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.