Misunderstanding Wikipedia

from the don't-trust-everything-you-read-online... dept

A columnist for the Syracuse Post-Standard apparently recommended Wikipedia as a good independent source for information. However, a librarian wrote him to complain about Wikipedia, and now another columnist has decided to spend an entire column bashing Wikipedia as a source because (gasp!) “anyone can change the content.” The worried librarian claims that there’s no editorial review on Wikipedia which shows a distinct lack of understanding about what Wikipedia is or how it works. She goes on to explain her main reason for distrusting Wikipedia as a source: the disclaimers on Wikipedia itself explaining how the site works. What’s most amusing about this fear mongering piece concerning Wikipedia is that the librarian in question claims that she uses Wikipedia as an example of an “untrustworthy” site in trying to teach students to develop critical thinking skills. If that’s true, she’s doing a dreadful job. If they really wanted critical thinking skills, shouldn’t they do more than trust this uninformed librarian, but do a little research about Wikipedia itself, how it works, and how the power of Wikipedia is the fact that it is edited — but by anyone else using Wikipedia? There’s just something that seems to freak people out about Wikipedia, when they can’t fathom the idea that “the masses” could produce something of value by simply being able to correct each other, allowing them to build something much more beneficial and much more useful than an expensive encyclopedia edited by just a few people. The columnist ends his piece by stating: “you need to be careful about trusting what you read,” while taking this email from a random librarian completely at face value.

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Comments on “Misunderstanding Wikipedia”

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dorpus says:

But it's true

I’ve seen entries on Wikipedia that I know were wrong. I could edit it, but it will be changed back to the wrong information because people don’t like the truth. A system like that, edited by the rabble who believe what they want to believe with their urban legends, etc. is going to be limited in quality.

Rikki Tikki Get-Go says:

Re: But it's true

In 1906 Francis Galton visited a livestock fair and stumbled upon an intriguing contest. An ox was on display, and the villagers were invited to guess the animal’s weight after it was slaughtered and dressed. Nearly 800 gave it a go and, not surprisingly, not one hit the exact mark: 1,198 pounds. Astonishingly, however, the average of those 800 guesses came close – very close indeed, at 1,197 pounds.

A description of the phenomena is called ‘anecdotal correlation’. Another term is ‘art’. I suggest you thoroughly and open-heartedly avail yourself to its considerable strengths.

Flabbergasted says:

Wikipedia is a joke

Look up something simple like “Alger Hiss” and you’d think from Wikipedia that the jury is still out on whether or not he was a communist. It’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he was a communist spy. Leftist revisionism is not knowlege. Wikipedia is not a reliable source.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Wikipedia is a joke

The point isn’t that every Wikipedia entry is completely reliable… they’re clearly not. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable source. You should never use a single source to be the definitive source on *anything*.

I would bet, however, that just as many entries in any professionally “edited” encyclopedia would have similar questionable entries — especially on matters where it involves opinions and impressions.

Adam (user link) says:

Re: Re: Wikipedia is a joke

I have to take issue with a statement that suggests Britannica and the other encyclopedias that are edited by PhD?s and historians have “just as many” questionable entries. Wikipedia is shady at best and often flat-out inaccurate. Not to say encyclopedias don’t have mistakes, but they’re certainly more trustworthy. I think the librarian made a valid point.
It goes without saying that using multiple sources is favourable over a single source. Ever turn a research paper in with just one source? Even if you make good points, your credibility is out the window.

Neal says:

Re: Re: Re: Wikipedia is a joke

The Wikis I use are all technical in nature and are mostly about programming languages, software architecture, etc… In my experience they are very useful and for the most part accurate. I guess the less subjective the topic is, the better the quality of the Wiki. It’s not fair to label all Wikis as “shady” because there are plenty of examples of one’s that are not.
Just my two cents.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Wikipedia is a joke

Of course, the big difference is that, if you do find something “shady” on Wikipedia, you can simply go in and change it. In a professionally edited encyclopedia, you’re out of luck. Even worse, people naturally assume professional encyclopedias must be right, since they’re professional encyclopedias. At least with Wikipedia, you know what you’re getting.

As I said, you should never trust a single source alone to be the definitive source, but to write off all of Wikipedia as being “shady” or “untrustworthy” is ridiculous.

Dr. Richard Pickard says:

Re: Wikipedia is a joke

Wikipedia is no worse than the 100,000,000s of sites that a user might stumble on via a search engine like google. The difference is that Wikipedia writers tend to follow a neutral point of view (NPOV), editing article to try to state facts plainly and let the user decide for themselves.

For an illustration;

Non-NPOV:You’re a retard
NPOV:Most people think you’re stupid

Dr Roger Morris (user link) says:


Regarding the librarian who opined that Wikipedia could not be trusted, I performed an experiment.

I wanted to demonstrate to a couple of Yahoo Health Groups (DBS Surgery and Essential Tremor)that the progress of medical research is so fast that often the public is informed when the next person bothers to do a little bit of editing.

I found the article on Deep Brain Stimulation, read a couple of paragraphs and then did some minor editing, e.g., changing “some” to “many” and then added a bit that was common knowledge in these groups but not elsewhere.

I received an email from one of the group members saying nice job but you seemed to have made an error. The surgery for two implants is not reimbursable by Medicare.

I replied that I thought he was mistaken, that a more recent ruling April, 2003 made my position clear.

When I checked the article a few days later he had not re-edited the article.

Wikipedia as a scholarly cooperative venture has far more integrity than the popular media which reports on Stem Cell Research, and is far more up to date then the encyclopedias we used to buy that are taking up space on our shelves.

Brian Shock (profile) says:

No Subject Given

Wikipedia works well as a source of clues for further research. I would not recommend it as an original source of information, however, because it does not allow for attribution.

I’d very much like to see the wiki concept used with a method of attributing each edit to a particular individual, and then a means of identifying the credentials of each individual editor.

Al Fasoldt (user link) says:

I love this! Free speech is great.

I’m the guy the folks here are complaining about. Please come read my articles and stop acting like you know what it is that I said. A little learning might be a dangerous thing, but ignorance is surely no substitute.

If this is what amounts to a defense of an “encyclopedia” that allows anyone to change any article, then I’m disappointed in our educational system.


thecaptain says:

Re: I love this! Free speech is great.

You sound a little touchy.

We’ve kept an open mind, you came and delivered insults.

Resorting to insults instead of scholarly debate only shows the ignorance of the person doing the insulting.

(Judging from your response here, I’ll have to make myself clear…I’m referring to YOUR ignorance sir)

Jake (profile) says:

Re: I love this! Free speech is great.

Uh… Al/Gizmo/Whatever…

You’re point about Wikipedia is completely ill-informed. You pretend to “know” technlogy (Dr. Gizmo pen name, Technofile Web site, etc.), but then you write things like:

“I believe Microsoft should take full responsibility for the faulty design of Windows and recall every last copy of Windows ever sold. Buyers should get a working, safe, secure operating system in return.”


Yeah, good plan buddy.

I’m as irritated with the MS platform as much as the next guy, but I also understand the way that software development works. No matter what happens with the MS OS, there will ALWAYS be someone trying to hack it. Should MS take more time and pay more attention to security holes? Certainly. Should they cease selling their product until they’ve fully “fixed” the OS? Yeah, right.

eric (user link) says:

Re: Yes, free speech *is* great. -- so why do you only


Why do you expect us to take pains to understand your position, when you willfully misrepresent the editorial and content management policies at Wikipedia?

BTW, I have read your articles, and I know where you’re coming from. You’re a gate-keeper: You want to be the guy who certifies the quality of information. That could be a noble aim, but in this context you pervert the aim in defense of your pride.

BillT says:

Re: I love this! Free speech is great.

In Al Fasoldt’s article http://aroundcny.com/technofile/texts/mac082504.html , he asks “If you know of other supposedly authoritative Web sites that are untrustworthy, send a note to afasoldt@twcny.rr.com and let me know about them.”

I suggest: http://*.*

There is no single authority that is completely trustworthy.

Mandar says:

Who is authoritative

An intelligent debate that could arise from this might focus on issues such as who can be considered authoritative in what contexts and how this can be proven.

I understand why academia – and librarians – are so hung up on authority of course, but they completely fail to understand that the possession of a few bits of paper does not turn you into a demi-god. Learning is possible outside academia, in fact learning through experience is generally regarded as a damn sight more reliable than learning through theory.

Who is the more reliable author of a book on crochet say – a granny who’s been using it since childhood or a professor in textile studies? How can the granny prove her knowledge?

It is this kind of knowledge that Wikipedia, at its best, taps into.

From a trainee librarian who is increasingly sick of the snobbery and elitism of academia and libraries both – and who finds wikipedia extremely valuable for kids’ homework questions.

deadmaster says:

I think you must know that Wikipedia is not a scientific Encyclopedia! The major problems with the encylopedia that everyone can edit are these:

a) ‘Factual Accuracy of this article is disputed’: Knowledgeable people that edit the article, perhaps with the use of “scientific research methods”. But as I mentioned, I think the majority of people do not know how to do it properly.
Example: no references being used and EVERYONE can edit the Encylopedia
b) ‘This article does not quote it’s sources’: (Wikipedia term): No or bad editorial Review / Peer-to-Peer review
Example: the Wikipedia Anti-Vandalism team that sometimes is over-zealous or there is no editing at all!
c) ‘Neutral Point of View’ (Wikipedia term): The use of objective facts instead of subjective facts.
Example: even among “qualified” Ph.D. persons there can be a heated debate where the ultimate goal is winning a debate instead of finding the truth.

If we obtain those 3 criterias (or maybe more), it would be a very good source. Despite these negative things, Wikipedia is a great resource for information and indeed a starting point to find more information in books, the internet or Wikipedia itself 😉


Hah says:

But the librarian was correct, Jimbo himself even admits as much. People that claim Wikipedia is unreliable aren’t misunderstanding anything, they understand perfectly. Where they differ from the OP is that they don’t share the absurd utopian notion that letting a bunch of losers, furries and other social inadequates use the Wiki software as some sort of MySpace/role-playing game will somehow result in anything worthy of being called an encyclopedia.

Rikki Tikki Get-Go says:

Re: Re:

Is there a point to your small-spirited description of ‘…losers, furries, and other social inadequates (using) the Wiki software as some sort of MySpace/role-playing game…”? Dreams arose as a consequence of the cornea needing to supply itself with oxygen. Color vision is commanded to follow every country-bumpkin neural route to the visual cortex, rather than the autobhan afforded spacial vision. Nonetheless, few of us are so stupid as to debate the merits of dreams and color vision.

Point is this: re-shuffle your biases as you find pleasing, but clear-eyed scrutiny finds value in the maturation of Wikipedia where your vision-strangled biases find desert. I would kindly suggest you visit the equivalent of an emotional ophthalmologist, to clear your eyes of crap, before your biases prevent you from the benefits of experential economy and blinking wisdom, life free to live, more likely to pick up chicks, discontent to settle upon the scraps of aging debutantes, bewitched by your ‘near-genius’.

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