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.
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.