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Wikipedia's limits, by one who knows

As some of you have commented, the sport of Wikipedia-bashing has begun to pall, and the back-and-forth with the True Believers is nearly as sterile a pastime as trying to discuss evolutionary biology with intelligent-design monomaniacs.

But for those of you still susceptible to the attraction of reasonable argument, an essay, “The Fate of Expertise After Wikipedia,” by Lawrence M. Sanger will be instructive. (The citation was sent to me by a reader of the blog.)

Mr. Sanger can speak with authority. He is a co-founder of Wikipedia and the founder of Citizendium, a rival wiki which practices editing.

I’ll summarize a few key points, but you should examine his argument in detail.

Mr. Sanger gives full marks to the openness and democratic nature of Wikipedia, describing how those qualities contribute to its strength, particularly in its articles ont he hard sciences.* He doubts that the popularity of Wikipedia will undermine actual expertise.

He is skeptical of the claims of the more extreme Wikipediasts that some kind of universal truth will emerge from the collective contributions of participants.

And finally, he finds that the weaknesses of Wikipedia, the lack of formal editing and the absence of a mechanism adequate to resolve disputes, lead to an overall mediocrity. The problem is that the most stubborn and aggressive contributors tend to outlast everyone else, discouraging the better-informed contributors.

I’ll post comments as usual, but at this point your argument is no longer with me.


* He takes a swipe in passing at the Nature article determining that Wikipedia and Britannica were roughly equal in error rates for scientific articles. That study, which Mr. Sanger insists is flawed, has been inflated by partisans and careless writers into a statement that Wikipedia and Britannica are equally reliable overall.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:43 AM | | Comments (11)


I should say that I am a great fan of Wikipedia. But I am not an apologist. I am well aware of their strengths and weaknesses. I've stressed before in past comments that Wikipedia is an ongoing experiment. It will reach its level over time. The quote you extracted, about mediocrity, is true. But so are all of the comments about fecundity. My personal opinion is that Wikipedia will transform over time into tiers of information, from the wide-open, unauthenticated content that anyone can author to Citizendium-style expert authors.

"The problem is that the most stubborn and aggressive contributors tend to outlast everyone else, discouraging the better-informed contributors."

You should spend some time in the forums. Or perhaps not. ;)

If I may obliquely refer to your previous post (which I enjoyed greatly), this is from The Big Sleep:

"Should I gentle up that bacardi (or Wikipedia) or do you like it the way it is?" (said the barman).
"I like it the way it is as well as I like it at all," I said.
"Me, I'd just as leave drink croup medicine," he said.

Well, if you don't much like it (bacardi), why (says this reader) did you ask for it?. Just to have something to wisecrack about?

I haven't read Larry's piece yet, but he's certainly right about the Nature study: it was rubbish, as one of your commenters noted earlier:

I have no interest in bashing Wikipedia or in disabusing anyone of their affection for it. I bring this up only because, as you correctly say, "partisans and careless writers" continue to cite this so-called study as if it were valid. It is not.

Tom Panelas
Encyclopaedia Britannica

(It should be pointed out that Citizendium is now largely a failure - little content, little readership.)

Now, there is something that I don't quite like in Mr McIntyre's anti-Wikipedia postings. It's what people used to debating in online forums call "strawmanning". To summarize, in order to ridicule some person or group that disagrees with your opinions, you attribute to that person or group some extreme and easily attacked position.

I think that very few people who actually build Wikipedia believe in that position that somehow truth would emerge from the opinion of many uninformed people. This rather seems, I should say, like the kind of things that people say if they wish to write futuristic essays.

It is also all too easy to attack Wikipedia and Google by saying that, with them, the most vocal, not the most competent, get heard. The thing is... This is actually rather a general problem.

Who do journalists interview? Often, not the most competent people on a topic, but the people that have somehow managed to find a semi-permanent position as "media expert". (See for instance _On Television_, by Pierre Bourdieu.)

Who gets their opinion heard? People who have the economical or media clout to get them heard. Not the most knowledgeable.

On which criteria are books chosen for publishing? Largely, on marketability to an audience capable of buying them. This means that you have a bigger chance of getting published if, say, you are a major politician writing on global warming than a very knowledgeable scientist working on the same topic.

You simply can't ignore this fact of life. Now, there are two attitudes (and intermediates) in front of this problem. You can ignore it, claim it does not exist, that traditional publishing always chooses quality, and similar untruths. Or you can strive to educate people about how to make up their mind and cross-check information - in short, being true citizens and not sheep.

I've chosen the second option.

To clarify a couple of points for Grouchy prof:

I was not originating criticism of the utopian fantasies about Wikipedia but rather summarizing what Lawrence Sanger published. Given his extensive experience with Wikipedia and Wikipediasts, I defer to his views on the subject.

The other "straw man" arguments in my various posts have been taken from published statements, including the comments on my posts. If the advocates of Wikipedia make public statements of extreme and easily attacked positions, I'm not clear on how I am at fault for criticizing them.

Wikipedia has 2,746,921 articles in English. It has more articles in Basque (34,943) than Citizendium in its only language, English (9,900+). Citizendium has been live for nearly two years now, is still in beta, and its Alexa curve is flat enough to play billiards on. That doesn't mean Wikipedia is "better" in your terms, but it does mean it is a lot more useful to a lot more people and is likely to remain so in the immediate future. Plus, Larry Sanger may have extensive experience with Wikipedia and Wikipediaists, but he is estranged from it/them. So it is not unlikely that he has a chip on his shoulder and an axe to grind. Reminds me of someone.

And to think, Mr. Ross, I had begun to believe that we were getting along better.

I have neither used Citizendium nor recommended it, but merely mentioned it in passing to identify what Mr. Sanger is up to.

As for the chip on his shoulder and the ax to grind (surely a most uncomfortable posture), am I to gather, then, that anyone who presumes to criticize Wikipedia can be dismissed as merely pursuing some obscure personal grudge and therefore safely disregarded?

After seeing the previous comment, Mr. ross sent a gracious note, which he has given me permission to quote:

"Sorry about that. Hey, I thought we were getting along better, as well, and I really don't mean you to take any of this personally. I do get the impression that you have something of an axe to grind over this issue, to tell the truth, but perhaps I am completely wrong and, in any case, do forgive me if I have overstepped the mark in any way. I sometimes forget that I can be a more effective writer than I give myself credit for, but that is a flimsy excuse. The next time, just delete my comment.

"FWIW, I have disagreements with Language Log, as well, you know. And if I follow your blog, as I have said on my own, it is because I find it intelligent and entertaining, and because it deals with language in particular in a way with which I sympathise, even when I am not in full agreement. Long life both to it and to you."

And I answered:

"Perhaps I'm too touchy. You, at least, were responding to the argument I was making about unreliability in Wikipedia entries, but some of the other responders were ignoring the particulars. So i grew warm.

"I do appreciate your kind words about the blog and your readership."

Let's let Mr. Ross have the last word:

"I'm glad that's sorted out."

I just tested out the difference between the two using Hebrew Language. The Sanger is a draft and I prefer the way the Wikipedia presents it. I make up my own mind before I look at the Wikipedia. i use it to test out my research. So far I'm in sync so it's win-win for me. I only trust those articles that are not questioned by the Wikipedia itself. I grew up with the Encyclopaedia Britannica and found the Wikipedia is very close to my brain evolution.

I understand and appreciate how Ms. Saltz finds utility in Wikipedia.

But I shake my old gray head in wonderment that Wikipedia is most useful as a reference when one already knows the information.

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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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