There’s a Hole in the Bucket
I was listening to a podcast earlier today and it happened again.
Guest: Um . . . Not really. I can’t think of —
Host: Well, not Wikipedia, right? Whatever you do, don’t use Wikipedia! [laughs]
Guest: [laughs] Right.
Ha ha ha. He he. Ho ho.
There’s this meme out there in Internetland that is oddly persistent. That meme is that Wikipedia is the absolute, bottom of the barrel, worst place to go to research anything, because it’s always, always wrong. I’m sure you’ve heard it. You may even have perpetuated it.
“I got it from Wikipedia, so take this with a grain of salt, but . . .”
I’ve also heard celebrities being interviewed, and they’ll say things like, “You got that information from my page on Wikipedia didn’t you? It’s wrong. I have no idea where it came from.”
The thing about Wikipedia is this: it’s free. It’s editable by anyone.1
That’s both a good thing and, necessarily, a bad one. I can go on Wikipedia right now and change the facts on the page about the Hubble Space Telescope to indicate that it was built and launched by Serbia in 1573 by rogue centaurs intent on proving the moon is made of Camembert cheese. But that will be corrected almost immediately. And if I do something like that too often, I’ll attract the attention of the Powers That Be. <insert ominous chord here>
Apparently in contradiction to “popular belief,” Wikipedia has editors. A dedicated group of unpaid volunteers from around the world who police the site, watching for suspicious behavior, and taking action when needed. I know at least two of these people, and it’s no small undertaking.
But here’s where I’m headed with this entire rant: if you find something on Wikipedia that you can prove is wrong, fix it. That’s the entire point of the site. It’s meant to be a public domain encyclopedia maintained by the public. The idea being that all of us are smarter than any one of us.2
Now, should you go on there and just correct something without citing references? No. That’s a waste of time. Someone will notice your lack of citation and probably revert the page to its state before you edited it. Not out of malicious intent, but because without a citation, it’s your word against the word of everyone else who has ever edited that page.
I was listening to an NPR show called “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me” a few years back (November 4, 2006 to be exact) on which the “Not My Job” segment featured guest Jimmy Wales, who is the creator of Wikipedia. The producers of the show decided it would be funny to give him a quiz gleaned from some of the more trivial pages on Wikipedia. It’s a funny segment, and one I can highly recommend. That link up there will take you to that particular segment so you can listen to just it and not have to wade through the entire show if you don’t want to.
The funniest part to me, though, is when Wales himself says (at 8:25 in), “Wikipedia is really, really, really strong in the area of Japanese cartoon characters. And if you push that ‘Random’ button, I think about 33% of what you find in Wikipedia is Japanese cartoon characters.” The host, Peter Sagal, later quips (at 9:05 in), “You’re right, I kept pressing the ‘Random Entry’ button to find material for this, and, like, every other one was a Japanese video game.” [Note: the button is actually a link labeled ‘Random article.’]
All joking aside, here’s where I hope to set the record straight on something. While Wikipedia may indeed be unreliable on certain subjects, on academic subjects — for which there is much published reference material — it is no more or less inaccurate than Encyclopedia Britannica.
There have been a number of studies that have upheld this conclusion. Circular reference alert: This article on Wikipedia is about the accuracy of articles on Wikipedia. There are a number of caveats in the article and in the studies themselves, but the gist of it is this: Wikipedia is surprisingly (for most people) accurate on scientific or academic topics. You can probably safely use it as a starting reference.
I’ll finish with something I learned at Viable Paradise in 2012. Dr. Debra Doyle lectured about research and how to go about it. The thing that stuck with me is this: always try to find the original source for information. How does this relate to Wikipedia? At the bottom of well-written Wikipedia articles are links to sources that are cited. Use those as your starting point. Glean from the article what you want, and then focus in on the parts you need further clarification on. Go to the sources cited by Wikipedia. Then go to the sources cited by those sources. And so on. Eventually, you’ll end up at the bottom of the rabbit hole wondering where the last fourteen hours of your life went, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a (weary) smile on your face for having found the information you needed.
And if you take nothing else away from this rather long-winded rant, make it this: If you find something incorrect on Wikipedia, fix it! That’s the entire purpose of the site.
- It is possible to get banned from Wikipedia for various offenses such as vandalism. For example, in May of 2009, IP addresses owned or operated by the Church of Scientology and its associates were banned from Wikipedia for relentlessly pushing its own agenda, including editing Scientology-related pages to remove anything they deemed inappropriate or that would reflect negatively on the church. Individual users may also be banned for similar offenses. Topics may also be locked down and set uneditable because of frequent vandalism.
- Even for very, very smart people like Steven Hawking or Albert Einstein. Do you think Hawking knows anything about bat physiology? Do you think Einstein knew anything about the behavioral patterns of Japanese snow monkeys (macaques)?