Friday, January 30, 2009

I've heard of cows

The discussion about Wikipedia continues at You Don't Say, John McIntyre's blog about language and journalism and other things. McIntyre has expressed (understatement alert) serious doubts about the usefulness of Wikipedia in a series of posts, the last of which engendered a post from me yesterday. (My contribution to the discussion can be recapped: I would love to maintain the kind of standards that people like McIntyre defend, but I have been beaten down by dedicated corporate mediocrity, which I regret.)

The comments to his post have been interesting (the fourth one is particularly entertaining), with many of them taking a guarded middle ground on the reliability of Wikipedia. The best comment so far (from Brian Cubbison of the Syracuse Post-Standard):
Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia. Also, it is not the tool for Mr. McIntyre's job. In his job, he needs an answer with a high degree of confidence now, not an average of accuracy over time -- or an orbit of claims that sometimes comes nearer to the truth. We shouldn't have to clash over that.

Wikipedia is not a compendium of facts. It's a potluck of links to better sources, and can be useful that way.

I also admire the way Wikipedia tracks changes and corrections, better than any newspaper has ever managed to, even online.

Wikipedia touts that it's easy to update, but an online encyclopedia written by scholars can be updated.

Wikipedia claims it can put more experts on a topic than an encyclopedia can, but there's a point of diminishing returns if the experts and regular people are undone by knuckleheads.

Wikipedia is free, and there's a legitimate concern over whether the free economy is really the get-what-you-pay-for economy.
I guess the lesson here is that different sources of information are appropriate for different uses and users; the question is, what is it legitimate to expect from those sources? McIntyre works for a newspaper, and still needs sources that come as close to guaranteed accuracy as can be had. That means, one trusts a dictionary on which a team of lexicographers have worked for decades.

So, can Wikipedia have some usefulness, if not to a professional like McIntyre? Perhaps so, just as we expect less rigor from a child's encyclopedia than we do from a grown-up encyclopedia, maybe we can see Wikipedia as a starting point for subsequent research, not the last word. Of course, that requires a level of judgment, and one of the purposes of a reference is that the untutored user wouldn't need to have that judgment when consulting it.

We're left where we started, that Wikipedia may be useful if you already know enough about the topic to ensure that it's reasonably accurate. That's the way I use it, not linking to its entries from this blog unless I'm fairly certain that it's a good entry.

So this question as to the legitimacy must remain unanswerable for now. We can then ask another question: what do people believe about Wikipedia? If everyone has the grain-of-salt approach, a hesitancy when relying on it as a primary source, then it could be seen as a relatively benign thing.

But I'm certainly not convinced that people see it that way, not after numerous articles by Malcolm Gladwell wanna-bes touting Wikipedia as the next great revolution in information, one that allows us to throw off the shackles of corporate-controlled knowledge, or some such.

I will grant that Wikipedia itself, on its About page, does hedge its bets a bit (among all the statistics telling us how wonderful it is). Even there, we see problems:

Users need not worry about accidentally damaging Wikipedia when adding or improving information, as other editors are always around to advise or correct obvious errors, and Wikipedia's software is carefully designed to allow easy reversal of editorial mistakes.

Because Wikipedia is an ongoing work to which, in principle, anybody can contribute, it differs from a paper-based reference source in important ways. In particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles more frequently contain significant misinformation, unencyclopedic content, or vandalism.

The word "always" in the first quoted sentence bothers me, as does the clear admission that there may be "significant misinformation."

As is often the case, Wikipedia's supporters may be a real source of the problem in perception. Three of the 14 comments to McIntyre's post are from a Derk-Jan Hartman, who makes the case for Wikipedia, well, somewhat strangely:
You criticise Wikipedia in your comment for labelling/presenting itself as "an encyclopedia". That is not entirely true of course. We present ourselves as "the encyclopedia that anyone can edit". That is an important distinction.
It requires an odd concept of how clauses work to argue for a distinction here. Hartman goes on to contend that the objections of those people who find Wikipedia unreliable are meaningless, because a lot of people use it, and most of them don't really care how accurate it is:
Wikipedia is as "faulty" in presenting reality, as all the other impulses people receive in their life, and thus adhering to the current standards within the broader society.
There is more from Hartman, which I think I will leave to a subsequent post, but his impassioned defense of Wikipedia (and his use of "we" makes me believe he has some extra interest in it) does very little to convince me that it's a new paradigm for knowledge. He's essentially saying that it isn't reliable, but people like it, and it will take time to get "every article up to the best standards."

So where's the disagreement? McIntyre, as a professional information handler, believes that Wikipedia is not useful for what he does, and he tells us on his blog that if you value accuracy as he does (and must), you shouldn't find it all that useful either, certainly not as an authority.

Hartman, as a Wikipedia advocate, admits, as does Wikipedia's own page, that it's subject to inaccuracy, still has a long way to go, but that's OK because a lot of people use it, and don't care about accuracy anyway.

It seems to me that these two gentlemen are in fundamental accord about Wikipedia, and Hartman might want to tone down the rhetoric a bit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The problem is not Wikipedia's existence per se, but its insistence on calling itself an encyclopedia. And, contrary to Hartman's claim, it does just that. Under the logo it simply says "The Free Encyclopedia," not "The Encyclopedia that anyone can edit," and of course even that would be misleading. It has been suggested that "Jimbo's Big Bag o' Trivia" would be more appropriate.

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