Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wikipedia – A wonderful resource or unreliable trash?

Before I begin, I should qualify that I’ve been an editor on Wikipedia for almost two years now – here’s my user page – so from the start it should be obvious that I don’t think Wikipedia is a piece of garbage. Do I think it’s perfect? No.  Do I think there are a lot of errors on it?  Sure.   But here’s my two cents on the matter:

Prior to Wikipedia, if one wanted access to information about a particular subject, most of us either went to the library or consulted an encyclopaedia – if we happened to own one. Now, do you suppose most if not all of these books contained factual errors? I’m sure they did – after all, humans wrote them. And once an error was discovered, was there any way for someone to go back and fix those errors on every copy?  Nope, but you can do that on Wikipedia.

And who would have recorded the vast majority of the information in encyclopaedias and works of non-fiction pertaining to history, the sciences, etc? A bunch of older, Caucasian, and probably fairly financially well-off, men (and for those of us in English-speaking countries, these would have been mostly English-speaking, Judeo-Christian men). So in effect, said books would have represented the viewpoint of a very small portion of Western society, which in itself makes up a small portion of the societies of the world. On Wikipedia, however, one can have people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, with different and oftentimes opposing viewpoints, contributing to the very same article. Yes, there are heated debates and “edit wars” all over the place, and there are certain topics on which consensus is truly impossible. And that is one of the wonderful things about Wikipedia: Instead of having a book tell you “this is the history of ABC, and that’s that” – a book that will say the same thing year after year, decade after decade – the information on Wikipedia is ever changing, just like how our view of history, science, etc, is ever changing.  One also has access to the discussion pages of each article where people are actively discussing the article's content.

Doesn’t the act of allowing any Joe Blow to edit the information on Wikipedia make that information incredibly unreliable? Not as much as one might think:

It is my belief that if you want to “know” something, you have to investigate it for yourself and when seemingly contradictory information comes about you should also investigate that information as well and not simply dismiss it because of its slant or source. You cannot go to Wikipedia or any printed book or article – or any religious tome for that matter – to know the whole truth about anything. All of these things are edited and written by flesh and blood humans, and as humans we are only able to see things through our own eyes, which is a very small slice of reality. So if you think “there’s no point in trusting anything on Wikipedia; I’d rather get my information from X, Y or Z” you’re missing the point: You can’t trust X, Y or Z either. I find the same rings true for those who poo-poo certain “alternative media” sites and news blogs as if “mainstream media” is somehow less biased and more reliable. The best you can do is to try and search out information from as many different sources as possible, including sources which tend to carry viewpoints contrary to your own.

Mainstream media, comedians and other Wikipedia detractors often like to point to examples of articles which state things like “and he is also a big doodie head”. Yes, this kind of silliness creeps in constantly; you can only imagine how many times a day one has to revert edits to articles such as Beaver or Ballcock; it is impossible to stop, much like it is hard to stop government and corporate agents from manipulating articles on Wikipedia (as reported in this article by the BBC, who themselves were caught manipulating Wikipedia articles as per this story from The Independant of the UK!).  Corporate and government agents also have their hands in the information that gets fed to us through the "mainstream media", however, unlike factual errors made by the media or in published materials, on Wikipedia you will find that poorly sourced information, obvious vandalism or errors, are reverted almost always within the day. There is a function within Wikipedia which allows editors to “watch” certain articles; in most cases editors will “watch” articles which pertain to topics of interest or articles which they had created or greatly contributed to themselves. Many of us check our “watchlists” daily, if not several times daily, not to mention that there are many articles out there being watched by multiple editors at any one time, and if we see that someone has added some contentious or downright false material to an article, or removed valid or properly sourced material, we can revert their edits with just a click of the mouse. There are also editors who go through lists of newly created and poorly sourced articles to see if they meet Wikipedia’s notability and verifiability standards. Unsurprisingly there is also an article on Wikipedia about the of reliability of Wikipedia as well as a related article on the Wikipedia biography controversy (and remember, don’t just read what these articles say, check out the sources as well as any rebuttals to said sources!)

And I admit these “notability” and “verifiability” standards are a contentious issue for me: Remember what I was saying above about how you can’t just trust information from the “mainstream media” and “official” history books and encyclopaedias any more than “alternative media” and blog sites? Well, Wikipedia’s notability and verifiability standards actually state that one should be able to back-up any material they add to Wikipedia with citations from reliable sources which, you guessed it, tend to include published materials, mainstream news sources etc...

But I don’t find the fact that I edit on Wikipedia and conform to these standards to be contradictory to my opinions about “official” history books and "mainstream" news sources. I recognise that if one is going to add information to Wikipedia, another person reading said information should then be able to find the source of said information and read it for themselves. Not only should they be able to do this, IMO they should go and check out the source of said information, for many reasons, including: A) to assess the source of the material as well as any corporate/political ties that the source(s) may have, B) to see if what is written in Wikipedia accurately reflects the actual text in the source that is being cited, and C) to then go out and try to find further sources on the topic, especially from sources which tend to have opposing viewpoints. In fact, people should be taking these steps no matter where they are getting their information from, be it Wikipedia or otherwise.

Many of you might say that you simply don’t have the time to research everything you read or see or hear, and this is very true. This is why I believe we should try to not to repeat anything we’ve read in a book or on the web, or seen in a video or film or on TV as fact (which comes back yet again to my post on repeating). Admittedly this is very hard to do. I’m trying as much as I can to catch myself and to preface certain statements with qualifiers such as “as I see it” or “here are my 2 cents” or “as so-and-so once said...” or “I read an article which said...” (And I’m certain that within the posts of this blog you are going to find many places where I’ve made “statements of certainty” in error. If you catch me on any, please feel free to post a comment to point them out. )

Another great thing about Wikipedia is that it is edited by people all around the world and so, in the case of English Wikipedia, we now have information about topics that might not otherwise have been available in our own language, because most of the source material on the topic was in another language. Now, multilingual editors can allow us to see more about the history of other parts of the world and with the ever-improving sophistication of web translation programmes we can often check out these sources for ourselves.

So yes, if you are going to Wikipedia expecting it to be an infallible source of truth, then you are going to be disappointed.  However, if you need a starting point for your investigation, Wikipedia is as good a point as any. And to all those who like to point out mistakes on Wikipedia, I'd ask: Why don’t you fix them? That’s what it's there for! And if anyone wants to learn more about editing on Wikipedia, feel free to leave me a message on my Wikipedia user talk page or leave a comment on this post and I’ll help you with whatever I can.

1 comment:

  1. I've always thought wikipedia was cool. What ius truth if not the majority consensus? If 10 people are in a field and nine of them says a bird flew by, no one will believe the 10th if he denies it. Wiki is sort of like that.