The Uneasy Balance Between Wikipedia And Truth

from the it-ain't-always-there dept

I've long been a staunch defender of Wikipedia -- a site that I think many of us find quite useful. Most of the criticisms directed at Wikipedia come off as misguided -- and usually come from people who only just realized that anyone can edit it and insist this is somehow bad before recognizing that this usually tends to be pretty good, because it means mistakes tend not to last very long. That isn't to say that mistakes aren't made -- or even that they're not made quite frequently. But, as long as you recognize that Wikipedia, by itself, is not meant to be the definitive source, then it is still an amazingly useful repository of information that can be used as a starting point.

However, Simpson Garfinkel has an interesting article pointing out that there is one element of Wikipedia's relationship to "truth" that should be examined. That is, the site very highly values verifiability over truth. In other words, it will always side with a citation over personal knowledge -- even if that citation is incorrect. This leads to some odd situations, when you think about it. After all, people will point out that Wikipedia's advantage over something like Britannica is that mistakes stay for much longer in Britannica. But, that might only be true if the Wikipedia entry isn't based on a false citation.

If the Wikipedia entry is based on a false citation, and there's no other citation that contradicts it, then it's likely that Wikipedia's entry will remain wrong, but citable. So, the easy editing of Wikipedia is a bit meaningless if the source of the false fact is not also editable (or if there's no citation that shows the original citation is wrong). I've seen this myself lately with the short entry about me. While I do take quite seriously the typical admonition not to edit your own entry, I have checked it at times. What amuses me, is that it tends to have my birthday wrong (flipping the month and the date, such that my real birthday -- December 8, or 12/08 -- is flipped to August 12, or 08/12). I've been watching a couple of people (one of whom I'm pretty sure I know) argue back and forth about the date, with the person who keeps flipping it back to the wrong date claiming at one point that he is me. He's not. Of course, I don't take this as evidence of Wikipedia's failure, but more a reminder of what the site is and what it's not. It's a useful starting point for investigation, which is quite often reliable and sufficient, but I wouldn't recommend betting your life on it. Or even your birthday.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 7:49am

    So, can we use this article as a citation of when your birthday is?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Mark K, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 8:20am

    It would be funny if someone did edit it and cited this article, only to find out that this source is incorrect.

    Irony.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    dorpus, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 8:21am

    Citations make no difference

    If the people who own an article on a wikipedia entry don't like what an edit says, they will delete it even if it has legitimate references. I have experienced this first hand.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 8:32am

      Re: Citations make no difference

      No one "owns" Wikipedia Articles. People that delete information that they don't like are considered vandals, and dealt with accordingly. This petty vandalism is easy to erase, as anyone can revert to a previous page in history.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        dorpus, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 8:38am

        Re: Re: Citations make no difference

        Then what do you do if they even delete the version history, so your edit looks as if it never happened? That is what happened to me.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          identicon
          Anonymous Coward, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 8:56am

          Re: Re: Re: Citations make no difference

          To my knowledge, only a Sysop can do that. If there was a case of administrative abuse, it should be reported.

           

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          •  
            identicon
            Dosquatch, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 10:35am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Citations make no difference

            No, dude, you're answering the dorpus. Just because he says something doesn't mean there's any foundation in reality.

             

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      PaulT (profile), Oct 21st, 2008 @ 9:03am

      Re: Citations make no difference

      No offence dorpus, but if your wikipedia entry was as well written and argued as the average post you make here, I'd guess it was removed because of the quality, not the content.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Mark K, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 8:28am

    Just checked. Wikipedia now has citation pointing to this article.

    I will be lmao if Mike is pulling a fast one here.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    bill, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 8:34am

    self editing

    Writer Poppy Z. Brite's efforts to correct her wiki page: Wikipedia Weeniedom. And she added: After yesterday's tempest in a teapot, I've gone over Wikipedia's guidelines and cannot find anything prohibiting the sort of basic information I've been adding to or correcting in this entry. I've also been advised by a senior Wikipedia administrator that I have done nothing to violate policy. Thus, I don't think Rimbaud 2's "request" is valid, and unless Wikipedia decides to ban me to prevent me from doing so, I will continue editing my entry when and as I wish.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    GeneralEmergency (profile), Oct 21st, 2008 @ 9:01am

    Let's all alter Mike reality...

    Let's pull a Colbertian reality adjustment on Mike and edit his Wikipedia entry to include outrageous claims like:

    - Mike Masnick holds the World Land Speed Record for a motorized bathtub.

    - Mike Masnick invented the right mouse button.

    - Mike Masnick speaks eight languages, three of them in reverse.

    - Mike Masnick owns a restaurant that only serves BBQ'd "Fainting" goat.

    - Mike Masnick has a 1:4000 scale replica of Mt. Everest in his basement.

    - Mike Masnick teaches cats to walk only on their front paws.

    Ahhh....Wikipedia. It's a good thing.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 9:21am

    Mike concerning dates.
    USA is the only country in the world that has month/day/year.
    so if your date is noted as 8/12/xx. for most of us it says 8th of December.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      Mike (profile), Oct 21st, 2008 @ 11:39am

      Re:

      Mike concerning dates.
      USA is the only country in the world that has month/day/year.
      so if your date is noted as 8/12/xx. for most of us it says 8th of December.


      Yes, I understand that, but the date displayed in Wikipedia isn't that format. It's written out as December 8th (or August 12th, when that other guy keeps changing it).

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      KILROY, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 2:09pm

      Re:

      Yes, but when you verbally say a date in English (the only language I know how to speak) you say December 12th 2008 - Month Day Year. So it does make sense to many. I still write all my dates yyyy-mm-dd when I write them numerically though.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        icon
        Eclecticdave (profile), Oct 21st, 2008 @ 3:31pm

        Re: Re:

        Personally, I nearly always say "12th of December 2008".

        But then I live in the UK...

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        icon
        Allen (profile), Oct 21st, 2008 @ 8:19pm

        Re: Re:

        @Kilroy: I suspect you speak one of the American dialects.

        English speakers that abbreviate using the dd/mm format often use "12th of December, 2008" when speaking the date. I supose the original usage was something like "Friday, 12th day of December, year of the Lord, etc." With the propagation of US culture via Hollywood and US TV syndication, the American usage is not uncommon either.

        Not that this makes a difference if, as Mike has commented above the long form is presented in Wikipedia.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Jesse, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 9:24am

    This is a problem on any field. There was a career researcher in nutrition, Chandra, who near the end of his career, basically completely falsified all of his research. If you check some of those completely falsified papers, you will see that they have been cited hundreds of times in subsequent work. Basically, he had built up such a reputation that no one challenged him, or else those that did were heavily reprimanded.

    There is not any one source that is flawless. If you decide to consult Britanicca or primary literature, you should still consult other sources. That is not specific to Wikipedia. At least Wikipedia is subject to public scrutiny. Scholarly journals just have a few people proof read it and call it reviewed. That doesn't mean they check the results.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Witty Nickname, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 9:49am

    This is exactly what you get for being born on a date preceding the number '13'.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Seatec, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 9:52am

    B-Day

    Whomever is editing your B-date is probably from Europe where they flip the month and date (more logically if you ask me) day/month/Year.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 10:02am

      Re: B-Day

      Well, MOST logical would be year/month/day. But logical isn't always the point, is it?

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Nogard, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 10:38am

        Re: B-Day

        Perhaps, but dd/mm/yyyy is quite logical AND relevant to that important aspect of birthdays which is yearly celebration. :P

        Either way, that American mm/dd/yyyy is just bonkers. It's just like telling the time in hh:ss:mm.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      The Boutros, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 10:08am

      Re: B-Day

      I would think that the only logical date format is YYYY-MM-DD. This allows for a chronolocal sort and doesn't have unsighltly /'s getting in the way.

      My $0.02.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 10:27am

        Re: Re: B-Day

        Agreed, I dislike pretty much all other formats because of the whole sorting thing.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        nasch, Oct 22nd, 2008 @ 8:14am

        Re: Re: B-Day

        That is good for sorting (which is when I use it), but is ambiguous. I personally like 22 Oct 2008, or you can remove the spaces to make it shorter and it's still legible: 22Oct2008. There is no way anybody could mistake that for some other date, no matter where they're from.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anon2, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 10:04am

    Starting Point

    I agree that Wiki can be a very good starting point, and I use it for that purpose all the time. Whether, and to what extent, I then take my research further, depends on two factors: (1) my assessment of the reliability of the Wiki article, and (2) my need for the most accurate information. I do the former based on variables such as how many active editors are engaged (or how much active editing was involved) in the article in its current form, or the use of certain language indicating perhaps a less than neutral perspective. No factor will be perfect, it's inherently subjective, but I've found over time I can pretty frequently cull the worthwhile from the utterly useless articles. The latter factor, of course, is a function of what I'm using it for and how much time I have to broaden my searches, dig down into primary sources, etc.

    What I find most interesting, both here, and in general discussion of Wiki, is that something that was practically beaten into me when I was in school seems no longer to be taught (or people forgot the lesson): even Brittanica or some other encyclopedia is nothing more than an extremely general survey of what other sources might have to say about a topic. I.e., encyclopedias are nothing but starting points, regardless of whether you are using Brittanica, Wiki, or some other encyclopedia. They were never meant to be anything else, and it's sad that so many people today assume that an encylopedia entry of any sort can serve as the be-all, end-all of any given question or issue.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Dosquatch, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 10:44am

    number-only dates

    This is precisely why I don't use number-only dates. If I'm not completely spelling out long form (October 21, 2008) then I default to "military" style dates (21Oct2008). It really cuts down on confusion.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Ryan, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 10:47am

    wow

    can you imagine how boring your life must be if you get into a wikipedia argument over mike's birthday? amazing.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Wiki Edits, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 1:16pm

    small sample

    I had to go to the wiki page to check it out.

    Hilarious.

    >

    Got any hot stock tips?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Wiki Edits, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 1:17pm

    small sample

    Mike also possesses the power of invisibility which allows him to act as a "fly on the wall" and has been able to sit in on many private board meetings regarding technology.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    playa, Oct 22nd, 2008 @ 6:44am

    I think its wrong again on wikipedia. check it

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Kerwin, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 10:26am

    Sorry for the zombie reply but,

    Military dates are now written as YYYYMMDD these days. I accidentally write dates this way on checks occasionally and people look at me like I've lost my mind.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Kerwin, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 10:26am

    Sorry for the zombie reply but,

    Military dates are now written as YYYYMMDD these days. I accidentally write dates this way on checks occasionally and people look at me like I've lost my mind.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This