statements, experts are in much stronger position since they actually know where to find these sorts of citations. Your fictional plumber, lacking medical expertise, could write a huge article on brain surgery, which would then get reverted or otherwise nuked because the plumber probably didn't cite any sources, because plumbers don't typically have ready access to medical journals.

    Moreover, the article you cited is from late 2004, which is 3-plus years old, and Wikipedia has not remained static through that period. It might be useful to cite something more current to prove your point.

    And, Mr. Sanger has a bone to pick with Wikipedia and Mr. Wales, so he doesn't exactly represent what Wikipedians like to call NPOV (neutral point-of-view). I'm not saying he's wrong, but it'd be useful for you to supply additional evidence rather than one decidedly biased person's perspective.

     

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  28.  
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    Jason, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 1:23pm

    Brain Surgey Article

    Isn't the underlying question, "is there actually Wikipedia articles showing how to do brain surgery?" Yes there are articles on the brain, surgical tools, and diseases to fix with surgery but how is this any different than saying would you trust a mechanic who taught himself how to fix a car or a mechanic who took a certification test but no experience?

     

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  29.  
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    Tom, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 1:31pm

    Academic Resources vs. Personal Resources

    I think the article may be poorly written, but that does not make the overall point invalid.

    First to the person who called her a supposed "professor", if a school pays her and gives her that title then she is one.

    Anyway, back to the main point I wish to make. There are certain standards in place for what can be used as an academic resource. These standards have been developed over time and give us a tested and proven method of the best means to retrieve the best data. Surely they are not perfect, everyone makes mistakes.

    Wikipedia is an awesome resource for finding information on something you're casually, or personally, interested in but it is not a good resource for use in an academic paper.I tell my students that if they have no idea where to start look it up on Wikipedia and then use that in order to find other avenues of research.

    My biggest problem with Wikipedia is not that it's inaccurate or poorly written but more so that the information there is written for the masses and generally not of the level I would expect for research in a collegiate paper. However I use it all the time if I just want to look something up quickly.

     

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  30.  
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    Anonymous, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 1:32pm

    As a librarian, all I can say is that I value Wikipedia in that the website has more up-to-date information than even online encyclopedias. The information may not be totally vetted, but it is better than no information.

    One of the funnier posts I have read in the past week complains that blogging only repeats news from once source many times. If that is the case, we might need to wonder if Wikipedia does the same. Are the articles contained in Wikipedia informed enough?

    As others have said, just because it is reviewed, does not mean it is absolutely correct. However, it is better to have something reviewed, than merely hap-hazardly posted online.

     

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    zhenchyld, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 1:32pm

    go Mike

    ... to you sir, I say 'WORD'.

     

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    silentsteel (profile), Apr 15th, 2008 @ 1:33pm

    Re: Re:Dolf

    Actually a properly written article about any controversial subject should include both the positive and negative opinions to account for historical accuracy. Using you example of Ann Coulter, many conservatives will hold her and everything she says in high esteem. Many moderate and liberal minded people tend to think somewhat less of her. In an entry in Wikipedia for Ann Coulter, both of these opinions should be noted.

    No on will ever be described as great or positively revolutionary because the people who hate them have just as much ability to post quotes as to why that person sucks . . .
    Actually, if you look in an encyclopedia for Sam Houston, whom most Texans revere for some reason, you should find that he did many honorable things in his life for the Cherokee and other nations. At the same time, however, it also should mention something about his bouts with alcoholism, among other things.

     

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    DoubleDown, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 1:52pm

    Hopefully she doesn't teach any logic classes

    The brain surgery parable is a false analogy. A comparable analogy would be: Would you rather fly in a rocket built by rocket scientists or someone who learned how to build rockets on Wikipedia. Even if you completely dismiss one would never be faced with this choice in real life, it is a comparison of apples and oranges. A more appropriate analogy would be would you prefer to read a book on rockets written by a rocket scientist or one written by a Wikipedia contributer? Taking it one more step, would you believe/trust information written by a paid professional or information from a community of volunteers? Maybe. Maybe not. Of course, within her own discipline, computer science, this argument breaks down. Would you rather use software or an operating system that was developed by for profit company of hired engineers or a community of volunteers? In my case, since I'm posting this using a FireFox browser, I've opted for the later : )

     

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    Gunnar, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 1:53pm

    I don't need brain surgery...

    but I just needed to know more about Torx screws, and looked it up in Wikipedia. I trust Wikipedia a lot more on this subject than I would a random brain surgeon.

     

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    Duh, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 2:00pm

    Wait...

    Take your pic of any class K-12 grade, college and beyond... you are supplied (or have to purchase) ONE book for the class? Should we trust that ONE book to teach us everything we should know about that subject? Would someone be an expert on a subject by reading that ONE book? If someone did read a book written by the the utmost respected brain surgeons... would that person be able to perform brain surgery?

    At the end of the day, it's just information... YOU still have to decide what to do with YOUR brain.

    ..and right now, my brain says it's cookie time.

     

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    Rose M. Welch, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 2:04pm

    Most of the Wiki pages I've seen...

    ...have resources at the bottom, most of which I check if it's relatively important. If it doesn't, it usually has a neat little note (reerences needed or citation needed) or I can *gasp!* go to the bottom and see that there are no references, and then I can doubt the individual article.

    I don't remember seeing any other encyclopedia or dictionary with references. Those guys could have put anything in there. Like that travel writer who recently admitted that he made shit up and wrote down what he heard from people on those areas on the Internet. Nobody could tell he hadn't actually gone there, because the people who buy these books prolly haven't been there yet, rofl. So doesn't that make paper and ink encyclopedias more suspect because they completely lack transparency?

     

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    Lucretious, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 2:46pm

    at least she's not an elitist.......

     

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    GHynson, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 3:12pm

    Clarity

    Romans 1:22
    Will clear all this up.

     

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  39.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 3:25pm

    I probably would have just sent the "expert" this link in response to the Brain Surgery example:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_Man

     

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  40.  
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    Anon, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 5:40pm

    Your article first notes that there are two versions of the "brain surgery" argument, but then it only debunks the weaker one. The alternative one is very apt: "would you allow a 'crowd' of people to perform brain surgery on you?" In other words, if you needed surgery, would you go into a hospital where "anyone can operate"? Surely not. Nor would you eat into a restaurant where "anyone can cook". So then, why get knowledge from an "encyclopedia that anyone can edit"? Why do you suppose that of all jobs the one of encyclopedia editor is one that doesn't require any qualifications?

    Even more absurd is the notion that you can never trust ANY source. Real encyclopedias are supposed to provide directly reliable facts, without double-checking. And Britannica, for example, does provide that. That nothing is absolutely 100% accurate is a red herring. Sure even Britannica has a few harmless errors here and there, but that doesn't mean it's not reliable. It is, and Wikipedia isn't. That is blindingly self-evident to anyone who's halfway intelligent and familiar with both works. Britannica's errors are almost all trivial in nature, whereas Wikipedia is overflowing with fundamental misunderstandings (to say nothing of deliberate hoaxes, vandalism, etc.) of a kind that would absolutely never occur in Britannica.

     

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  41.  
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    Rose M. Welch, Apr 15th, 2008 @ 6:49pm

    Re: Anon

    Says who? We have no idea what the credentials are, or who creates other encyclopedias. I'm in a historical renactment group, and I see reference books that disagree all the time. There are different people who prefer different authors and encyclopedias and reference books because they agree with their own opinions.

    So an encyclopedia can't have it right all the time, because many times there is no right answer. There's just the popular answer.

    And sometimes, Joe Blow from the crowd knows more than the age-old institution. Check out the following news story.

    http://sg.news.yahoo.com/ap/20080403/twl-smarter-than-the-smithsonian-1be00ca.html

     

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    Mike (profile), Apr 15th, 2008 @ 7:41pm

    Re:

    The alternative one is very apt: "would you allow a 'crowd' of people to perform brain surgery on you?" In other words, if you needed surgery, would you go into a hospital where "anyone can operate"? Surely not. Nor would you eat into a restaurant where "anyone can cook". So then, why get knowledge from an "encyclopedia that anyone can edit"? Why do you suppose that of all jobs the one of encyclopedia editor is one that doesn't require any qualifications?

    Actually, I thought I did respond to that point by making it clear that there's no mutual exclusivity involved. If my option was:more reli get brain surgery by a single brain surgeon -- or get brain surgery done by a large group of people, including a bunch of brain surgeons who will most likely be in control of my surgery... I'm taking the latter.

    Even more absurd is the notion that you can never trust ANY source. Real encyclopedias are supposed to provide directly reliable facts, without double-checking. And Britannica, for example, does provide that.

    Says who? There was a study recently that found Wikipedia tended to be about as reliable as Britannica: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html

    Sure even Britannica has a few harmless errors here and there, but that doesn't mean it's not reliable. It is, and Wikipedia isn't.

    Again, the evidence suggests otherwise.

    And what's worse, is that the mistakes in Britannica live on and people automatically assume they're correct. With Wikipedia you can fix them *AND* people know to double check the source, rather than blindly trust it.

    Again, Wikipedia wins on both accounts.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 12:29am

    Re: Academic Resources vs. Personal Resources

    There are certain standards in place for what can be used as an academic resource.

    Just exactly what are those standards to which you allude? Are these your personal standards or something else? Without references it appears that you are attempting pass off your personal standards as general standards and as someone who is presumably familiar enough with objective writing to grade your student's research papers you should know better than that.

    My biggest problem with Wikipedia is not that it's inaccurate or poorly written but more so that the information there is written for the masses and generally not of the level I would expect for research in a collegiate paper.

    But the question is, do you tell them the same thing about all other general interest encyclopedias and publications or do you take exception to Wikipedia? I note that you made no mention of those other publications in your comment. Why not?

    The issue here is people taking issue with Wikipedia not because it's a general interest publication but because they disapprove of it's egalitarian model.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 1:50am

    Re:

    Real encyclopedias are supposed to provide directly reliable facts, without double-checking. And Britannica, for example, does provide that.
    Oh really? I notice that you just make that assertion without providing anything to back it up. Well, here's a reference to the contrary: 12-year-old boy finding a series of errors in the latest Encyclopedia Britannica.
    That nothing is absolutely 100% accurate is a red herring. Sure even Britannica has a few harmless errors here and there, but that doesn't mean it's not reliable. It is, and Wikipedia isn't.
    Again, you make claims with no evidence. However, the science journal Nature apparently found Wikipedia as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica (as reported by the BBC). Of course, Britannica would like to edit Nature's study on Wikipedia. And it isn't just mistakes. In some cases Encyclopedia Britannica's objectivity has really been lacking, such as in their article that described the important Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell as "not over-scrupulous," "repellent," "powerful for evil," and, owing to the "mental affliction of his ancestors," probably possessing a "mental equilibrium [that] was not always stable."
    That is blindingly self-evident to anyone who's halfway intelligent and familiar with both works.
    Anyone who's halfway intelligent knows better than to mistake personal prejudice for fact. Self delusion is not a hallmark of intelligence.

    Meanwhile, professors are learning to embrace, not hate, Wikipedia.

     

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  45.  
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    Rose M. Welch, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 2:25am

    Another one.

    In the article below, a thirteen year old boy corrected NASA's estimates on the chances of an asteroid colliding with Earth. Just another example of an established group of very smart people with alot of education being wrong, and Joe Thirteen-Year-Old being correct.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/spaceastronomygermany

     

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  46.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 5:11am

    Re: Re:

    In the correct analogy, your option is going to a qualified brain surgeon or to a random person (or a bunch of random persons, none of whom might be qualified). You're trying to suggest that there are experts about everything among the Wikipedia editors and that they will successfully prevail against the ignorant masses, but that is not what happens. Experts may try Wikipedia out for a while, but will usually find that even if they could prevail in most cases, the tedious discussions with clueless teenagers are not worth their time, and will leave soon. That's why there are very few experts. (And when I say "experts" I don't mean "people with formal credentials," I mean people who actually know something. In some rare cases a teenager may be a better expert than a professor, but in those cases the expert teenager will experience the same frustration of having to deal with idiots.)

    Re Nature: it's rather self-contradictory to resort to the authority of Nature to say Britannica is not reliable. If Britannica is not reliable, why should Nature be? You can't trust ANYTHING, remember? Sure enough, the "study" was flawed on many levels (see e.g. http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2006/02/community_and_h.php). That may not necessarily make Nature unreliable, considering that it wasn't part of the peer-reviewed section of the magazine, it was essentially an editorial (with a clearly preconceived result), although even Nature's peer-reviewed studies may prove false, seeing how they fell for that South Korean geneticist's frauds. I certainly trust Britannica more than Nature.

    Finally, what do you mean "mistakes in Britannica live on"? If they notice one, they'll correct it. And they invite feedback, you can report mistakes, and if it's actually a mistake they'll fix it. They just don't allow you to directly fix it, for good reason, because in that case without doubt more new errors would be introduced than fixed. And the problem with Wikipedia is that many people clearly DON'T "know to double check" it, they'll treat it as an encyclopedia because it calls itself one and has all the outer trappings of one, and real encyclopedias are reliable, so they think it is too and assume its information is correct. I wouldn't want to kill Wikipedia, I just wish it wouldn't pretend to be an encyclopedia. As critics have suggested before, most of the problems would go away if it just described itself in an ostentatiously non-serious way, like "Jimbo's Big Bag o' Trivia." Then people wouldn't be fooled.

     

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  47.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 5:30am

    Re: Re:

    Why do you suppose it is news if a 12-year-old finds a few errors in Britannica? Because it is a "man bites dog" story, a rare exception! Any smart 12-year-old could find endless numbers of errors in Wikipedia any day. Errors in Wikipedia are the rule, thus not news, unless it's a specifically harmful one (like the Seigenthaler libel).

    The self-delusion is on your part. "Prejudice" would be a judgment made without actual consideration of the facts. My judgment, as I said, is based on extensive experience with both, far superior to the ridiculous Nature setup. You don't have to take my word for it, but any intelligent person will see this for himself (and will consider the idea even to do a formal study about it to be as absurd as doing a study to find out if elephants are larger than flies).

    As to the Parnell quotes, they are from the 1911 Britannica (which, incidentally, is extensively used by Wikipedia) and was in line with the objectivity standards (or lack thereof) of that time. There's nothing like that in today's Britannica (but you can certainly find such bias in Wikipedia).

     

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  48.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 5:38am

    Re: Another one.

    Yes, and because there are examples of something means it's universal, uh? Let's just fire all the NASA eggheads and hire a bunch of 13-year-olds.

     

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  49.  
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    Sean (Ireland), Apr 16th, 2008 @ 8:08am

    Other Universities offer better advice

    The guidelines from Open University (www.open.ac.uk) have this to say about web-resources;

    If there is no author or organisation, you should wonder about the authority of the source before using it ...

    Some websites are much more authoritative, such as those of Wikipedia ...


    So basically, if I'm dumb enough to use web resources without doing due-diligence, I deserve to fail. And if my tutor hasn't made that clear, then that's the tutors fault, not mine.

     

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  50.  
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    Tom Panelas, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 9:57am

    the mistakes in Britannica live on

    Anonymous Coward, I can explain where Mike's "the mistakes in Britannica live on" comment comes from. There are many people who like Wikipedia and want to promote it. That's a perfectly reasonable and legitimate thing to do, of course. Some of them, however, think the way to do it is to misrepresent other sources of information, including Britannica, by making false and invidious comparisons between those sources and Wikipedia. This is not legitimate; it's dishonest. One of the popular tropes in this brand of Wiki PR is to imply that Encyclopaedia Britannica is strictly a print publication that can't be readily revised. In truth, of course, Britannica has been online since 1994, and anything in it can and routinely is revised whenever the editors want to. Many people don't know this, however, and the Wiki promoters I've mentioned exploit that ignorance with talking points that reinforce the misconception that Britannica exists only in print. Notice I said "imply." I have seldom heard any of these people come straight out and say Britannica does not exist online, for the reason, I can only imagine, that they don't want to be on record with a straight-out lie. But I have seen and heard "the mistakes in Britannica [from the Nature study] live on" many times, usually in places where the speaker or writer senses, often correctly, that his words will not be seriously scrutinized. In such circumstances, a statement needn't be true, only truthy -- that is to say, something that many people are disposed to believe, such as the idea that Barack Obama is a Muslim. I have no reason to believe, by the way, that Mike himself was willful or dishonest in repeating this. The canard has circulated so widely that I'm sure many people honestly believe that mistakes Nature found in Britannica are still there, even though that's absurd. Incidentally, the actual mistakes Nature found in Britannica were miniscule. The article was false from top to bottom, the "study" that accompanied it totally without merit. You can go here for a partial catalog of the intellectual dishonesty you should be prepared to defend if you want to cite the Nature study as legitimate: http://corporate.britannica.com/britannica_nature_response.pdf. Yes, it's a Britannica document; we wrote it. But you should know that Nature, in its response, did not take issue with any of our factual refutations of the so-called errors it accused us of. Tom (from Britannica) P.S. For the record, no one should attempt brain surgery from reading the Britannica. Don't try it at home, kids. Go to med school, do the surgical residency, etc. Eat your peas.

     

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  51.  
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    jglover, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 10:40am

    Re: Below average

    That's not necessarily true; go read up on statistics at Wikipedia. 50% would assume an even distribution which is unlikely.

     

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  52.  
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    Mike (profile), Apr 16th, 2008 @ 11:47am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Errors in Wikipedia are the rule

    Do you have any proof to support such a statement?

    So far, studies have shown the opposite, so I'd think you'd want to back that up.

     

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  53.  
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    Mike (profile), Apr 16th, 2008 @ 11:51am

    Re: the mistakes in Britannica live on

    Anonymous Coward, I can explain where Mike's "the mistakes in Britannica live on" comment comes from. There are many people who like Wikipedia and want to promote it.

    Yikes, Tom, ad hominem much?

    I actually don't want to promote Wikipedia at all. I don't promote, I write my opinions and analysis. I don't even use Wikipedia very often at all, and wouldn't consider myself a "fan" of it. But I understand how it works and found the comments of this professor to be laughable.

    But, rather than engage in debate, you show up and immediately claim I'm some sort of "dishonest" Wiki "promoter."

    No wonder people don't trust Britannica when that's your response to honest debate.

    The canard has circulated so widely that I'm sure many people honestly believe that mistakes Nature found in Britannica are still there, even though that's absurd.

    I never meant to imply that mistakes live on forever. But it IS true that either in print or on the web, it's a much more involved process for mistakes to get fixed.

     

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  54.  
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    Danny, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 12:20pm

    I would just counter with the question, "If you are doing research for a term paper to you let one single person tell everything you need to know or do you seek out as many different sources as possible to see the issue from several angles?"

     

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  55.  
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    Tom Panelas, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 1:15pm

    the mistakes in Britannica live on

    Mike,

    Please read my comment again. I took pains to avoid being ad hominem and to separate you from the people who deliberately spread the falsehood that Britannica errors linger because Britannica, they would have people think, is just a print publication. This has been repeated so many times that many people believe it honestly, even though it's not true, and I made a point of saying I count you among them. If that didn't come across clearly I apologize.

    As I said, there are people who spread this misconception who surely know better. I'd rather not name names because I don't want to get into a shouting match with anyone, but I have heard this directly from people who certainly know that Britannica does most of its publishing online, and therefore know the idea that errors can't be corrected promptly simply isn't true.

    And let me repeat, as well, that many people who like Wikipedia promote in an honest way, and as far as I'm concerned they are entirely welcome to their affection for it. It's those who feel they have to tear down other people's handiwork in order to promote Wikipedia that I object to.

     

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  56.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 3:51pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Why do you suppose it is news if a 12-year-old finds a few errors in Britannica?
    It's significant because it disproves the assertion that Encyclopedia Britannica is so "reliable" and "double checked". And the kid didn't just find one error, he found a bunch of them. I wonder what the problem is at EB that they couldn't even afford to hire the equivalent of 12-year-olds to do fact checking.
    Errors in Wikipedia are the rule, thus not news, unless it's a specifically harmful one (like the Seigenthaler libel).
    EB and Wikipedia both have errors. The difference is errors tend to be be corrected much more quickly in Wikipedia.
    The self-delusion is on your part. "Prejudice" would be a judgment made without actual consideration of the facts. My judgment, as I said, is based on extensive experience with both, far superior to the ridiculous Nature setup. You don't have to take my word for it, but any intelligent person will see this for himself (and will consider the idea even to do a formal study about it to be as absurd as doing a study to find out if elephants are larger than flies).
    What facts? You didn't present any, just claims. And do you think you're the only person in the world to have "extensive experience" with both? If so, then I've got news for you; you aren't. But if you think claims are the same as facts, then how about this: In my experience Wikipedia is far better than EB. Of course, you don't have to take my word for it, but any intelligent person will see this for himself (blah blah blah). OK, I guess that claim makes it a "fact" now according to your apparent standards.
    As to the Parnell quotes, they are from the 1911 Britannica...
    Which kind of blows holes in the claim that such stuff "would absolutely never occur in Britannica" doesn't it?

     

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  57.  
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    Rose M. Welch, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 3:56pm

    Y'all missed the point again.

    The multi-layered point I am making is that:

    a) Traditional research resources do not always agree with one another. That is one of the reason why you are expected to cite many resources that agree when you are preparing a paper.

    b) If there is a mistake, they don't announce it or retract thier previous mistake. They *might* fix it the next time they print them, in the case of encyclopedias, but people are still going to check the uber-expensive ones that they have, as opposed to buying new ones. If newspapers must print retractions, shouldn't research resources? No transparency is a problem.

    When children debunk traditional resources several times in just a few months, you have to wonder how often it happened with adults and was taken care of quietly. Normally, I feel that quietly is good, but, once again, if newspapers must print retractions, shouldn't research resources? No transparency is a problem.

    c) Wikipedia does show sources that are easily checkable. Many traditional resources do not. Yes, some Wiki articles do not show resources, but they are easily ignored.

    d) Wikipedia has a ton of information that is not available in your standard encylopedia. Can you tell me that I can find out what an Internet meme is using traditional printed resources?

    At the end of the day, Wikipedia is, at the very least, a great place to start your research and, at most, a great tool to use alongside traditional resources.

    I believe that's what the original articles was trying to say, in response to a professor's attempt to tear down other people's handiwork in order to promote traditional resources.

     

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  58.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 16th, 2008 @ 5:06pm

    Re: the mistakes in Britannica live on

    Notice I said "imply." I have seldom heard any of these people come straight out and say Britannica does not exist online, for the reason, I can only imagine, that they don't want to be on record with a straight-out lie.

    Maybe you haven't heard them say that because that isn't what they mean. It's only in your own mind that they do. What people usually say is that mistakes can be corrected much more quickly in Wikipedia than Britannica and I think that is probably true. If I come across an error in Wikipedia while reading it I can usually correct it in less than a minute. If I come across an error while reading Britannica, how long would it take for it to be corrected even if I "reported" it? A day? A week? A month? Longer? Even just a day would be over a thousand times longer which is, comparatively speaking, much longer. So those claims seem perfectly legitimate to me.

    And what about errors in those printed volumes anyway. What does Britannica do about those? Anything? I can imagine that Britannica might not want to replace those erroneous volumes for people who bought them but they could at least publish and distribute errata sheets and offer them on-line. So as you can see, there is really no excuse to leave those volumes uncorrected, is there? However, I couldn't find any such thing on Britannica's web site. Why not? Could it be that Britannica is so reluctant to admit mistakes that it prefers so sweep them under the rug? I can see no other explanation and the result is correctable errors that do indeed seem to linger indefinitely.

    Incidentally, the actual mistakes Nature found in Britannica were miniscule. The article was false from top to bottom, the "study" that accompanied it totally without merit. You can go here for a partial catalog of the intellectual dishonesty you should be prepared to defend if you want to cite the Nature study as legitimate: http://corporate.britannica.com/britannica_nature_response.pdf

    I notice how you didn't include Nature's official response. Talk about "dishonest". Well, here it is:
    http://www.nature.com/press_releases/Britannica_response.pdf.

    Yes, it's a Britannica document; we wrote it. But you should know that Nature, in its response, did not take issue with any of our factual refutations of the so-called errors it accused us of.

    Here is Nature's point-by-point rebuttal of Britannica's main objections:
    http://www.nature.com/nature/britannica/eb_advert_response_final.pdf.

    Note that Nature continues to stand by their article.

     

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  59.  
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    Marco Chiesa, Apr 17th, 2008 @ 1:13am

    Not the actual operation, but...

    Well, obviously I would like a properly trained doctor, with all the necessaries degrees. But if a doctor tells me "I'd like to perform the operation Xyz on you", I'd probably go to Wikipedia and read [[Xyz]] to get a clue on what will happen to my brain...

     

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  60.  
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    Tom Panelas, Apr 17th, 2008 @ 6:00am

    Re: the mistakes in Britannica live on

    Maybe you haven't heard them say that because that isn't what they mean. It's only in your own mind that they do.

    Well, in many cases, I think that's true, and what people mean can be fuzzy. But too often I have heard words to the effect that "Wikipedia can be corrected faster than a print encyclopedia" from people speaking for the media who know that there are very few print encyclopedias today, that the species is almost extinct--and this in contexts where the thing being compared with Wikipedia was Britannica. Those are the instances I was talking about.

    I notice how you didn't include Nature's official response. Talk about "dishonest". Well, here it is: http://www.nature.com/press_releases/Britannica_response.pdf.

    Yes, there it is. We rebutted sixty or so of the errors they attributed to Britannica, which, as I say, they didn't challenge. Neither in this document nor in the other one you cite do they deal with the main objections, which had to do with point-by-point rebuttals of Britannica's putative errors and the fact that they refused to release the original data on which the study was based -- a rather eccentric practice for a science journal, to say the least. Equally eccentric was their admission that they mashed up Britannica articles, gave the mash-ups new titles and represented them to their outside reviewers as Britannica's own work, saying they thought this was okay. They "stood by" the study, yes, though what that means in light of all this I don't know.

     

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  61.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2008 @ 1:02pm

    "...there are very few print encyclopedias today, that the species is almost extinct..."

    That doesn't sound correct to me. How did you come to that conclusion? Please give me your references for that statement.

    Brittanica online requires an expensive subscription. In my town, a smallish town with a good university, printed reseach materials are used extensively. I'm willing to bet that they're used in puclic and school libraries across America. Doesn't sound very extinct to me but I'll reserve judgement until I see your figures.

     

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  62.  
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    Tom Panelas, Apr 17th, 2008 @ 3:13pm

    Re: the mistakes in Britannica live

    "I'm willing to bet that they're used in puclic and school libraries across America."

    You're right, and that's the reason why print encyclopedias are "almost extinct" and not simply "extinct."

    Multivolume print encyclopedias are still purchased by schools and libraries, seldom by families and consumers, who generally go online.

    What's more, schools and libraries are often on a longer "replacement cycle" for print encyclopedias than in the past. A library that 20 years ago would have bought new ones every two or three years might now wait five or six before replacing their current sets, since they probably have a site license to the online edition as well. A big library that in the past might have had seven or eight sets, for different floors or departments, might have three or four today. So you can still see encyclopedias on the shelves of libraries, but often fewer of them, and the ones you see tend to be older. Check those copyright dates next time you're in the library.

    Britannica sells a fraction of the print sets we sold 20 years ago, when that was the only medium. The 32-volume print Britannica is today a small part of our business.

    Elsewhere, I believe Encyclopedia Americana has discontinued its print set -- their business being mostly online to colleges -- and I don't think you'll find a recent set of Funk & Wagnalls anywhere. World Book still publishes its print set -- again selling it mainly to schools and libraries -- and while I don't know their exact figures I do know they're way down from historical levels.

    The New York Times had an article about this just about a mongth ago.

    Let me ask: Does this come as a surprise? I thought it was common knowledge that print encyclopedias had declined, but maybe I only think that because I'm in the middle of it. But, yes, the encyclopedia business is online these days and has been for some years. It's where most of our revenue comes from, it's the part of the business that's growing fastest, and it's where most of our energies go. (Wireless is coming up, too.)

    I might add that online is also the way most people access the information. Probably 100 million people have access to Britannica on the Internet in one way or another. That's many more people than we could ever serve in the print-only era, no matter how many sets were sold.

     

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  63.  
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    Rose M. Welch, Apr 17th, 2008 @ 4:53pm

    But that's just a longer reiteration.

    I asked for numbers and sources, not a reiteration of your opinion. Really, you just repeated yourself, except you added a link that half agreed with you and half disagreed with you.

    Your comments would be toasted on a Wikipedia article, but I guess it's okay for an encyclopedia guy.

     

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  64.  
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    NotPC, Apr 17th, 2008 @ 11:15pm

    The real wikipedia problem

    I gave up trying to write for wikipedia because you couldn't tell the truth. I mostly tried to write up detailed notes about hardware. I routinely got idiot editors censoring my detailed benchmarks and notes. I'd get various reasons. Some were they were too close to "reviews". Others feared, no, stated the benchmark numbers were viruses and removed them. Others said it was too esoteric.

    So now when I see a wiki editor my eyes go all Cheney like and I reach for my shotgun. Until we shoot all the liberal arts majors who don't understand diddley squat about most things technical, and have attitude to top it off, the Wiki will be a place of scorn for those in the know.

    Perhaps other technical people know this and make allowances. However for the average liberal arts professor who swears his mac is virus proof the Wiki is a dangerous place. I'd say 99% of our American populace doesn't have the technical wherewithal to see past a liberal arts professor so where does that leave the Wiki...?

     

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  65.  
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    Tom Panelas, Apr 18th, 2008 @ 8:13am

    print encyclopedias

    Rose,

    Were you talking to me? I'm afraid I have no figures to give you. What few firm ones I know are confidential, and there's no encyclopedia trade association that publishes sales figures.

    It's not my opinion, however, that sales of print encyclopedias have plunged in the past 20 years or that most today are bought by schools and libraries. Those are facts, which I know from working in the industry. If that won't do, I'm sorry.

    NotPC,

    Re: shooting all the liberal-arts majors. Could we at least wait till they make as much as lawyers before considering this? It's a modest proposal in the Swiftian tradition, I take it, but a bit drastic in my opinion.

     

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  66.  
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    Etch, Apr 21st, 2008 @ 1:44pm

    Re: Wikipedia brain surgery

    Nice! comfort zone inertia! I'm going to use that! Is it trademarked? :P

     

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  67.  
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    Sceptic, Apr 23rd, 2008 @ 9:52pm

    Tell the Wikitruth!

    Wikipedia is anti-elitist, there have been many articles on this topic.

    To summarise: Experts care less than losers about a wikipedia page, therefore any given wikipedia page is unlikely to have had an expert make it's most recent contribution.

     

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  68.  
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    Sceptic, Apr 23rd, 2008 @ 9:56pm

    Re: Trusted Sources

    One source?

    Basically, I think that one paper citing weakness in one area is misleading and crap.

     

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  69.  
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    Sceptic, Apr 23rd, 2008 @ 9:59pm

    Re: Wiki Haters

    Hey, if you pay me an hourly rate for my work, then I'll do your work for you.

     

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