Farrell on Wikipedia

Sorry for the light blogging lately. I’m furiously trying to finish up some writing projects that have been festering for a while. I’m a painfully slow writer, and there’s a limit to how many hours a day I can stand pecking away at the computer. Alas, this state of affairs is likely to continue for a while.

But, incredibly, the world has not stopped turning during my brief break. So here are a few items for your consideration.

First, have a look at this article by John Farrell, about Wikipedia:

A car that runs on water, a new form of energy derived from ‘hydrinos’, a ‘cognitive-theoretic’ model of the universe. They sound like fantastical concepts you might find in the pages of the latest Harry Potter book, or Alastair Reynolds novel.

In fact, they’re all entries in the wildly popular collaborative online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia. At first glance, the site’s main entry for ‘hydrino theory’ looks objective and reliable; but link to the entry’s discussion section – where authors and editors can debate content – and you’ll find another side to the story. The discussion reveals the colourful history and heated debate behind the entry’s evolution. So how many other Wikipedia entries are contested?

The avowedly populist online encyclopaedia, created by volunteers from across the world, is among the world’s 15 most popular web sites and has 40 million readers in the U.S. alone. And despite its collaborative nature, many academics are happy for their students to use the resource.

The article goes on to describe some of the difficulties involved in maintaining the integrity of the entries.

Academics are currently struggling with the issue of whether Wikipedia can be treated as a scholarly source:

Controversy such as this has fuelled concern over the accuracy of Wikipedia entries in general. In April 2007 the history department of Middlebury College in Vermont, USA, banned its students from referencing any material on Wikipedia. And this might only be the tip of the iceberg.

I think Middlebury made the right decision. That said, I frequently use Wikipedia myself. Their mathematical entries are pretty impressive in my experience. Of course, the things I look up tend not to be very controversial. My feeling is that Wikipedia is useful as a place to get some basic information and some useful references, but the lack of quality control makes it to unreliable to cite in a research context.

Anyway, the whole article is well worth a read. Go have a look.

Comments

  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    June 4, 2007

    Encyclopedias are generally unreliable for any kind of higher academic research interests anyway, the people doing that kind of research should be citing primary sources.

    And in general, I think deciphering the reliability of something written on Wikipedia follows the same procedure as any other sort of scholarly article: check the cited references, investigate other accounts and proceed with skepticism about any unsourced claim.

  2. #2 ji
    June 4, 2007

    My feeling is that Wikipedia is useful as a place to get some basic information and some useful references, but the lack of quality control makes it to unreliable to cite in a research context.

    Bullseye! Who the heck cites an Encyclopedia anyway? I remember doing that when I was in the 7th Grade, but after that it was all real references from reliable sources.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    June 4, 2007

    Good point about the unreliability of encyclopedias generally. I think there’s a general problem with students being completely uncritical about information they get off the internet. “Research” now means typing it into Google and seeing what comes out. Actually looking up primary sources, both how to do it and the importance of doing it, is something that students need to be taught.

  4. #4 Ginger Yellow
    June 4, 2007

    “think there’s a general problem with students being completely uncritical about information they get off the internet.”

    It’s not just children. There’s a very common all-or-nothing attitude among (American, especially) journalists whereby they use some blog’s error or vulgarity to dismiss the entire blogosphere/internet as a source of information. They just throw up their hands and retreat to their familiar world. This is insane. Some writers are better than others, whether they’re published in a book, a newspaper or online. There’s no qualitative difference between reading and assessing the accuracy of a Hullaballoo post, say, and a Wall Street Journal opinion column. Is what they say supported by the evidence? Do their sources stand up? Is it cogently argued?

  5. #5 Kevin
    June 4, 2007

    WELL!

    We’ll just have to dismiss anything that Jason R has said or EVER WILL SAY because some anonymous user somewhere in some 60 comments post ONCE used a bad, vulgar, horrible word.

    THE NERVE!

  6. #6 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 4, 2007

    I can’t seem to post comments at Farrell’s article, so I should note here that the inventor of the “Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe” is Christopher Michael Langan, not Langdon. The identities of “Asmodeus” and “DrL” were, I recall, an open secret among those Wikipedians who edited physics-related articles last summer. The ability to trace IP addresses to geographical locations can be an amazing thing. . . long live the Transparent Society.

    (The CTMU is, itself, intellectually vacuous, and probably not notorious enough to merit an encyclopedia article.)

  7. #7 MartinM
    June 5, 2007

    At first glance, the site’s main entry for ‘hydrino theory’ looks objective and reliable

    …if, that is, you ignore the ‘neutrality disputed’ tag.

  8. #8 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 5, 2007

    I can hardly resist pointing out (no, strike that, I can’t resist it at all) that Michael Egnor accepted Wikipedia’s definition of “reverse engineering” without qualms. Just goes to show something, don’t it?

  9. #9 John Farrell
    June 5, 2007

    Man, Jason, if you think you’re a slow writer, I’d hate to see what you think is a fast one.

    Some days you post so much I can’t keep up with you. (or PZ)

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    June 6, 2007

    John-

    Those are days when I blog for a few hours, finally wrapping things up by falling face first into the keyboard. I mean, I have to do something with all that time I spend not having a life!

  11. #11 Pieter B
    June 9, 2007

    Many Wikipedia articles on controversial topics have good links to sources at the end of the article; that’s often a good start to research.

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