baltimoresun.com

« Surely you jest: The three pints | Main | A Wikipedia challenge »

Touchy, those Wikipediasts

A passing remark in the post “Democracy and participation” about Wikipedia* — “Wikipedia advises its readers — I am not making this up — not to rely on the accuracy of its entries” — drew a couple of waspish responses from a Mr. David Gerard.**

He quotes boilerplate legal language about rights and liability from the Britannica and Baltimoresun.com Web sites as if that had something to do with the point I was making. Let me be more explicit. This is what Wikipedia says about itself:

In particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles more frequently contain significant misinformation, unencyclopedic content, or vandalism. Users need to be aware of this to obtain valid information and avoid misinformation that has been recently added and not yet removed. ...

So. This is an encyclopedia that tells you up front that at any given moment, what you see in one of its entries may well be the product of ignorance, fraud or malice. I find that extraordinary, but to the Wikipediasts it’s apparently no big deal.

To save you the labor of reading all the posts cited below, I’ll boil down what I have to say about Wikipedia to this:

Item: I admire the generosity and public-spiritedness with which contributors to Wikipedia share their knowledge and expertise.

Item: I think that it is reprehensible that Wikipedia lacks an adequate mechanism to verify that information and to protect verified information from contamination or malice.

Item: Because the accuracy of the information in Wikipedia entries cannot be trusted, I instruct The Sun’s copy editors and my copy-editing students at Loyola that they must not rely on it. If they look up a subject in Wikipedia, they must confirm any information by consulting an independent and more reliable source.

 

*If you are not already familiar with my misgivings about Wikipedia, you are welcome to examine these previous posts:

Not bewitched by Wikipedia

I said, get Mitty

Wikipediaphilia

Crisis of authority

McIntyre is having a cow about Wikipedia

Wiki-wacky

Wikipedia’s limits, by one who knows

 

** I’m a little surprised that, given his apparent commitment to Wikipedia’s democracy of ideas, he didn’t welcome my contrary views as equally valid.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:09 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

I forbid--FORBID--my students in my online college-level mass media courses to use Wikipedia as a source for anything. If they do, I delete the post.

I suppose that copies of The New York Times don't come with warnings like the one you quote here, but that hasn't prevented contamination by ignorance or fraud.

This is probably less frequent with the NYT than with Wikipedia, for all the reasons you give. But if I understood your previous "teaspoon of sewage" analogy correctly, the amount of contamination really isn't relevant: if Wikipedia is sewage because some of its articles are contaminated, so is the New York Times.

I don't think either one is sewage; I think both are incredibly valuable resources, if used correctly. If some Wikipedians overstate their case, that's no reason to swing to the other extreme and imply that the fruits of their labors are tantamount to sewage. (And no wonder they get a bit "touchy" when someone makes such an implication.)

"An article in the Year in Ideas issue [of the NYT Magazine] on Dec. 14, 2008, reported on Josh Klein, whose master's thesis for New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program proposed "a vending machine for crows" that would enable the birds to exchange coins for peanuts. The article reported that beginning in June 2008, Klein tested the machine at the Binghamton Zoo, that the crows learned how to use it and that after a month the crows were actually scouring the ground for loose change.

The Times has since learned that Klein was never at the Binghamton Zoo, and there were no crows on display there in June 2008. He performed these experiments with captive crows in a Brooklyn apartment; he told the reporter about the Brooklyn crows but implied that his work with them was preliminary to the work at the zoo. Asked to explain these discrepancies, Klein now says he and the reporter had a misunderstanding about the zoo."

The above is from today's New York Times. It goes on to admit other errors, and to quote scientists as saying that Klein's machine was unlikely to work. At least they did correct their story in the end. I'm still waiting for them to admit that their remark about CPSIA causing "needless fears" about its effects on small businesses was foolish. It is now a Federal felony, with a five-year jail sentence and a $100,000 fine, to sell a children's book printed before 1985. We're still waiting for the Times to address this. I guess crows using vending machines was more important.

I think that it is reprehensible that the New York Times lacks an adequate mechanism to verify its information and to avoid bias and malice.

"Because the accuracy of the information in Wikipedia entries cannot be trusted, I instruct The Sun’s copy editors and my copy-editing students at Loyola that they must not rely on it. If they look up a subject in Wikipedia, they must confirm any information by consulting an independent and more reliable source."

See, we at Wikipedia completely and absolutely agree with this. It's a starting point, not a finihsing point. If you take whatever's written in Wikipedia as the final word on a subject, you deserve whatever happens to you.

How you find it "reprehensible" that readers aren't absolved of the obligation to think about what they read, or suffer the consequences, is beyond me though. It's not clear what you expect us to reasonably do to save the stupid from themselves.

Here's the thing, Mr. Klein. I am perfectly aware that The New York Times, like any other newspaper, including mine, is capable of error. But it doesn't call itself an encyclopedia.

Moreover, unlike Wikipedia, it employs people who are responsible for verifying information, as well as they can, before publication. I know a number of copy editors at The Times, and have hired copy editors who were subsequently employed by The Times; I know their worth. If Wikipedia made the same kind of effort to verify the accuracy of its contents that TheTimes does, I would be more inclined to trust it.

But Wikipedia says that it's not that urgent a concern that the entry you read at this moment may be erroneous or even fraudulent, and the Wikipedia enthusiasts say that when I raise that point, it's an irrelevant question. And now you tell me that if these people "overstate their case," that doesn't matter either.

I am perfectly aware that The New York Times, like any other newspaper, including mine, is capable of error. But it doesn't call itself an encyclopedia.

No, it goes by the far less grandiose title of "Paper of Record".

Sorry, but I still find "The Sum of Human Knowledge" to be more grandiose than "Paper of Record".

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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.
Baltimore Sun Facebook page
-- ADVERTISEMENT --

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected