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I said, get Mitty

Though my blood pressure is well within the normal range, I should still know better than to look at Wikipedia.

The other day at work, I chanced upon the Wikipedia entry on James Thurber’s classic short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” According to the entry, in the ending of the story, “Mitty imagines himself fearlessly escapes [sic] his captures [sic] in a large hot air balloon.” And also, “The closing scene comes with Mitty stood [sic] in the balloon, smoking.”

The subliterate grammar aside, the writer describes one of the most frequently anthologized American short stories of the 20th century and gets the ending wrong. Whether this is an inexplicable misreading of the plain text or some kind of prank is beyond my power to evaluate.

But a couple of days later, despite Wikipedia’s pride in its relentless self-editing, this piece of trash survives intact. And there lies my dislike of Wikipedia. The reader simply cannot tell when looking at an entry whether it is an accurate account, a blundering error, or a hoax. It might have been right a minute ago, and it might be right again in a minute, but you have no way of knowing whether it is right at the minute at which you come across it. A reference that is unreliable hardly qualifies as a reference.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:22 AM | | Comments (14)


I have to completely disagree. Repeated studies have found that Wikipedia is no worse in factual errors then reputed sources like the Encyclopedia Brittanica. And the errors in other sources are long-lived and extremely difficult to correct.

I've only corrected a few items on Wikipedia but it was trivial to do. And, because of the mechanism by which it operates, the scope is immense. As a summarization source, it excels. But it in no way purports to be authoritative.

I have a question for you, why didn't you fix the entry?

That is both the advantage and disadvantage of Wikipedia. Whenever you have the general public, and not just the American public, contributing and correcting articles on anything conceivable you will have sub-literate, scholarly journal level, and just plain wrong articles posted as "fact." Just as on the Internet. Caveat lector should be Wikipedia's motto.

The subliterate grammar aside...

this piece of trash survives intact.

Thanks for the laughs, still chuckling. You are right, the entry is trash, but the way you put it just made me laugh, right out loud.

Mr. Wise --

I have seen the assertions that the rate of factual errors in Wikipedia is no worse than in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and they may well be true. I don't imagine that Britannica is immune to the human propensity to error. But the entries in Britannica are not written in subliterate English, and I do not think that fradulent entries regularly crop up there, as they do in Wikipedia.

As to my reasons for not correcting the "Mitty" errors myself:

1. I am a professional editor, and like anyone else who has mastered a craft or skill, I expect to be paid for my work.

2. Even if I were to do pro bono work for Wikipedia, what would be the point in my making corrections if any ignorant twit or malicious prankster cold come along five minutes later and undo my work?

If you're looking for actual information on Wikipedia, it's a good road to legitimate information on the subject matter -- when the writers bother to cite their sources.

I would like to see a reference to a precise source of the claim that Wikipedia is no worse than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I think someone once compared a few science articles: not the general run of the mill articles (like your citation) and not controversial things (like politicians bios that they are known to watch and prune). I think the generalization is just a rumor -- maybe with bad intent.

The parts you mention were put there just five days ago. The edits were made anonymously, so only an IP address is associated with them. They are the only edits in all of Wikipedia made from that address. I've reverted the article to its previous state.

I appreciate that the entry has been corrected. But I don't see that that changes the point I was making.

It is also a pity that the people who voluntarily contribute reliable material to Wikipedia, and the people who struggle to correct erroneous information, should be at the mercy of incompetents and tricksters -- as are the people who consult Wikipedia.

"Repeated studies have found that Wikipedia is no worse in factual errors then reputed sources like the Encyclopedia Brittanica."

Well, that's not true.

First, the study was done once and reported in the journal Nature. It does indeed only compare a handful of scientific articles. The full report is available for a fee here:

Second, EB's refutation of the study, is damning.

Summary of the refutation, plus a few other points:

Nature's response to the EB objections are at the first link above.

Within my experience, every—all, every one, in toto, all inclusive, the whole shebang—Wikipedia article I have checked has had errors in it.

Many of the corrections I have made to Wikipedia in areas in which I have expertise were later erased or effaced, usually by the insertion of provably false information or nuttiness by some self-serving nutjob who doesn't know a dictionary from a dingo. The entry on "slang" comes to mind.

Why should I waste my time in correcting something that I'll just have to correct again? Like John, I don't have the luxury of being able to camp out and defend against ignorance, unlike my colleagues who keep the entry for "jazz (word)" in good order.

I think that Mr. McIntyre misses the point of Wikipedia.

The universe of human knowledge is (i) subject to error and (ii) subject to the "efforts" of "ignorant twit[s] [and] malicious prankster[s]." However, because is it open and transparent, over time errors in Wikipedia will tend to be corrected.

I think that McIntyre's error here derives from a more fundamental error. Specifically, Mr. McIntyre you views knowledge and the repositories of knowledge (e.g., encylopedias, dictionaries, etc.) as somehow being fixed. In fact, knowledge is better viewed as a process that is constantly evolving.

Taken in that light, Wikipedia is far superior to say, EB, because of its ability to change. Let me make this prediction: In five years or so, debates such as this will seem quaint. By that time, if not sooner, Wikipedia, used in conjunction with other Web resources, will clearly be a broader and more complete knowledge resource than relatively static resources such as EB. The Wikipedia of January, 2009, is but a way station and should not be judged prematurely.

Wikipedia itself says that its entries should be used as a starting point for finding more specialized references.

The only people who have problems using Wikipedia is those who espect clear-cut answers that they can immediately copy - in short, lazy students.

More intellectually advanced, or less lazy, people do not trust blindly what they read in Wikipedia, but are prepared to use it as a springboard for new ideas, references, and concepts.

Mr. Levine and I appear to disagree about the nature of authority. My perspective is that the widely praised democatization of knowledge proclaimed on the Internet is also a democratization of ignorance. Every crank with a conspiracy theory can have a platform on the Internet. And the same cranks can post information on Wikipedia and watch the minders hop to catch up with them.

As a purely practical matter, in my work as an editor, when I look something up, I need to know whether the information is reliable NOW. I lack the time or energy to keep checking back every few minutes -- or days -- to see whether something has been corrected.

And perhaps it's my own intellectual laziness that leads me to see a gap in Mr. Ashee's argument. That is, we are told at that Wikipedia is a reference resource that rivals or surpasses the Encyclopedia Britannica -- just so long as we don't trust the individual entries.

The Wikipedia of January, 2009, is but a way station and should not be judged prematurely.

You can say that about anything. Bill Gates will tell you that the Windows of today is but a way station and should not be judged prematurely. If Wikipedia (and Bill Gates, for that matter) were to keep their product under wraps until it reaches that ideal state, I would say "wonderful." Unfortunately what is out there in January 2009 is what we must use today. Precisely because the EB is "set in type" and rigorously reviewed before publication I can accept what it says as factual as of when it was written. It may or may not change in the next edition or Yearbook, but it remains an (not the) authoritative source. One cannot say that about Wikipedia in January 2009.

One of the best commentaries on the flawed nature of that Nature "study" of Wikipedia's accuracy is found here:

Another analysis was done by the University of Minnesota, and they found that "damaged views" on Wikipedia are INCREASING -- not holding steady, not improving:

It is an oft-repeated myth that Wikipedia is "as good as a print encyclopedia" and is "always improving". Yet, when presented with hard and fast statistics to disprove both claims, the Wikipediots just move along and continue to spout their nonsense in some other forum.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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