Why Do People Trust Wikipedia? Because An Argument Is Better Than A Lecture

from the source-please dept

I’ve never really understood the debate about how trustworthy Wikipedia is compared with once-printed, more “official” encyclopedia volumes, like the old Encyclopedia Britannica. What rarely made sense to me was the constant assertions that an information system to which anyone could contribute was inherently unreliable because anyone could contribute to it. Sure, you get the occasional vandals making joke edits, but by and large the contributions by the community are from informed, interested parties. The results tend to be close to, if not on par, with traditional encyclopedias.

But if I can’t understand the comparison between Wikipedia and printed encyclopedias, I’m completely flabbergasted why anyone would be shocked to find that the public trusts Wikipedia more than their traditional news sources.

The British public trusts Wikipedia more than they do the country’s newsrooms, according to a new poll by research firm Yougov. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they trusted Wikipedia pages to tell the truth “a great deal,” or “a fair amount”—more than can be said for journalists at the Times or the Guardian, and also slightly above BBC News.

Well, no shit. That’s because, as I’ve been trying to scream at you people for the past three years, the corporate mass-media news industry sucks. More specifically, the once proud fourth branch of our government has been reduced to screaming-head opinionators formulating commentary on the basis of politicized ratings. In other words, Wikipedia and the news are in two different businesses: one is about facts and the other is about shock and spin. Argue with me all you like, you know it’s true.

But perhaps even more importantly, the general public trusts crowd-sourced Wikipedia articles more than the news because an argument is always more trust-worthy than a lecture. That’s the real difference. If you want to know how good a teacher in a school is, you gather up the best student, the worst student, the principal and the teacher and then analyze what they all say together. You don’t ask the school’s PR director. Wikipedia, even when it comes to contested or hotly-debated articles, does this extremely well, even concerning itself. The linked article above discussed a number of articles about how reliable Wikipedia is, some of which disagreed with others, and all were found on the Wikipedia page for itself.

Regardless the disputes over individual studies and their methodologies, how I found them is almost as telling as their results. I came across them because Wikipedia provided external references, allowing me to corroborate the information. This is one of the site’s great merits: the aggregation of multiple sources, correctly linked, to build a more complete picture. As the results of the Yougov poll perhaps suggest, this surely seems more reliable than getting the coverage of an event from one newspaper.

The truest answer to a question can rarely be told by a single source, which is what makes the sources section of a Wikipedia page so valuable. What is the corollary in a news broadcast? Perhaps a single expert? Maybe once in a while they’ll have two sides of a debate spend five minutes with one another? They’re not even close. The argument itself can be instructive, but that argument never happens on most news shows.

This doesn’t mean you blindly read Wiki articles without questioning them. But a properly sourced article is simply more trustworthy than a talking head telling you how to think.

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Comments on “Why Do People Trust Wikipedia? Because An Argument Is Better Than A Lecture”

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47 Comments
Fred (profile) says:

Citations Please

This is another strength of Wikipedia. The ability to get to the source material and get further details.

The news may report that in a 10 year study the rate of men who never had heart attacks is 50% higher among those who do not take statins.

What they don’t say, is That the heart attack rate among statin users is 2% and the non-statin users is 3%. That is indeed 50% more.

However that is not the same thing as saying If you have no heart problems you increase your risk for 2% to 3% if you don’t take a statin. But you avoid the 25% to 50% rate of serious side affects among statin users.

Having the source material available to look at saves you from the sensational 50% increased chance of death that the talking heads would be pushing.

john warr says:

Re: Citations Please

ROTFL WP has citations chortle

Any interested party can play the WP game. Hit the random article button does it have citations? Most articles don’t. Never mind hit the random article button again and again until you find one that does. Click on it oops the majority of links are dead, never mind keep searching for an article with the a working citation, now does the citation confirm the claim made in WP? Most do not.

Most WP articles do not contain citations, those that do are tend to be dead links, working citations rarely support the claim that they are a citation for.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Citations Please

Funny, that. When I use Wikipedia, going through the citations is a standard part of the process. I’ve never found a page without them, or with more than a link or two that has died.

Perhaps because those things get corrected pretty quickly, except perhaps on the pages that don’t actually matter much (all that obscure pop culture crap, etc.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Only moved the corporate mass-media industry focus

Well, that just moved the corporate mass-media industry and interest groups focus to the wikipedia. All the lies stay the same.

Look at any city page and try to find anything negative. i.e: No mention about the police executing “molest” people in the paradise pictured as Albuquerque, even when supposedly reputable sources are available.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Only moved the corporate mass-media industry focus

exactly this, as you’ve said…

in short: wikipedia has earned a certain amount of respect and credibility (NOT the alpha-omega, but still);
whereas, The News Media HAS earned a LOT of disrespect and lost a LOT of credibility…
AND deservedly so…

as long as the puppetmasters are pulling the strings of the korporate media, it will be ever thus… thus our REJECTION (as much as we can) of traditional Big Media…

Anonymous Coward says:

Only moved the corporate mass-media industry focus

Well, that just moved the corporate mass-media industry and interest groups focus to the wikipedia. All the lies stay the same.

Look at any city page and try to find anything negative. i.e: No mention about the police executing “molest” people in the paradise pictured as Albuquerque, even when supposedly reputable sources are available.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I guess wiki fanbois are too lazy to open any wikipedia page and look at the revision lists.

The e-cigarette page even has a link to a ‘wayback machine’ webpage because the site’s current page doesn’t support the misinformation anymore. LOL

Senator Leland Yee, the Calif. anit-firearm nazi who was arrested for gun trafficking is another good page with false information and disinformation being inserted.

Wikipedia isn’t the only information site that posts unreliable information. The EPA still has a 1990’s 2nd hand smoking report on their webpage that was tossed out by a Federal Judge in R.J. Reynolds vs. EPA (1998) as not rising to the level of scientific scrutiny.

dude says:

wikipedia

Wikipedia is a great resource for the average person and in my humble opinion it dumbs down subjects so that I can even understand.

Just don’t do what my ex’s lawyers did and rely on Wikipedia for everything. Not everything is accurate, especially dealing with Canadian law. Awkward, especially when the judge thinks you’re on something.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: wikipedia

The T.V. media is the bottom of the barrel when it comes to a source of information. I consider this to be well established. Comparing any source of information to the mainstream T.V. media doesn’t really say much about the reliability of that source of information.

Though the sources Wikipedia are being compared to above are better sources than the T.V. media (the Times, the Guardian, BBC News).

One podcast that I found interesting that discusses media and source reliability is the following

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_profilepage&v=SGa3ah03uBI

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

by that ‘standard’, you will have to concede that ‘real’ encyclopedias are rubbish in the main, as well…

if you want to go all sturgeon’s law on us, can’t argue with that; but, we gotta go with SOMETHING for a compendium of superficial factoids, and from what i’ve read, wikipedia compares favorably in numerous aspects to any other ‘one stop’ source you would care to name…

so, sure, its poop; but is it the smelliest poop ? ? ?

That One Guy (profile) says:

‘The [COUNTRY] public trusts [ALMOST ANY POSSIBLE SOURCE] more than they do the country’s newsrooms’

That’s not setting the bar low, that’s digging a hole a mile deep and burying the bar. The ‘official’ news these days is beyond useless, whether you’re talking UK or US ‘news’, since all they care about is attracting viewers with whatever they think will work, and couldn’t care less about covering anything truly important(unless they think it will grab viewers, and even then it’ll be spun like a top).

Wanna find out the latest ‘news’ on what a celebrity did? We got you covered, in fact we’ve made a mini-series on it!

Wanna find out what your government is doing, see coverage on impeding votes on laws that will affect you, or learn about the important goings on in other countries? We might mention it in passing, because look, another celebrity did something funny/stupid/flashy!

eaving (profile) says:

Purpose

To me Wikipedia serves the exact same purpose as an Encyclopedia did back in the day. Its a first stop overview on a subject which might possibly point you in the right direction for further reading. No more, no less.

Where you get into issues, and why you need to take wikipedia with a grain of salt, is people can basically own a topic which is where you end up with a climate change denier deleting any reference to the subject on the Hurricane Sandy page at the time despite having no training in the field. One link provided, don’t know if its the best one as its been some time since I read the originals.
http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2012-11/wikipedia-sandy

Austin (profile) says:

Re: Purpose

This. A thousand times this.

The problem with claiming that Wikipedia is unreliable is that it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Wikipedia. Wikipedia isn’t a source. It never was. Wikipedia is a starting point, a springboard intended to do two things.

1) Give you enough of an overview that when you read the detailed sources, you aren’t totally lost.

2) Link you directly to those detailed sources.

And Wikipedia does this beautifully. If anyone is running under the theory that Wikipedia is the last stop, then it’s their fault. It’s like someone trying to build a table who shoots themselves in the foot with a nailgun and then complains that the table collapses. It’s not the tool’s fault that you don’t know how to use it, and you shouldn’t expect the tool to magically build the table for you just because it makes applying nails to wood easier than before. If you had cited the Encyclopedia Britannica as your SOLE SOURCE in ANY academic paper, that paper would receive an F. Expecting Wikipedia to suffice as a sole source is the fault of the reader, not the site itself. The same applies to news. Don’t be surprised when you listen blindly to Faux News or CNN (or yes, even MSNBC, though I still watch – I just assume 50% of everything they say is wrong) and it turns out they were wrong later. Shame on YOU for assuming that ANY single source of information is EVER infallible.

Small says:

Corp edits

Good article. Of course you should never trust any media source, book, etc. but think it through yourself based on the available “facts.” If you want the whole truth, talk directly to God, not Britannica, a Nobel Prize winner or your TV talking head. Otherwise join the rest of us mortals and muddle through the best you can, with a little help from your friends who have helped you well in the past.

One tip. Don’t trust (especially) any Wikipedia entry on a corporation. The company PR people likely wrote it, despite the rules.

Whatever (profile) says:

Trust or convenience?

I think that it’s a pretty big jump to say people trust Wikipedia, unless you are saying relative to opinion based blogs and fake news.

Wikipedia is often a good starting point for research, good at helping to define certain things and more than enough to lead you to further in depth research. It’s got lots of good information. It’s a good place to get you bearings, like a good map.

The problems of Wikipedia are many. One of those things is that humans are deciding if things are relevant or not, passing judgement on edits and content, and sometimes that means that sections are structured to a given editor’s own biases and preferences rather than all the data. It’s hard to spot, but it is out there.

You also have the issues of both corporate edits and personally protective edits. Some companies feel they can edit pages and change the truth. Some people feel they can patrol their personal pages (or their friends pages) and remove edits that do not reflect well on them. There are plenty of agendas in play out there.

So from the 30,000 foot few, Wikipedia is pretty good. In the fine grain view, there are problems and abuses. So people can consult Wikipedia, but only a fool would trust it implicitly.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Trust or convenience?

“So people can consult Wikipedia, but only a fool would trust it implicitly.”

The truest thing you’ve ever said. But, we have to remember that the exact same words are equally applicable to any source, especially a non-primary source. Sadly, far too many people forget that no news agency is a primary source for the majority of what they report and biases/misinformation get through. Far too many people trust a single source, which is a bad idea no matter who the source is.

Wikipedia’s biggest strength is that whether or not you agree with their articles, you can at least usually see how they arrived at their current form, and instantly see any primary documents being referred to. The “trust us, we’re news agency X” format is rather less convincing, at least for those who know how to question.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Trust or convenience?

Well Wikipedia explicitly generally doesn’t cite primary sources but usually only secondary sources (with very few exceptions) and perhaps tertiary sources (not really sure about the latter).

“Primary sources may only be used on Wikipedia to make straightforward, descriptive statements that any educated person—with access to the source but without specialist knowledge—will be able to verify are directly supported by the source. This person does not have to be able to determine that the material in the article or in the primary source is True™.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Identifying_and_using_primary_and_secondary_sources#Wikipedia_is_not_the_real_world

So if the article is simply trying to say that according to an eye witness (a primary source) such and such happened and the eye witness was a notable aspect of the topic being discussed then someone may quote the eye witness’s statements only to note that the witness said such and such and not to suggest that such and such happened.

Wikipedia usually tries to provide the general consensus or the more common positions and controversial points and secondary sources are usually better at this.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Trust or convenience?

Point taken, but that really means people need to keep in mind that Wikipedia is still a long way from a primary source. Whether or not the source linked is primary, I tend to find that’s dependent on the subject, and other external factors (such as whether a study being cited is locked behind a paywall – a set of corroborating links might have to suffice in that case). Maybe my experience is skewed, though, as I rarely utilise it for anything as controversial as political or other ongoing material likely to be in dispute.

But, again, this is a skill equally applicable to any other news source. It’s just that Wikipedia’s process might often be more visible, and whether or not the source is primary, at least you can see what it is (unlike the mainstream media’s “a study says”, etc.).

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Trust or convenience?

“One of those things is that humans are deciding if things are relevant or not, passing judgement on edits and content, and sometimes that means that sections are structured to a given editor’s own biases and preferences rather than all the data.”

So, in other words, it’s exactly like literally every other information or news source that exists. The difference is that as the editing is crowdsourced, the humans deciding these things represent a broader swath of viewpoints than other sources do. Therefore, on that point, it’s a bit more trustworthy than other sources.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Trust or convenience?

So people can consult Wikipedia, but only a fool would trust it implicitly.

Only a fool would trust ANY single source implicitly. That goes for legacy encyclopedias, as well as Wikipedia.

That said, I trust Wikipedia more that I ever trusted the legacy encyclopedias. There is less corporate bias with Wikipedia because no single entity has complete control over what is published and what is left out.

Violynne (profile) says:

Someone please forward this article to David Wong over at Cracked, given he (and a few other editors) seem to have a problem with Wikipedia as a source for its photoplasty contests.

I’m siding with the study. Even when it was first introduced, I always had confidence in Wikipedia. News can lie to millions, with those questioning it having limited resources to do so.

But Wikipedia makes lying much more difficult. Sure, articles can get edited by those who try, but those lies are quickly removed by those who can edit the truth back in (and in some cases, ban those who continue to twist the facts).

When Wikipedia comes knocking at my door to continue its services by asking for an investment (I hate using the term donation), I’m always wiling to open my wallet.

Some business should take note in how Wikipedia works with us, not against us.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“he (and a few other editors) seem to have a problem with Wikipedia as a source for its photoplasty contests.”

Rightly so, probably. Wikipedia isn’t a primary source. if people are using it to cite facts, they should be linking the primary source it links to rather than the Wikipedia article. If there is no primary source linked, there’s a problem.

That doesn’t mean that Wikipedia won’t be accurate, it’s just that it’s usually best to look at where the information comes from if you’re going to use it as a citation somewhere else.

Jim C. says:

Wikipedia vs. print copy

I don’t know what the writer is trying to get across here but nobody is forcing anybody to use Wikipedia. Print copies of dictionaries and encyclopedias are readily available for those who prefer that type of medium (especially those who don’t have Internet access) but that sometimes means that the information contained therein is the latest and greatest. My hometown newspaper publishes both a printed copy and an online version, which is touted as more current and that readers should consult the online version for more updated details. Quality control is always an issue regardless of the media type. The information is only as reliable as we make it.

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