Wikipedia, Whipping Boy

by on July 11, 2006 · 8 comments

Today brings a strange WaPo article on the supposed weakness of Wikipedia because several of the original contributions on Ken Lay after his death were inaccurate, even intentionally so. The article was corrected within a few days of his death, and that, WaPo would have us believe, is a bad thing – better to not have the article at all, than to have it within a matter of days, I suppose.

Everything new is old again, it seems, and the breathtaking power of Wikipedia is already leading some to clamour for whatever is next. (How about a book, updated by experts every year or so, and sold door to door out of the trunks of chevys?)

That’s Rob Hyndman. I have to say I don’t really understand why Wikipedia gets taken in for so much criticism. Wikipedia is accurate 95 percent of the time, and it probably covers a wider range of subjects than any other publication on Earth. And it’s made available to the world for free.

Now, if you’re a journalist or an academic writing a peer-reviewed paper, you probably shouldn’t cite Wikipedia as your source. But so what? People older than 12 don’t generally cite traditional encyclopedias in their research either. Most of the time, 95 percent accuracy is more than sufficient. And if you need 100 percent efficiency, Wikipedia gives you a good starting point by giving you an idea of what to look for.

More to the point, when will the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Ken Lay be updated to reflect his death? 18 months from now? For that matter, does EB even have an entry on Ken Lay? It’s downright bizarre to fault Wikipedia for being slightly inaccurate for a few hours, when EB provides the reader with no useful information at all until months after an important event occurs.

  • NM

    I agree. It’s a great resource when you just want to get the jist of something and find links to better resources. I take it for what it’s worth and for me it’s sufficient.

  • NM

    I agree. It’s a great resource when you just want to get the jist of something and find links to better resources. I take it for what it’s worth and for me it’s sufficient.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Wikipedia has addressed this type of concern two ways: First, it generally recommends against citing Wikipedia. Second, if you do cite, it suggest citing specific versions of articles. If the article adopts errors or is defaced after you cite it, you don’t incorporate those into your reference.

    Wish I’d done that in my book . . . .

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Tim: Imagine a mine field. It’s 95% safe. See the problem?

    Wikiepdia is far, far, too vulnerable to malice.

    Whenever this point is brought up, there’s an immediate cultish denial – There’s errors elsewhere too, screams the Wikifanatic. Don’t believe everything you read, they excuse. But the dead trees and the old media don’t have systems where any random flamer can mess with an article. That’s a problem.

  • http://www.robhyndman.com/2006/05/24/on-emusic/ Rob Hyndman

    Seth -

    Wikipedia is not a minefield.

    The small number of errors are only a problem if you’re expecting perfection. So don’t. Problem solved.

    Flames are inevitably unflamed.

    Go in with your eyes open, and no one loses a limb.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Wikipedia has addressed this type of concern two ways: First, it generally recommends against citing Wikipedia. Second, if you do cite, it suggest citing specific versions of articles. If the article adopts errors or is defaced after you cite it, you don’t incorporate those into your reference.

    Wish I’d done that in my book . . . .

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Tim: Imagine a mine field. It’s 95% safe. See the problem?

    Wikiepdia is far, far, too vulnerable to malice.

    Whenever this point is brought up, there’s an immediate cultish denial – There’s errors elsewhere too, screams the Wikifanatic. Don’t believe everything you read, they excuse. But the dead trees and the old media don’t have systems where any random flamer can mess with an article. That’s a problem.

  • http://www.robhyndman.com/2006/05/24/on-emusic/ Rob Hyndman

    Seth -

    Wikipedia is not a minefield.

    The small number of errors are only a problem if you’re expecting perfection. So don’t. Problem solved.

    Flames are inevitably unflamed.

    Go in with your eyes open, and no one loses a limb.

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