by Mike Masnick

Wouldn't It Be Nice If You Could Correct The Encyclopedia Britannica?

from the *sigh* dept

You may recall that we somehow got involved in a bizarre battle over Wikipedia, when I got into a discussion with a reporter who told me that Wikipedia was "outrageous," "repugnant" and "dangerous," mainly because it's not reviewed by "professionals." Despite a valiant effort, I was unable to ever convince the reporter, Al Fasoldt, that regular encyclopedias, complete with their experts, make mistakes too -- and, in fact, the problem is that those encyclopedias can't then be updated and fixed. In a story that was pretty much written to make Wikipedia fans gleeful, Many to Many points out that a 12-year-old boy has found a series of errors in the latest Encyclopedia Britannica. It may be wrong, but of course, it's not "dangerous" because it's been reviewed by experts. Apparently, certified false info is better than uncertified correct info.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2005 @ 5:53pm

    No Subject Given

    The issues with Wikipedia hasn't been so much its accuracy, but the "agenda" of many of its contributors and the resulting slants in the listings.

    You can rest assured that anything you read in Britannica will be in a bland, fact-like (and dry) format whether you are reading about Stalin or Reagan. Whether you are for or against any particular political philosophy, you won't get pissed off or excited about people you support or despise.

    The same can't be said of Wikipedia. Even Instapundit has noted that the entry on him is quite slanted to the negative.

    Is one better than the other? This is a personal call, as long as Wikipedia admits bias.

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

  2. identicon
    dorpus, 26 Jan 2005 @ 9:07pm

    Polish Jelly Beans

    If there are Polish factories that make jelly beans in hundreds of colors, and if I did some massive clinical trial where thousands of pregnant women ate one color of jelly beans, then by chance alone, I could probably find a jelly bean color that is associated with a 20-fold increase in miscarriage rates, spontaneous abortions, and congenital birth defects. I could get my results published in the New England Journal of Medicine, receive the Nobel Prize, and start a UNICEF campaign to stop eating green jelly beans.... or can I?

    A recent review of articles submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine revealed an alarmingly high rate of spurious statistical reasoning, such as the jelly bean example cited above.

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

  3. identicon
    dorpus, 26 Jan 2005 @ 9:13pm

    Re: Polish Jelly Beans

    Ack, I meant to say, "published". It's an ongoing scandal in the medical research world.

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

  4. identicon
    Mark, 27 Jan 2005 @ 7:03am


    I used to work at Britannica, so I'm not just shooting from the cuff here. The fact is that most articles in the Encyclopedia aren't written by experts. They're written by the staff of editors, whose responsibility it is to do some basic research into a topic before writing the article. Now, ideally those editors would be trained in the topic they specialize in, but sometimes that's not the case. I knew a science editor there who had been an English major in college. The major articles, though -- the ones over 1,000 words -- were commissioned for area experts (professors, scientists, etc.) and are more reliable. Most likely this 12 year old was looking at shorter pieces that were composed by someone who was doing his or her best, but who relied on bad or vague source material. I've been there and done that -- quite literally.

    That being said, the advantage of Britannica is it does have a staff of people who believe in what they do and work hard to get things right. It's their job to consult source materials, phone experts, and rigorously fact-check their materials. They're paid to get it right, which is why it's notable -- and worthy of newspaper articles and cheap shots from bloggers -- when they don't. Wikipedia is a useful resource, but it's susceptible to a series of its own potential failings, some of which Britannica avoids by -- get this -- paying professionals to do their job.

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

  5. identicon
    DaveG, 27 Jan 2005 @ 9:54am

    No Subject Given

    However 'professional' the Britannica authors are, they still present a nationally biased view of events or topics. Lookup any African or Asian history, and then talk to someone who was educated and raised in that location and see the difference.

    I suspect Wiki's and the internet's more international audience, would tend to dilute the national perspective effect to some extent.

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

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