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When you get entangled with True Believers, the options are limited: You can observe them with detached amusement, or you can start writing in all-caps. Now, after extended exchanges with the Wikipediaphiliacs,* I’ve chosen to view the lighter side of their circular justifications.

Believer: Wikipedia is a universal encyclopedia, dwarfing all other references, including that stodgy old Britannica, with its immediacy and scope and ability to tap into the expertise of knowledgeable people all over the world.

Skeptic: But it’s full of errors. And people go in and change things that are right to make them wrong.

Believer: Well, maybe you can’t necessarily trust all the entries, but you can follow the citations to the sources.

Skeptic: If you have the time to duplicate all the work.

Believer: It’s the openness, man, that makes it special. It isn’t held up and limited by a bunch of fussy old gatekeepers.

Skeptic: So it’s also open to changes made by the ignorant and the malicious.

Believer: Well, if you’ve read the cautions, you know you can’t trust the entries. It’s only people who are lazy or stupid who treat it like an encyclopedia.

Skeptic: I thought it was supposed to be an encyclopedia.

Believer: It is an encyclopedia, but it’s not like those slow-moving gatekeepered things. It’s up-to-the-minute and open, so it doesn’t matter that it may have a lot of little errors in it.

Skeptic: But I need a reference I can trust without having to check every detail myself.

Believer: It’s more accurate than Britannica. Some study somewhere said so.

Skeptic: I thought you didn’t care whether it was accurate or not.

Believer: You’re a bitter old man.


 * In chronological order:

I said, get Mitty


McIntyre is having a cow about Wikipedia



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:59 AM | | Comments (24)


Can't we have room for both Urban Dictionary and the Double Tongued Dictionary in our lives? (There are some parallels here with Wikipedia and Britannica.)

Sometimes I want to know, "What did that college student try to say to me?"

Other times, I want to know the origin of a word or a phrase.

Wikipedia will have more breadth. It will be more accurate in the areas that are more popular with people on the internet. Wikipedia, like a newspaper, will seem flawed in areas where you do have know more than the general public about the topic. It will be more flawed in areas that are less popular. Reading the discussion section of Wikipedia can help let you know how seriously to take a particular passage.

Britannica is less malleable, and the quality of its entries may not be a reflection fo the popularity of the entries. Does it give you references or let you know who the author of a piece is so you can develop context for its passages? It has been so long since I have looked at an encyclopedia.

This definitely feels like the sort of argument one might have with a college student or a teenager. Which isn't very surprising seeing as most of the 'Dedicated editors' on Wikipedia tend to be from either one of these sources. Not to disparage most of the population, but Jimbo Wales has done a good gob insulating his site with people willing to spend all day making rabid defenses against people calling George W. Bush a monkey or claiming that John Quincy Adams knew that Craig from San Diamas High School is a tard.

The spirit of contradiction which inspired me to leave a few comments now inspires rrie to post my own take on said extended discussions. It's here.

I admire Mr. Ross' willingness to engage in discussion, though it seems unlikely that we will agree.

As to his dismissal of my treatment of Believer's arguments above as "snide," I can only point out that the Believer statements all represent things that people have said in defense of Wikipedia. If some of them seem silly or contradictory, then they still reflect the openness that Wikipedia celebrates.

What seems most clearly wrong to me is Mr. McIntyre's apparent belief that one kind of encyclopedia is best for all users, all the time. That has been repeatedly refuted in the comments. Does anybody really doubt that Wikipedia is far better than any conventional encyclopedia for the quick acquisition of information about current popular culture? Does the Britannica even touch on that stuff? On the other hand, I don't think anybody finds Wikipedia at all useful for information about topics that attract cranks, especially politics. I've occasionally looked at Wikipedia for information about books, and while I haven't run across anything as awful as its butchering of Thurber, I haven't found anything useful, either, so I don't use it for that any longer. On matters of technical, professional interest, I wouldn't dream of consulting Wikipedia or Britannica or, for that matter the Baltimore Sun. I've never in my life seen an article on taxation in a paper other than the Wall Street Journal that didn't contain errors. That hasn't inspired me to pen denunciations of newspapers as inferior to tax treatises, however; I will concede that the newspapers have better comics and movie listings. I have found some useful information about hobbies, movies, and other things in Wikipedia, and in none of those cases would Britannica have been useful.

When I was practicing tax law, many law libraries had a publication which purported to be an encyclopedia of taxation. Its analyses were pathetically insufficient. But it was a good guide to primary sources, which its editors had collected and cited, though they usually didn't understand what they meant. We knew that its analyses were useless, but we didn't go around saying it was no good: it was good for some things, bad for others, and we appreciated that. Wikipedia seems similar.

Despite what Mr. McIntyre has repeatedly claimed, no one has argued that Wikipedia is "swell," or that it beats Britannica at everything, or that its errors "don't matter." We've just claimed that it's better at some things, that we hope it will improve, and that you can't beat the price. Claims that Wikipedia is better in all ways than conventional encyclopedias are not what the "Wikipediphiliacs" have been making. But you wouldn't know that from Mr. McIntyre's posts.

One further point: Mr McIntyre quotes several defenses of Wikipedia and attributes them to someone he calls "Believer." These quotes are from many commenters, who disagree not only with Mr. McIntyre but also, on some matters, with each other. Attributing all these statements to a single person, however imaginary, makes that person look inconsistent and absurd. I'm sure Mr. McIntyre wouldn't let a reporter get away with presenting several people's comments as if they came from a single source.

'Snide' is a word I wouldn't dream of being so discourteous as to use about someone else on their own blog, it would be like spitting on their carpet. But as you have singled it out from my own blog post (which it was sporting of you to take the trouble to read, thank you), it means, as you know, "slyly disparaging" (Merriam-Webster, not Wikipedia). Your intention is disparage is evident and you have every right to do so. But you do it slyly because, as Alan Gunn points out, you have constructed your own argument, from other people's words and some of your own, and attributed it to them. Sneaky. That you then find it easy to demolish the same argument hardly merits a round of applause.

No-one else has mentioned your age, etither, now that I think of it.

I thought I was being openly disparaging, myself.

What I find fascinating about this perennial discussion is that both sides say essentially the same thing. Wikipedia and conventional encyclopedias have different strengths and weaknesses. Wikipedia is great for "good enough" information: some random factoid or quick introduction to a subject. It is terrible for coherent extended analyses of a subject, and there is always the caveat that it is worse than worthless for any controversial subject, and you don't know what subjects someone will think controversial. Only an idiot would rely on Wikipedia as the end of any important research, but it can be a good place to start. The thing is, both the pro and con parties pretty much agree on this. The difference is that the Wikiskeptics take its claim to being an encyclopia seriously, while the Wiki enthusiasts think the skeptics a bit dim for doing this. Call it something else, and most of the disagreements go away.

I'm entirely willing to call it something other than an encyclopedia: unreliable reference.

I still don't understand.

1. Some fans of Wikipedia say that, sure, it can't be trusted when accuracy matters, but that's not a problem because the sources it cites can be checked.

Why not go straight to the sources?

2. Other users say Wikipedia is great because it's more up to date than old-fashioned encyclopedias.

Why not go straight to specialized, authoritative sources that are kept up to date?

3. What is this study we hear of that found Wikipedia to be as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica? The only comparison of them I've seen found EB to be more accurate (not that a study of such limited scope means much):

I am often amused by the fact that my flatmate uses Wikipedia as the sole sourse of information for her written assignments. I asked her about it after reading this, and she responded: "My professors have decided that Wikipedia is the most accurate source of information. It has a few errors in citing our constitution*, but is otherwise pretty much right."

*Our constitution has existed since 1849 and had its last major revamp in 1953. Is 56 years not enough time to accurately type out a document?

Much as I enjoy the ambience here in Wordville, McI, and even though I agree with you on this, I'm getting bored with the wiki-talk. This is starting to come across as an obsession.

I think the problem is that John McIntyre's needs are not necessarily everybody's needs.

McIntyre is a copy editor. As such, he has to quickly verify that newspaper articles do not contain glaring errors. (And, given that "reputable" newspapers contain errors that a good highschool student would have spotted, I suppose that this is not so common a position.)

For this kind of task, what he needs is a reference work that does not go into too much depth (after all, he probably does not care about quantum electrodynamics, for instance), but that lists facts such as dates of events, spellings, etc.

In contrast, scholars (I'm talking PhDs and academics) rather need documents that point them to other documents - kind of maps of subjects. If, for instance, I've seen the phrase "second-order cone programming" and I have no idea what it is, I need some document that is easy to access and that gives me the basics, and where to look for more details. I don't even have to trust that document - because the thing I need is to know that second-order cone programming is a particular form of quadratic optimization, and that is probably enough to find a book on the subject in a university library.

Wikipedia is exactly that kind of document. You could say that Britannica also would fit the picture, but Britannica's coverage is very uneven and tends to be sometimes fairly shallow and/or outdated on scientific topics. I'm not saying the articles are bad, but that it sometimes tries to summarize in three pages what consumes entire rows of shelves in my university's library. In contrast, Wikipedia tends to have articles talking about more specialized topics.

As others have said, there is certainly an error in the "one size fits all" approach.

Also, as some other person said:

"On matters of technical, professional interest, I wouldn't dream of consulting Wikipedia or Britannica or, for that matter the Baltimore Sun."

I can attest that science articles in newspapers as reputable as Le Monde, the International Herald Tribune etc. sometimes contain enormous blunders that would not be tolerable of highschool students in science sections - perhaps because they've been written by former English or commerce or history majors that lack basic grasp of scientific topics. I heard similar complaints from lawyers about articles dealing with Law.

The other thing is that these newspapers seldom print corrections, even if errors are pointed out. Been there, done that.

I therefore conclude that it is highly hazardous to take information in general-purpose newspapers at face value.

This is partly correct. If it is five minutes to deadline and a statement of fact in a story looks questionable, I have to be able to rely on a reference that is readily available and reliable.

But I'm also concerned about how people upstream may be using Wikipedia. Last week I found in an article from a reputable newspaper, received from one of our wire services, a pargraph of information reported from Wikipedi. I ripped it out by the roots. How mny reporters, students and other writers are using Wikipedia as a source and going no further?

So, Grouchy prof...are you saying that Wikipedia is best used as a kind of annotated index of subjects? I think that might be a fair description of how I use it...

Cherie: I indeed use Wikipedia as an index in which I can look up things that I see when I read scientific articles but that I don't know about - but I do not rely on the information that I find there without some other means of checking (either because I can check myself that it is mathematically consistent, or I find some articles or books on the issue). Typically, Wikipedia gives an outline of the issue, and this in turn gives pointers to related topics, and, especially important, the name of topics under which information on the subject may be filed.

I'll give you one example. Some people call "dioids" what many authors refer to as a "tropical semiring", on which information can be found in "queueing theory" books. Without Google Scholar / Google / Wikipedia, such associations are frankly not easy to find (library staff are useless, they'll simply input the keywords into their book index, which I can do myself).

@John McIntyre: You are blaming on Wikipedia the actions of students and reporters who plagiarize it?

That's reverting the victim and the criminal. I'm sure you would not blame any newspaper or Britannica if a reporter copied from it without attribution - you'd blame the reporter instead.

Wikipedia is about the only source that has the frankness to explain really how it is made. :-)

The last time we caught a student handing someone else's work, we simply gave him 0 points out of 20, which deprived him of credits for the course. I did not seek scapegoats.

My advice to humanities and journalism professors (who seem the only one protesting loudly - I hardly see any science prof dissing Wikipedia):
1) Teach the purpose of citations, and good information retrieval.
2) Give very bad grades to students who do not abide by basic common sense rules like not citing Wikipedia for establishing a fact.
Of course, your students may not like you for it.

No, Professor Grouch, I am not blaming the gun manufacturer when someone shoots someone else.

But the frequency with which both students and reporters uncritically make use of dubious sources remains a problem I have to deal with, along withthe possibilities of plagiarism and fabrication.

This is an issue separate from my overall misgivings about the way Wikpedia operates.

@John McIntyre:

I think we agree on that : some students and (from the kind of mistakes I see in newspapers) many reporters simply do not care to seek appropriate sources.

(Case in mind: I've seen newspaper articles claiming, erroneously, that a person was the CEO of an organization whereas a simple lookup on the organization's site would have settled the case. They simply had not bothered to do basic fact checking that can be done from a computer desk - so I bet that going to a library and opening a book is totally unthinkable.)

This is why I advocate "source traceability" (*). With current hypertext technology, it is very easy to insert references that, on paper, would have consumed considerable footnote space. In short, you'd get the best of both worlds - brevity, and the copious footnotes and bibliography that we scholars tend to like.

Let me give you one example of something that gets on my nerves. I frequently see science articles in newspapers that say "a recent study showed...". This is intolerable. If there is a study, I want to know its title, who wrote it, and where I can get its original text. (Give the number of errors that I spot that should not be made by anybody with a science-oriented highschool degree, I cannot trust the reporter to have summarized the study correctly.)

I'm always wary of "information" that I read in newspapers because I am unsure where the reporter has fished it. Did he/she simply copy from a previous article? (In which case erroneous information may perpetuate itself.) Did he/she try to summarize information beyond his understanding? Did he/she exaggerate facts to make a stronger point?

Wikipedia guidelines state that all facts (especially contentious ones) should come with a reference to a proper source. Maybe online versions of newspapers should implement similar rules.

This would perhaps solve your professional problem, and my personal qualms about the quality of the information that I read.

(*) This is a poor pun of mine on the subject of "meat traceability", which was implemented in France following mad cow disease. If it's possible for beef, why not for information?

I pleased to see how much common ground we hold. You want the information published in newspapers to be reliable. I want to make sure that it is as reliable and our time and resources permit. Neither of us expects infallibility; both of us maintain a healthy skeptcism about what is put before us. Discovering the means to accomplish the goal of reliability is the tricky part.

Personally, I blame it all on texting. Or maybe on the Great Groundhog Conspiracy.

"I"m entirely willing to call it something other than an encyclopedia: unreliable reference."

Well, sure: but all references are unreliable to some degree. This is why I write about "good enough" information. For any sort of research, at some point you have to conclude that what you have is good enough, since perfection is unattainable in this vale of tears. Wikipedia is good enough for many purposes, and therefore for those purposes perfectly appropriate. For others, it isn't, and therefore isn't. The trick is to keep track of how good is good enough, and not cut corners simply because Wikipedia is easy.

"Last week I found in an article from a reputable newspaper, received from one of our wire services, a pargraph of information reported from Wikipedi. I ripped it out by the roots. How mny reporters, students and other writers are using Wikipedia as a source and going no further? "

It is possible that the paragraph wasn't from Wikipedia, but instead got placed there by a Wikipedia enthusiast the moment it was available on the newspaper's website or on the wire. Or it could have been added by the reporter herself.

In other words, the Wiki article may have plagiarized the newspaper article, not the other way around.

You might like to learn how to read Wikipedia page history to find out when it was added, and by whom. You may have accused the wrong party.

That being said, this isn't in any way a defense of Wikipedia. In fact it points out the difficulty in using Wikipedia for anything.

It's complicated by the fact that Wikipedia articles are copied wholesale to other websites on a routine basis, sometimes with credit but more often without. Cut and paste is easy. Sourcing is hard.

I'm remembering (perhaps inaccurately) a tactic used by the previous administration to make the claims of yellow cake uranium dealing by Iraq seem accurate -- you plant the idea in a couple of different places with a couple of different people. Reports come back on "Iraq yellowcake OMG!" et voila! You have several "independent" sources supporting the idea that you invented.

Sound familiar?

I am very thankful for Mr. McIntyre's explorations into the reliability of Wikipedia. I "chaired" an informal but systematic study of Wikipedia's accuracy surrounding one calendar quarter's worth of edits to the 100 articles about the hundred U.S. senators.

We found Wikipedia to be wrong -- sometimes maliciously and subtly wrong -- about 6.8% of the time. Personally, I don't think this is a commendable score, especially when you consider that (for example) Jimmy Wales' article enjoys "semi-protection" which shields it from probably 98% of the nonsense that the senators must endure.

A link to the study:

My chief beef with Wikipedia is not so much the quality or accuracy of the information within, but rather the unethical and unprofessional management practices exhibited by the Wikimedia Foundation that owns the servers. They routinely lie and cover up their misdeeds, but the mainstream media seems to give them a free pass whenever it happens.

Need a list?

We are thankful for Prof. McIntyre's explorations into so many subjects, the reliability of Wikipedia being just one of them.

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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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