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Post Wikipedia
Created by John Eipper on 04/26/15 4:33 AM

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Wikipedia (Cameron Sawyer, USA, 04/26/15 4:33 am)

In response to Gary Moore (25 April), the limitations of Wikipedia are one of the starkest cases of "glass half full; glass half empty" which I have ever seen.

It is not hard to find mistakes and bias in Wikipedia articles. But there are mistakes and bias in all possible sources and compendia of knowledge. Various studies of the accuracy of information in Wikipedia have shown that Wikipedia is not significantly less accurate than traditional, edited compendia of information like the Encyclopedia Britannica. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reliability_of_Wikipedia#Comparative_studies as a guide to further reading. It is ironic, of course, to go first to Wikipedia to investigate this question, but the article is not edited by Wikipedia, and Wikipedia itself, unlike Encyclopedia Britannica, is not a commercial organization, so is not subject to any special bias.

As of today, Wikipedia currently has nearly 5 million articles in English, and about 35 million articles altogether, compared to about 120,000 on Encyclopedia Britannica online and about 40,000 in the print version. But the biggest difference between Wikipedia and traditional, edited compendia of knowledge is that Wikipedia is community edited--so virtually peer reviewed but without qualification of the editors, who are even anonymous. This is profoundly disturbing to people who think that the broad mass of humanity should not be trusted with this. Encyclopedia Britannica, on the other hand, has a distinguished panel of experts, so anything you read in Britannica has been vetted by people with training and qualifications.

However, leaving aside the enormous difference in size, which is determined by the fact that it is impossible to convene a panel of qualified editors large enough to deal with all of the knowledge in the world, the main difference between Wikipedia and Britannica is that Wikipedia has none of the biases which go with the editors having passed through the established system of acquiring qualifications. All the points of view available on a given subject passes through the system at the speed of light, in competition with each other. Errors and bias can be caught at the speed of light. The result is that the accuracy is not significantly less than what is produced by panels of experts, the points of view represented are far broader (in fact, as broad as the entire literate, computer-enabled world), and the quantity of knowledge accessible through the system is orders of magnitude greater. And on top of all of that, the information is updated continuously, and in many cases is up to date in terms of minutes, not just days or years.

I am a great lover of Encyclopedia Britannica and own three different editions of it. I often want to know what the distinguished panel of experts had to say on a given subject, and my old editions, especially the 1911 one (the 11th edition), are invaluable (and Wikipedia does not replace these at all) to know the state of knowledge at other times in history. But for doing what large compendia of knowledge do best--which is quick access to basic information on subjects in which one is not expert--Wikipedia is incomparably more powerful and more useful. In fact, by giving instant access to this vast amount of knowledge, Wikipedia changes scholarship altogether. Fact-checking of even small details can be done in seconds, background information can be gathered in minutes, perspectives can be gained which would never be worth dragging through a library--since human life is not long enough.

The danger of Wikipedia is the same danger inherent in all secondary sources--you cannot and must not assume that anything you read in it is correct. It has zero authority. It is a gigantic collection of hearsay, if you will. But this is not new to Wikipedia--long before the existence of the Internet, we were all taught to never cite encyclopedia and never rely on them for anything other than background information, or as a way to guide you to further reading. The fact that Wikipedia is so powerful, and so accessible, increases the temptation to use it incorrectly.

In my opinion, Wikipedia is one of the very most revolutionary applications of the Internet, something which will be remembered for centuries after Facebook and Google have been forgotten. To complain about the potential for misuse of Wikipedia is like complaining, at that moment when the use of fire was invented a couple of million years ago (a fact quickly checked with--right, you know), of the potential of house fires and burns. Naturally, these risks exist. But does that mean we should go back to eating raw meat and living in the dark?

JE comments: Beautifully said. I made the point a few years ago that Wikipedia proves something fundamental--even Utopian--about human nature. Communities of people can work together for the common good, even when they do not stand to benefit materially.

Might we talk about the "New Wikiet Man"--or Woman?


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  • Wikipedia (Holger Terp, Denmark 04/26/15 1:42 PM)

    Cameron Sawyer should get high praise for his post on Wikipedia (26 April).

    I often use Wikipedia, albeit with mixed feelings.

    Wikipedia has destroyed the market for paper-based encyclopedias. And many academics who wrote

    articles for the encyclopedias in their research time no longer have this paid job.

    Basically, I think that some of Wikipedia's editors and writers have no idea what an encyclopedia is and that

    Wikipedia is much too large. Some of the articles in Wikipedia are many meters long and should in my opinion be split into smaller posts or published as separate entries.

    Elsewhere there is too much information.

    When some years ago I researched and wrote about the history of US nuclear weapons factories and also described the uranium mines in that country, I could find all the locations mentioned in the many documents I had found. Right down to some towns with seven residents and even some ghost towns. Such information belongs in an atlas, or national, county and municipal directories that you can reference in a search of American cities. In Denmark cities below 200 inhabitants are deleted from the registers.

    Another example concerns birds. Apparently there are birds everywhere where there is land. Even at the South

    Pole there are birds. Wikipedia lists all known birds in its lists of countries. These lists of birds do not belong

    in an encyclopedia, but there should be references to ornithological reference works and relevant


    And there might be several other examples of this problem.

    JE comments:  Great to hear from Holger Terp!  What do others think of Holger's lament about too much information on Wikipedia?  Does the law of diminishing returns apply?

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  • Wikipedia; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 04/26/15 2:51 PM)

    Gary Moore responds to Cameron Sawyer (26 April):

    Cameron's reply to my post on Wikipedia reminds what
    a rich subject this is--and apparently a sensitive one. To say that
    various studies have shown Wikipedia "not significantly less accurate"
    than sources like Encyclopedia Britannica may beg a larger, more
    elusive question. The case I stumbled onto involved the hot-button
    area of atrocity reporting, where shocking images encourage
    exaggeration and polemics. Last time I looked, Encyclopedia Britannica
    itself was still saying 9,000 slaves may have participated in the
    Denmark Vesey uprising conspiracy of 1822--a whopper whose ideological
    sensitivity has kept it as accepted wisdom for generations--finally to be
    debunked by Michael Johnson of Johns Hopkins in 2001 (he won a national
    historical award for, in a sense, asking how 9,000 people could keep a secret).

    In the case I originally cited, a Wikipedia author inserted "many hundreds
    of thousands" into the death toll on 1890s concentration camps in Cuba.
    In this insertion something emotional, and very interesting, was going on.
    At first glance it's hard to see the layers of absurdity, especially in insistence
    on the word "many" (used that way twice in the Wikipedia piece). "Many
    hundreds of thousands" wouldn't be "several hundred thousand" but at least,
    say, 700,000 or more. One of the more credible observers on the scene, reporter
    George Rea, said he felt no more than about 2,000 people were left in the Pinar
    del Rio countryside to be reconcentrated at all.

    Wikipedia's power and speed (I also am a Wikipedia contributor) may be helping to point up a hole in discourse
    that has been there all along. Now, spirit-of-the-age assumptions can leap out
    with added force and visibility--to spark discussions like this.

    JE comments:  For those seeking a primer on the Denmark Vesey case, where else besides Wikipedia?


    Vesey was a fascinating figure in Charleston, who reportedly spoke Spanish and French as well as English.  He purchased his freedom in 1799 after winning a lottery, and was executed for a conspiracy that was never carried out.

    I hope Gary Moore will share more of his experiences as a Wikipedian.

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