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Wikipediaphilia

Yesterday’s post about a faulty entry in Wikipedia, “I said, get Mitty,” provoked a stout defense of the online encyclopedia.

I’m repeating three comments from yesterday at the end of this article to provide a context for what I am about to say, but I want to get on with my argument.

Wikipediaphiliacs, the uncritical boosters of the wiki, hold an unjustifiably optimistic faith in the Internet — that traditional sources of authority, such as professional editors, are obsolete, to be replaced by the inherent collective authority of the whole range of participants in the Internet. Wikipedia, they say, works because it is self-correcting, and skeptics like me are mossbacks resisting the brave new world of free information. (For a thoroughgoing examination of Wikipedia, have a look at this article in The New Yorker from July 31, 2006.)

Nothing comes without a cost. The automobile gave ordinary Americans a mobility not dreamed of by previous generations: in a word, freedom. And that freedom has brought with it sprawl, air pollution, a dangerous dependence on importation of oil, and tens of thousands of accidental deaths. The Internet has given us an unprecedented access to information; from this desktop computer I can do research that would previously been possible only in a university library. And the Internet has also brought with it a daily cascade of spam, a medium for plagiarism, a megaphone for cranks and charlatans, and a tremendous increase in identity theft and fraud.

So let’s not be uncritical in our admiration for the wonders of Wikipedia.

The repeated assertion since its founding that Wikipedia is superior because it is self-correcting gets shaky on examination. The quantity of erroneous material has grown so much that Wikipedia has been forced to engage a corps of, well, editors to police the site, because contributors can be persistent in posting material that is incorrect, subliterate, biased or outright malicious. Given the size of Wikipedia, I doubt that the editors can effectively keep up. Wikipedia is just like the Internet: Every day there is more information, and every day it includes more junk.

Moreover, and this is the most troublesome part, the editing is not stable. An editor corrects an error, and an hour later or a day later, someone undoes the editing. You cannot tell, when looking at a Wikipedia entry, whether it is correct at this moment.

Faced with this unpalatable fact, some Wikipediaphiliacs now say that the citations are the valuable part, the links to information more reliable than what is in the Wikipedia entry itself. If that is so, why not just publish the citations? Give anyone interested in a topic the bibliographical information. Is it just me, or does it seem odd to the rest of you as well that proponents of Wikipedia appear to suggest that it is a valuable reference tool so long as you do not trust the entries?

I am a professional editor. My job is to be skeptical — to assume that I will find errors of fact, grammar, syntax or usage in any text given to me. It is through the labor of editors that error is reduced to the minimum in the publication. Editors at encyclopedias and lexicographers at dictionaries perform similar tasks; they vet the information. And what you find in their work is information that may, yes, contain some errors, but which is unlikely to be written in subliterate English, to result from a prank or to display malicious intent.

As I said yesterday, the democratization of information has also meant the democratization of error. Scorning or abandoning the traditional sources of verification, such as editing, will lead to an Information Age abounding in dubious information.

The comments

From Stuart Levine:

[B]ecause 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.

From Doug Ashee:

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.

From Grant Barrett (Mr. Levine and Mr. Ashee I do not know; Mr. Barrett is a reputable lexicographer):

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.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:18 AM | | Comments (29)
        

Comments

I'm not a Wikipedia apologist. I'm a pragmatist. If someone considers Wikipedia as the end sum of all knowledge then their comprehension is flawed.

Wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia that has lowered the bar to entry as far as it reasonably can. It is, in essence, a social experiment. The experiment assumes that individuals will selflessly add and police content and that only a relative few will cause problems. So far they have been proved remarkably correct. Thanks to their approach the content in Wikipedia, much of it extremely good, is vast and is available in many languages.

But it is not nirvana. There are mistakes due to factual errors, poor English or outright malice. And, despite what some would say, all of the errors don't get immediately caught and fixed appropriately. Indeed, some require a huge effort to resolve.

But the overall premise has been proven. The vast quantity of materials and the comparatively low error rate speak for themselves. "Ivory tower" production simply can't match the output. And, in some cases, can't match the quality.

Some time past, while doing a Google search on "copy editor," I discovered that I am the subject of a short Wikipedia article. The article said, among other things, that I operate the Web site Real Clear Politics, which is in fact operated by another John McIntyre and with which I have no connection. I filed a protest, and the Wikipedia article was corrected.

No one ever spoke to me to confirm any detail in that article, which is what a reporter for an established news organization would have done, and it's probably safe to assume that no one spoke to the other John McIntyre, either.

So what I understand is that anyone can post on Wikipedia any statement at any time without verification, and that unverified statements can exist at Wikipedia for an indeterminate time.

Sneering at "ivory tower" production, which DOES make an effort to verify what it publishes, will not make this serious limitation of Wikipedia go away.

I defer to the wisdom of Michael Scott, a regional manager at Dunder Mifflin. Here's what he said:

"Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject, so you know you are getting the best possible information."

"The vast quantity of materials and the comparatively low error rate speak for themselves."

What's your idea of a "comparatively low" error rate? One percent? One tenth of one percent? If I told you that there was only a one tenth of one percent chance of your airplane flight having a problem (that's .999 chance of success) would you be happy? That rate would mean three jumbo jet crashes every day. The availability requirement for equipment in telephone central offices is .999995. That's 30 seconds of outage per year. Of course if that outage occurs just as you are trying to make a 911 call, you probably wouldn't accept that assurance too well. And, of course, all these statistics are random each time so just because we've just had three plane crashes today doesn't mean you're off the hook if you're flying tonight.

Put it another way: How would you feel if youre undergoing a life-saving operation and just as the anathesia kicked in you heard the nurse ask the doctor "You've never done one of these before. Where did you learn the procedure?" "Don't worry, I looked it up on Wikipedia." Pleasant dreams.

Don't be so hard on Wikipedia. Where else are you going to turn if you need seven pages on Sonic the Hedgehog?

I'm not being hard on Wikipedia. It is what it is - a very handy source of information. In fact I use it every day. My concern is for people who either believe that what they see there is correct or will be soon. In the first case they can wind up with erroneous information which may, or may not, be a problem. In the second case you can never know if you have reached the end point.

I think the last comment has it just right. Nobody should rely on Wikipedia for anything important, but for instant information on things like movies, it's wonderful. I used it to find a movie I'd watched in 1953; I'd forgotten the title and the names of the actors, but the year and a few plot details were enough. It's also fun to read articles on people you know who have obviously written their own entries. The problem isn't Wikipedia, it's people who take it more seriously than they should. I'm glad it's there.

So this is all 180º out, is it? Just asking:
John E. McIntyre is the assistant managing editor for the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun and a language blogger. He holds degrees in English from Michigan State University and Syracuse University and was a charter member and two-term president of the American Copy Editors Society.[1] McIntyre was also a professor of journalism at Loyola College in Maryland. He maintains a blog called "You Don't Say" on the Baltimore Sun website, discussing a variety of topics including grammar usage, journalism, and copy editing.

Wikipedia is not a reliable, acceptable source of information in any scholarly sense. I now avoid the articles on my particular areas of expertise because I am practically guaranteed to find errors. It is not worth my time to fix them because I am not an established presence at the site, nor do I wish to be. I may have degrees from institutions that say I probably know better than anonymous internet acronym editor name #23, but will not be listened to because I am not there to edit the article every day, and he is.

I don't let my students use Wikipedia as a research source, and it is unlikely that I will do so in the future. I thoroughly enjoy 'surfing' Wikipedia, but I am certain to verify those facts with dependable sources if I wish to use them for any purpose besides my own edification. Wikipedia is valuable in the sense that it might lead a student to the appropriate search terms to begin their actual research, or to some valuable citations...but that's all.

Wikipedia is valuable in the sense that it might lead a student to the appropriate search terms

Which is not something to be sneezed at. Knowing the right search terms is often half the battle.

Mr. McIntyre,

My respect for Wikipedia was definitely influenced by my nephew’s valedictorian address at his high school graduation last May. As a highlight of the class accomplishments, he mentioned the school’s inability to keep up with the student body’s changes to the school Wiki entry.

Insightful post, never thought about Wikipedia and wikis like that.

Wikipedia is useful for directing me to other sources after my own research has run dry, but its presumed accuracy rate reminds me of a debate I once had with a friend about Michael Moore. "If only 10 percent of this stuff is right, that's damning," he said. I countered, "OK, but do we know which 10 percent?"

There is something of a hidden issue, here. Why do critics like Mr McIntyre insist on judging Wikipedia on their terms rather than its own? Wikipedia isn't a traditional encyclopedia and shouldn't be (the world doesn't need another Encyclopaedia Britannica, it's already got one). If you use Wikipedia regularly, you know what it is useful for and what its limitations are (and if you don't, what's the problem, really? You don't want to take the trouble to learn how to use it? Well, don't, but don't present yourself as an experienced user). If the whole Wikipedia thing is just too outside your box, you can always follow the "About Wikipedia" link (on every page), from where you can find plenty of stuff about "Researching with Wikipedia," "What Wikipedia is Not," and even "Why Wikipedia is not so great." And if you absolutely must know what the ending of a James Thurber story is, you can always read the story. You can even read it online at All-story.com. Guess how I found the link?

Perhaps if Wikipedia did not call itself an encyclopedia, and set up its entries like those of an encyclopedia, people would be less likely to mistake it for an encyclopedia -- that is, a reference work of verified information.

I have read the disclaimers. I understand the contention that Wikipedia is intended, over the long term, to be self-correcting. Experience shows, however, that the self-correcting mechanism cannot match the pace of the errors, accidental or deliberate.

So I keep returning to the basic question that leads to the criticism: What is the utility of a reference work in which I cannot be sure of the accuracy of any individual piece of information unless I go to the list of resources and duplicate all the research myself? Who has that kind of time?

So this is all 180º out, is it?

Am I the only one here who has no idea what that question means?

I didn't say it wasn't an encyclopedia, I said it wasn't a traditional one. It has different virtues and different limitations. You insist it isn't useful, because you can't be sure of its accuracy, I have no problem with this - I do not expect 100% accuracy from any source. If you use a calculator or spreadsheet, you get errors almost automatically and the errors accumulate, that doesn't mean calculators and spreadsheets aren't useful, it only means you may need be aware of their limitations. If you read the Guardian, you expect one slant, the Times another, you allow for it. You wouldn't expect the (Spanish) Encyclopedia Espasa-Calpe to give the same account of the Spanish Armada as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I use Spanish-English dictionaries every day, I know that one dictionary is good (not 100% reliable, though, never that) for terms related with, say, civil engineering (but might be weak on electronics), another will be good on aeronautics (but not necessarily all that hot on air traffic control). To expect a single work to contain the Whole Truth is Borgian.

"What is the utility of a reference work in which I cannot be sure of the accuracy of any individual piece of information unless I go to the list of resources and duplicate all the research myself? Who has that kind of time?"

Isn't the fact that some people find it useful enough? Wikipedia doesn't displace anything else, so people who need more-accurate sources remain free to use them, while movie buffs (and others) can use Wikipedia in ways that benefit them. Other things are more accurate, but typically less comprehensive and less up-to-date. We don't have to choose just one source. Sure, some people may be misled, but if that's grounds for objecting to the existence of something all written works would have to go. No sensible person who knows anything about how Wikipedia works would rely on it; banning it wouldn't do much for those who aren't sensible.

I don't expect any particular reference work to be universally comprehensive or error-free. I'm an editor, remember? My livelihood rises from the human propensity for error.

But what I do expect from a reference work is that a serious effort has been made to minimize and correct errors, and that it is not comtaminated by fraud. The editing of Wikipedia is so inadequate that the apologists have to insist that the errors don't matter.

And that is the point made by he defenders that leaves me amazed: that it is fine with them that Wikipedia is riddled with inaccurate information.

Incidentally, I am not trying to ban Wikipedia, merely to discredit it.

"And that is the point made by he defenders that leaves me amazed: that it is fine with them that Wikipedia is riddled with inaccurate information."

I don't think that's right. It's more a case of arguing that the errors are the price you have to pay to get the benefits.

Chesterton once said that "anything worth doing is worth doing badly"; Wikipedia may be an example. Sure, we'd all like something as comprehensive as Wikipedia and as accurate as a traditional encyclopedia, but nobody has figured out how to get there. Until somebody does, Wikipedia is useful and probably fairly harmless. (Really, who would go there to find out how a Thurber story ends? And I say that as a Thurber fan: I take some pride in the pact that the first literary work I ever heard my son, then five, quote was "The 13 Clocks.")

You are quite right in trying to discredit Wikipedia, but I wonder if that's really needed. I'd think most users know its limitations.

Incidentally, I didn't go to Wikipedia for a summary of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," a story I've known for more than 40 years. While checking my memory of a particular line (which I found elsewhere in a complete text without the assistance of Wikipedia, thank you), I came across the Wikipedia entry and was curious to see what was in it. What I found led to the first post. And the subsequent explanation that the error had been up for five days, presumably being corrected only after I drew attention to it. And no, I haven't gone back to see if the correction stood.

As to the knowledge among "most users" of Wikipedia's limitations, the reports I continue to hear about students using it -- or, God save the mark, journalists! -- persuade me that discrediting it is unfinished work.

Well, the errors in the Wikipedia article on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty you originally complained about are no longer there, which seems a pretty efficient effort at minimizing and correcting. In any case, I don't think anyone has said Wikipedia is error-free or that "the errors don't matter" - I certainly haven't, the nearest thing to it I have said is "I don't expect 100% accuracy from any source." And I'm really not interested in denying Wikipedia's faults. Instead, I maintain that its faults are outweighed by its virtues: it is quick and easy to use, comprehensive, cheap, often entertaining and available in different languages. Above all, I - and millions of others - find it tremendously useful. Not authoritative, useful.

People who are willing to tolerate errors insist that wiki inaccuracy is no different than that in other sources -- and nothing is perfect.

One obvious difference is _predictable_ bias. If you read a Spanish or British history of the Armada, you have a way to balance your expectations.

In a wiki entry, you have NO IDEA of which way the author might slant, or if the author is an expert, a stupid showoff, a well-intended but misinformed kid, or an intentionally misleading partisan, or some sort of charlatan. Or whatever other possibility might have happened that day.

I don't see that anyone has mentioned this as a major difference in what might be "tolerable" errors.

We live in an age of "good enough" and "close enough" and "fast" and "easy." And the assumption that people read the fine print concerning the compilation of reference material.
And that's good enough for many people.
Let's hope this attitude doesn't spread further. Or, at the very least, that people are educated about the strengths and weaknesses of reference material.

Perhaps we each, as individuals, need to raise our own standards. There will always be people for whom The Lowest Common Denominator is good enough. Every one of us needs to decide whether that is acceptable and then let the "good enough" mushmouth of others fall by the wayside.

Last night's 30 Rock episode had a great example of the inaccuracy and easy manipulation of "facts" in Wiki entries.

"Some time past, while doing a Google search on "copy editor," I discovered that I am the subject of a short Wikipedia article. The article said, among other things, that I operate the Web site Real Clear Politics, which is in fact operated by another John McIntyre and with which I have no connection. I filed a protest, and the Wikipedia article was corrected."

You misremember, or, at best, simplify, with that passive voice.

I happened to read your complaint. On my own initiative, I corrected the article. I have no special connection with Wikipedia other than knowing how to edit wiki articles.

What happened next is an education in Wikipedia, however. It was uncorrected by someone else. Then re-corrected by me. Then uncorrected again and my corrections marked "vandalism" by yet another do-gooder.

It took me several days and not inconsiderable effort to convince the people who were "correcting" my corrections that they were incorrect.

The most annoying was an assertion that I had to prove that this John McIntyre is not the Real Clear Politics John McIntyre, with some kind of source. I was at a bit of a loss as to where one could look this up.

Eventually that editor decided I was on the level, and the John McIntyre copyeditor page remained unmolested.

These editors don't reliably have many editorial skills at all. Some of these editors spend most of their time reverting changes that they perceive as vandalism. If those people didn't exist, Wikipedia would be much worse than it is now. The number of vandalism edits to Wikipedia articles must be astounding. That, and comments on Salon articles about women, are a window into the free time and malice the internet has set loose upon the public.

But these quick reversion editors are not always helpful when you're trying to make an actual correction.

There's also the "I know what I know" contingent, supported by sources that are wrong. A friend of mine who has extensive knowledge on the electric bass has tried, unsuccessfully, to correct an article on that subject. Every time, he's "corrected" by someone who read particular articles with errors in them.

He's given up; it isn't worth his time any more.

I'm grateful for the clarification. I wasn't aware of just how difficult it was in this case to make a simple correction and get it to stick.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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