Sunday, July 20, 2008


If I want information on a topic, I'll sometimes start at Wikipedia. Notice I said start.

When you've been around the block a few times as I have, you're more able to notice when something's not quite right. You notice bias, for example. And there's plenty of it on Wikipedia. The more controversial the topic, the more bias you'll find there. That shouldn't be surprising.

Students, however, don't have the spectrum of knowledge, gained by decades of paying attention, that I have. They see Wikipedia as the Encyclopedia Britannica of the internet, the source of all information. It's not.

It's only a place to start. If a topic is well footnoted and referenced on Wikipedia, the footnotes and references might be useful. Start with Wikipedia, and launch your search for knowledge from there. One of my high school English teachers spent quite a bit of time drilling into us the difference between a "scholarly reference" and a "reference", and when each should be used. Wikipedia is certainly in the latter category, for a number of reasons.

Here's a story about a hacker who is helping uncover who is doing what edits to Wikipedia topics. It's very illuminating, and I highly recommend that you read it. I found two points to be very instructive. The first comes from a comment, the second from the end of the article:

1. Skeptics of anthropogenic global warming have their edits removed and if they complain, they'll get their accounts suspended. I created an entry about one of the suppressing administrators and not only was the entry deleted, but my account was ended with the comment "User hates Wiki".

Other politically left of center positions and personalities get favored treatment.

2. Instead, he argues that removing anonymity makes the site's information more accurate. "I would say that if people are anonymous, the quality of their contribution is probably much lower," he says. "Wouldn't you want Wikipedia users to be held accountable for what they change?"

Accountability. Such a versatile proposition.

Update, 7/28/08: I'm not the only one who thinks so. So does Roger L. Simon.

Too often we reference Wikipedia as if it were authoritative. It isn’t. Not even faintly.


Chanman said...

I know my students use Wikipedia a lot, and I tell them that it is fine for retrieving basic info for non-controversial topics. Say you wanted to find out about the battle of Gettysburg; Wikipedia is superb. But if you want to find out about a controversial topic, say, the Arab-Israeli conflict or more about Michael Savage... forget it.

Fritz J. said...

Wikipedia is handy. Its real usefulness is that it frequently give you enough information to allow for better searches of other sources. I don't trust Wiki on any subject that can possibly be framed as a liberal vs. conservative subject. Yes, sometimes they are right, but they are wrong often enough to where a person had better check most of what they say.

Eric W. said...

You actually used the term "hacker" correctly... I'm impressed.

David Gerard said...

"If I want information on a topic, I'll sometimes start at Wikipedia. Notice I said start."

Speaking as a Wikipedia editor: absolutely correct!

Wikipedia isn't reliable - it's just written by people. It is, however, useful. And the people of good will try to make it as good as possible. And the trick is to set up the system such that the ones of good will outnumber those of bad or will or misconceived aims (i.e. most things other than "to write an encyclopedia").

Darren said...

Eric, aren't you used to being impressed by me yet? =)

angryimmigrant said...

As the the pandemic described at this site goes (warning, bad language - [penny arcade]), Wikipedia is better than most.

The moderation engine inoculates it against the worst idiocy actually staying around on the site, but the milder symptoms can hide themselves insidiously for a long time, or act as a kind of auto-immune deficiency property filtering out balanced information in favor of rampant bias on controversial topics.

Ellen K said...

Our school bans Wikipedia as a valid website. It has more in common with social networking than in true information. While some of the links for articles are valid, the information on some of today's more current issues are definitely stilted from left to right on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Ms. Mize said...

Thank you for sharing this! I have to admit that I am quite annoyed when people use it for references. It probably is a good place to start though. I was amazed at how it was used in a class I was taking where our exams were questions we had to research and write the answers. It annoyed me that the teacher would allow the use of Wikipedia on a college level. I was tempted to make an account and alter any that would be used to answer the exam questions but I never did.

Darren said...

Now *that* would be hilarious! Wrong, but hilarious.

Matt Johnston said...

Wikipedia is, as you said, a good starting point for research, particularly on topics you know nothing about.

However, banning wikipedia (as one commenter suggested) is just plain silly. Should wikipedia be listed in some students bibliography? No, but banning the site takes away a really good starting point for research. Yes, students should be cautioned to not use wikipedia as the be-all, end-all of research, but most will start there anyway so why ban the site at the school?

I don't get that one at all.

Emily said...

Ahh Wikipedia, the lazy scholar's delight. I must admit, for the occasional class presentation or response paper, I definitely hit up Wiki for information.

One of the most helpful internal checks Wikipedia has is the Discussion page, automatically created for each entry. Click over to that, and if you see some sort of flame war between a couple of people over a major aspect of the article, and it gives you a good reason to question the "impartial point of view." I would definitely recommend people to check that out (and encourage their students to do the same). It shows so clearly the difference between Wikipedia and more traditional (and accurate) sources of information. Last time I checked, co-authored books do not have appendices of the authors arguing about their subjects.

Curmudgeon said...

Oh my, this comment struck me as having completely missed the point:

Wikipedia is, as you said, a good starting point for research, particularly on topics you know nothing about."

This site is terrible if you know nothing about your topic for you will have nothing of your own to compare the information with. It is useful for retrieving information that you already know but might have forgotten, an equation for centripetal force or the number of companies in Pickett's Charge. You read their number, it correlates, you move on.

Spin and bias are exceedingly hard for students to detect. If the topic doesn't have a lot of constituents, then your or my wrong-headed information collects and becomes an urban legend. The longer it stays, the more gravitas it contains.

It's greatest weakness is that anyone can edit, and many do. These are the same folks who believe that 9/11 was a plot by Bush, that space aliens are landing in Iowa getting girls pregnant and that the x-files is a documentary.

Of course, all of the more mature people, like professors and teachers and business people who have the time to spend on Wikipedia changing entries won't have an ax to grind would they?

I know that conflict of interest doesn't automatically invalidate an argument, but if you can't recognize the conflict, you can't analyze it.

Simple example: try looking up a subject with definitive answers -- your local high school. I looked up mine and part of the blurb said "Also it has the best football team in the state." This comment has lasted for over 7 months.

I would hate to try and base any scholarly argument on this kind of information.

loonyhiker said...

I like how you point out that this is a great place to start. I see wikipedia as a conversation that leads to more research. Many teachers do not let students cite wikipedia as a source but I think it helps get them started.

Gringo said...

Agreed with the commenters who have said that when dealing with topics that have a potential left/right split, such as AGW, Wikipedia is to be used with a grain of salt.

For finding statistics online, Wikipedia can be much faster than a Google search. However, one should evaluate the source that Wikipedia has used.

For a start,for getting a quick fact, Wikipedia is useful, as long as you recognize its ideological bias. I noted that the English Wikipedia articles on the Allende era in Chile, while they were biased, were MUCH less biased than the Spanish language articles.