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McIntyre is having a cow about Wikipedia

The title is taken from a post by Androcass, who fundamentally agrees with me. You can watch the cow emerge in three successive posts, “I said, get Mitty,” Wikipediaphilia,” and “Crisis of authority.” Make sure you check the comments for the stout defense mounted by the Wikipediaphiliacs.

Here’s why McIntyre is having a cow.

I work as an editor. My whole professional effort for nearly three decades has been to make sure that the published texts at the newspapers for which I have worked are, as far as human fallibility and the pressures of time will allow, factually accurate, grammatical and clear.

To do this requires knowledgeable, trained editors. To become a copy editor at The Baltimore Sun, an applicant has to run the gantlet of the usual scrutiny of resume, interviews and reference checks — and a grueling test that covers a dozen categories of general knowledge and an extensive section of texts to be edited. Those who have taken it remember it.

The book and magazine and newspaper publishers who have been dismembering their editing staffs have been doing so in desperation, for economic motives. What leaves me spluttering is the Wikipediaphiliacs’ apparent belief that such editing doesn’t matter; everything will even itself out.

I don’t doubt that many knowledgeable writers have generously contributed to Wikipedia, and that many earnest editors monitor the wiki. But Wikipedia lacks the personnel and structure to check and edit effectively. Bad information is posted, sound entries are corrupted by ill-informed contributors or saboteurs, and the editors cannot keep up. The consequence is that you can trust Wikipedia only when you already know the information.

Why would anyone choose to trust a reference that has been repeatedly demonstrated to be unreliable?

After false reports of the deaths of Sens. Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd were posted on Inauguration Day, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, proposed a procedure to flag new posts and verify them before making them public. The BBC article indicates that this apostasy has provoked a storm of protest from the wiki-warriors. It will delay. It will be expensive.

But the thing is, as David Sullivan pointed out today at That’s the Press, Baby, “The idea of editing -- the idea of newspapers -- in the end rests upon, yes, dear reader, we do in fact know some things in more depth and detail than you do, and are better trained to judge them, just as you may be better trained to design a house or repair an electrical system.” And further, that “standards cannot result from universal input on standards.”

Or to put it in the terms of a proverbial expression: If you put a teaspoon of sewage in a barrel of wine, you get sewage; if you put a teaspoon of wine in a barrel of sewage, you get sewage.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:11 PM | | Comments (22)


Begging the fact that I am unclear as to why the adage in the last paragraph is repeated twice, my job has always been to research something. Potential customers and/ot potential investments, for the most part, but other odds and ends, as well. My report is assumed to be accurate and absolutely trustworthy. Money depends upon it. The day the sewage hits the fan because my report contains information that has not yet "evened itself out" would go on the record of my life as a very bad day.

The adage has been corrected. You see why it's important for people to be edited?

The issue is much more complicated than this.

1: wikipedia is wikipedia, and nothing else. (not a newspaper, not a paper encyclopedia). It is a category of its own. At most it is content wise modeled after an encyclopedia.
2: Wikipedia is useful
3: Wikipedia is not the holy grail. Any of its editors that think that it is are too young (in experience) to understand that there is no holy grail.
4: Wikipedia is not a primary source, not a secondary source and again does not claim to be any of these. (An encyclopedia is not a newspaper, nor a research paper).
5: Wikipedia is free. This is something oft overlooked. But just imagine that there was no wikipedia. A lot of information would be a lot less accessible to many people. This aspect of wikipedia is very much part of it's core identity. A non-free or a fre resource that is written by professional authors/editors is hard to imagine reaching as many people as Wikipedia.

The big pro/con regarding flagged revisions is very much related to the above points. It is an existential debate about the nature of Wikipedia. If something like that flagged revisions feature is used, does it take away soo much from what makes Wikipedia work/be useful now, that wikipedia is becoming either a newspaper or an old fashioned encyclopedia and thus losing part of it's identity causing perhaps that it will become less useful and have less right of "being" at all. If wikipedia collapses under it's own weight, then we are doing injustice to all the people who have problems having access to this information at all (think especially of the 3rd world countries).

These are all very complex systems that everyone that participates needs to be educated about, explained etc etc, before any decision can be taken. Wikipedia as a community is being careful in order to protect itself and its goals. Just as journalists are discussing wikipedia all the time lately because they are trying to protect what they are doing.

Saying Wikipedia is "the root of all evil" is as shortsighted as anyone saying that proper newspapers are overly expensive forms of news aggregators. The truth is always complex.

Thanks for the link, I have to admit to a bit of a frisson when I see my name in a place I enjoy visiting (though I promise not to tag Yosemite Falls next time I visit).

You have inspired to me to offer a personal reflection on this topic. If you are interested, that post can be found at:

Thank you for reminding me (regularly) that standards are still valued by some people.

With all respect to Derk-Jan Hartman, an existential issue about Wikipedia was raised in a comment to a previous post by a lexicographer, Grant Barrett, whose objections have not, as far as I can see, been refuted by the wikipartisans. I repeat them here for convenience of reference:

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.

But that is like saying that there is no point in having tabloids or soap opera's. Every form of media has its place.

There are many good things about Wikipedia. The problem is that people don't understand Wikipedia and take it's information as pure facts. That is not a fault of Wikipedia. It is a lack of education. And no matter how many "disclaimers" Wikipedia will add about what it does, if people are not properly educated, everything is in vain. Wikipedia fills a need that is not filled by any other form of media at this moment, and as such it has a legitimate place. Just as newspapers, radio, magazines, TV and research papers.

Androcass responds to the post:

At least a soap opera doesn't present itself as an encyclopedia. That's what Wikipedia does, even with all its caveats allowed: It presents entries on various subjects with what looks like, and purports to be, factual content.

It is tempting, however, to say that Wikipedia does have something in common with supermarket tabloids.

I feel like I fought this battle at least five years ago.

It's hard to imagine the bound volumes that sat in a bookcase throughout childhood being up to the task of explaining today's fast-changing world.

However, Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia. Also, it is not the tool for Mr. McIntyre's job. In his job, he needs an answer with a high degree of confidence now, not an average of accuracy over time -- or an orbit of claims that sometimes comes nearer to the truth. We shouldn't have to clash over that.

Wikipedia is not a compendium of facts. It's a potluck of links to better sources, and can be useful that way.

I also admire the way Wikipedia tracks changes and corrections, better than any newspaper has ever managed to, even online.

Wikipedia touts that it's easy to update, but an online encyclopedia written by scholars can be updated.

Wikipedia claims it can put more experts on a topic than an encyclopedia can, but there's a point of diminishing returns if the experts and regular people are undone by knuckleheads.

Wikipedia is free, and there's a legitimate concern over whether the free economy is really the get-what-you-pay-for economy. I've half-seriously suggested that editors start their own newspaper, The Edited News, to prove their worth.

I've never really felt that Wikipedia was a clash of civilizations, just an interesting experiment that turned out to be better at something other than its intended purpose.

Hoping that I might share an interesting link here. I posted a similar comment over on the Guardian, but the moderators there removed the entire comment. I guess they only wish to allow pro-Wikipedia thought.

The link is a summary of a study I "chaired", where we looked at one calendar quarter's worth of edits to the 100 Wikipedia articles about the U.S. senators. We found subtle libel and disparaging nonsense present in these articles about 6.8% of the time. I find that to be a poor track record.

Dear Mr McIntyre,

Please explain to me how come newspapers contain so many glaring errors? Errors that would not be tolerated in highschool homework?

Please see:


You criticise Wikipedia in your comment for labelling/presenting itself as "an encyclopedia". That is not entirely true of course. We present ourselves as "the encyclopedia that anyone can edit". That is an important distinction. And, as long as there is nothing out there that presents pure facts, on such a wide range of topics, in an accessible way to 73% of the total internet population for free, while being transparent in its history of revision and correction and authored by professionals, the whole discussion is next to pointless, because Wikipedia will keep being used. Like it or not...

And lets consider the following. 90% of the world is less educated than most of the people in journalism and those consuming (proper) journalism. Those people mostly and unfortunately for a large part just don't care, as they don't care about who has written and edited a schoolbook. You present this like a "new phenomenon" of the Internet age, but from why I have read over the years, it is only the visibility of this problem that has increased, not the number themselves. People have always been lazy in questioning the validity of the information presented to them. In my opinion that makes Wikipedia as valid a source to those folks as hear say or the books/journalism they take for granted. The other 10% should be educated/smart enough to be able to understand what they are using. That may sound elitist, and I personally hate using this argument in any discussion, but for much of the world it is a reality I fear. It is as "elitist" as claiming that this "top 10%" is the best judge at presenting reality to other people, since history has shown that such is not the case either. Wikipedia is as "faulty" in presenting reality, as all the other impulses people receive in their life, and thus adhering to the current standards within the broader society.

As such, your writing John is mostly (and increasingly so, in my opinion) steered by bitterness. Wikipedia will improve and will adapt to the latest situations if so required. Any debate on this (how tumultuous it may be) should be welcomed, instead of being questioned by you. The post says "What leaves me spluttering is the Wikipediaphiliacs’ apparent belief that such editing doesn’t matter; everything will even itself out." That is simply not true. There is a reason why we only have so few Featured articles, and why some of these lose that status again after a period of time. You say Wikipediaphiliacs, but the editing community is wide and broad within Wikipedia. It goes from vandals to professionals. To get every article up to the best standards will take a gigantic amount of time and MUCH more technology than we have in place now. "But Wikipedia lacks the personnel and structure to check and edit effectively" is quite correct, but so goes that "newspapers, encyclopedias and its editors" lack the personel and resources to do what we do.

And this is where I will stop feeding the trollz :D
Goodbye folks. Live long and prosper \/.

As usual, I have already used Wikipedia several times today, including once to make quite sure I understood the title of this post. In fact, Wikipedia let me down a bit there, only explaining that "don't have a cow" was a synonym of "don't have kittens," without having an entry for the latter expression, but leaving me in no doubt that it had a connotation of over-reaction. Ah no, in fact, I had to look the expression up on to get the over-reaction. That's what we Wikipedia users do, you know, we don't just use Wikipedia, we get our information all over the place. is probably less reliable than Wikipedia, but we say the heck with it and use what we think is useable. It may be shocking to some, I realize, that we should not care that the information sources in question have not been vetted, but we don't.

I am an attorney. In the dark ages, when I went to law school and first began practicing, there were two legal encyclopedias, AmJur 2d and CJS. Courts and lawyers would sometimes cite to these works as authority.

Today, citations to AmJur 2d or CJS are rare. This is primarily due to the fact that there is much more published case law than there was back in, say, the middle to late 70's, and this case law is much more accessible.

Wikipedia is like AmJur 2d or CJS insofar as it attempts to be authoritative. However, it is unlike AmJur 2d or CJS because, more often than not, it contains links giving the user a "key" for further research.

Finally, I suspect that the statistics as to Wikipedia's accuracy that various studies have produced are themselves somewhat inaccurate. For instance, in some areas, Wikipedia probably has a high degree of accuracy. (See the casualty figures for WWI or WWII, for instance.) However, with respect to topics that are rapidly developing or hotly contested (anything involving the Mideast, for instance), one should probably take the information in Wikipedia with a salt tablet or two.

Androcass again. Not able to let a topic die (if for no other reason than to find fodder for my blog), I've written yet another post on this:

In it, I contend that Mr. McIntyre's view and that of Derk-Jan Hartman, commenter, are really not all that different, and that's backed up by Wikipedia itself. To summarize, the Wikipedia-philiacs admit its limitations, but contend that its popularity, everyman contributions, and a lack of respect for accuracy on the part of the public make it perfectly fine. Mr. McIntyre simply questions that final conclusion (I risk oversimplification), at least for those who value such things as correctness.

I am tempted to respond to all this. But I shall not.

Use Wikipedia when doing crossword puzzles, but not for anything more serious.

Two interesting articles about this issue:


Both, based on an article in the journal Nature, suggest that Wikipedia is better in some categories than others. But often times, the study says, Wikipedia is just as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica.

I'll let Androcass respond to the contention that I'm just a bitter old man:

However, with respect to topics that are rapidly developing or hotly contested (anything involving the Mideast, for instance), one should probably take the information in Wikipedia with a salt tablet or two.
Sorry to repeat myself, but it's not a bad idea to treat any information source with sceptism (sic), including Wikipedia, the Encyclopeida Britannica and the Baltimore Sun or any other newspaper. For example, of the three, you will find that the most outdated is almost always the E.B. (through no particular fault of its own, it's built in). The least comprehensive must usually be the B.S. (ditto, I deduce, simply a matter of resources). The least well edited is probably almost always Wikipedia (mostly because I can't be bothered to argue otherwise). But each of them has its own advantages.

A case in point. I originally thought that John McIntyre's choice of -philiac as the suffix to add to Wikipedia was a mistake, and that he really meant -phile. Either that, or he was being deliberately offensive, because to my ear, -philiac has a connotation of abnormality, probably because of its most common occurences: haemophiliac and necrophiliac, a disease and a disorder. My trusty old OED needed fetching and had an entry for -phile but not for -philiac, so resolved nothing. So I looked them up in Wikipedia, and find that no, there is no real difference in meaning. It took me about a minute, didn't require me to get out of my chair and was free. And confirmed my faith in both John's wordpower and his fairness.

...but contend that its popularity, everyman contributions, and a lack of respect for accuracy on the part of the public make it perfectly fine.

Mr. McIntyre;

To reiterate the content of my post above, I suspect that those who "get it" aren't posting. The Wiki-defenders are clearly going all-out to defend their little kingdom. That's fine.

Those who understand precisely what Wikipedia is will continue to not use it, and will continue to not post long mesages defending it. They will also continue to not write posts that slag it, mostly because they have better things to do.

Be assured that we are here. We just don't feel like engaging in a silly argument.

A non-profit organization that I've assembled with a few colleagues' assistance is writing about the troubles and travails of Web 2.0. Readers of this article may appreciate our efforts:

("Akahele" is the Hawaiian word that means about the opposite of "wiki".)

Let me particularly recommend the Akahele article "The persistence of misinformation." A comment on the article is highly suggestive about a reason for which Wikipedia might tolerate misinformation in its entries:

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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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