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Wikipedia: Do You or Don’t You?

A friend of mine confessed the other day that he’d researched something using Wikipedia. He apologized for using that source. I quickly agreed: yes, you must be careful when using Wikipedia.

Later I wondered why it’s so acceptable to disparage Wikipedia. Is it really true that truth can only come from a board of certified experts? Why can’t open discussion get to the bottom of things just as competently? Sure the world is full of opinionated people spouting off on things they know nothing about, but wouldn’t our collective engagement shout that down?

I decided to track down some answers on this subject using the other questionable source for information: The Internet. I googled “accuracy of Wikipedia ” to see what the experts (i.e. the people who have opinions about things they may or may not know about), said about it. Naturally the Wikipedia entry came up first. I ignored it. Most of the returns attested to Wikipedia’s accuracy, but that only makes sense. The Internet users—those participating in the great conversation—want to use Wikipedia. Anybody that doesn’t want to use it is down at the library in the dusty Britannica section.

I found two particularly interesting sites that give a good picture of where Wikipedia stands.

First, a good wrap-up on the argument: http://incrediblydull.blogspot.com/2008/02/wikipedia-accuracy-and-ideology.html

The second site, The Independent, has a list of opinions from experts-complete-with-the-sheepskin-to-prove-it after they checked out a few Wikipedia entries. The result? Mixed.

Anything related to science seems accurate. That makes sense. Science by definition is black and white, opinions don’t count. Further, it’s not science if it hasn’t been vetted, peer-reviewed, published, and by now common knowledge. When things change science-wise, the documents get updated. This is the very model Wikipedia was modeled after. Facts are published and then the public is allowed to dispute, disprove, or change. Not that the personal agenda of scientists never comes into play, (Read THE DOUBLE HELIX and then read all the stuff that’s been written lately about Watson, Crick, Pauling, and Franklin, and draw your own conclusions about what goes on in the lab across the way).

The gossipy entries like those on Kate Moss and Tony Blair were split. Kate Moss’ was accurate, Tony Blair’s not so much. Again, makes sense. How controversial can a model’s life be compared to that of a political figure? No matter what you enter in the big guy’s bio, somebody out there–somebody who has something to gain or lose by the man’s image–is going to complain.

Another entry that seemed inaccurate was the one on the Russian Revolution, 1917. Here’s the quote the expert made: “…reads like the work of a second-rate undergraduate student. It raises an issue because Wikipedia is used by a lot of people as a basic source of information, but this is bland, simplistic and misleading.”

Ignoring the expert’s cruel appraisal of the entry writer’s competence, we can come to a conclusion. History is a touchy subject perhaps even more controversial than politics. At least with Mr. Blair’s entry there are people still alive that can refute or agree with anything in the Wikipedia entry. But something from history, say the overthrow of last century’s last monarchy? Not so easy. With history you only have the primary sources—the accountant’s records, the original bills of sales, the personal diaries. You can’t go back and experiment, do the instant replay thing.

On top of that, interpretation of those documents is subject to personal agenda. History seems like it would offer incontrovertible truth, but that’s not the case at all. One man’s holocaust might be a tragedy and another’s a triumph.

Also what is perceived as important differs from culture to culture and human to human. A historian actually has a lot of power to affect our culture and morals and collective priorities. Was Custer’s last stand really important or was it just one more in a long chain of engagements that didn’t go the way somebody somewhere wanted it to go? The more important event might be what happened as a result of some document in Washington that changed the lives of a group of people we no longer even know the name of let alone what battles they didn’t fight. If our historians were more interested in lost cultures than lost battles maybe we’d find some truth about our current culture. Maybe we could figure out which of our corrupt leaders to follow. Maybe Tony Blair’s entry wouldn’t be any more controversial than Kate Moss’.

So the history entries in Wikipedia are the result of an agenda. My question is: Aren’t those in the standard encyclopedias also the result of an agenda?

In the end, I use Wikipedia with a grain of salt. To be truthful, though, I believe it will be vindicated. In the future our collective knowledge will be used to interpret the past. People that understand how to use collective knowledge correctly and are used to information being updated regularly will support the efforts of entities like Wikipedia and ensure they are the best they can be.

Today we’re used to the comfortable feeling we get when we state a fact derived from a print published document. We don’t want to let that comfort go, but go it will. We will learn how to use our collective knowledge correctly and continue to question all sources—even those written by somebody with a sheepskin.

Sue Lange

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