Criticizing Wikipedia Only Makes It Stronger

by on December 21, 2006 · 28 comments

Over at Catallarchy, Sean Lynch has a tirade against Wikipedia:

Wikipedia is an excellent example of when crowds are not wise; one’s actual knowledge has no correlation whatsoever with how much effort they’re willing to put out to keep Wikipedia accurate, and some of my recent experience there seems to indicate exactly the opposite, that people who know what they’re talking about have better things to do with their time than sit around all day fixing incorrect information in Wikipedia, whereas know-it-alls will spend lots of time “fixing” correct information that they disagree with. The other group who may not be know-it-alls are the rules nazis who care more about form than accuracy. These are the people who show up at all the HOA meetings to complain that your curtains are the wrong color when meanwhile the pipes are leaking and about to burst.

Recently I went back to the Wikipedia page on hydrogen peroxide out of curiosity to see if some fixes I’d made to dangerously inaccurate information on the page had survived. They had not. The same bullshit that I’d originally corrected (bullshit that could kill someone) had been returned. Rather than attempt to fix it again because the bullshit was now scattered throughout the article, I simply added a notation under “hazards” warning people that the article could be edited by anyone and that they should consult a source with actual accountability for safety information. My warning was reverted within minutes, with the notation on the edit referring me to a page entitled “What Wikipedia is Not” and suggesting that I use my knowledge to fix the information on the page. Well, I already had fixed the page, and some moron with far more certainty than knowledge had gone and screwed it up again. In addition, the “What Wikipedia Is Not” page mentions nothing about safety or accountability.

I’ve gone from merely thinking Wikipedia doesn’t live up to its name to believing that it is a complete joke.

I’ve responded to this general argument on several occasions , so I won’t rehash those arguments here. But one of the interesting things about Lynch’s post is the attitude of entitlement it seems to reflect.

Wikipedia is a community of hundreds of people who spend a significant amount of their free time building an online encyclopedia without being paid. Frankly, when you look at it as a whole, they’ve done an incredible job. Wikipedia is the most complete and up-to-date encyclopedia in the history of the world.

Building such an encyclopedia is a difficult challenge–doubly so when everyone is contributing for free. As a result, the editing process has some rough edges. Sometimes editors make mistakes and Lynch, understandably, finds this frustrating. He characterizes the editors as “know-it-alls” who “spend lots of time ‘fixing’ correct information that they disagree with.”

But think about this from the editors’ point of view for a minute. A Wikipedia editor reviews dozens, if not hundreds of edits per day, most of them on subjects he knows little or nothing about. Editors, by necessity, are forced to make quick judgment calls about which edits are credible and which are not. Sometimes they make mistakes.

Wikipedia, like any community, has specific rules and procedures for handling disagreements. These rules are designed to make things convenient for the editors, who are, after all, the ones doing most of the work. When there’s a disagreement on Wikipedia, it’s supposed to be the start of a discussion. The burden of proof is on the person suggesting the edit to demonstrate that his change is correct. THe might go out and finds a citation documenting his claim. He might reword the edit to make it more clear or less controversial. He might post on the relevant talk page explaining why his edit is correct. He might send a message to the editor who reverted the change, asking him why it was reverted.

Lynch doesn’t appear to have done any of these things. Indeed, he doesn’t appear to have made any great effort to engage with the Wikipedia editors who in my experience tend to be reasonable guys. He made his edit once, and when it was rejected, he added a snarky disclaimer attacking Wikipedia. And when that was rejected, he headed off to his blog to complain to the world about it. The implicit attitude here seems to be that the editors of Wikipedia–the vast majority of whom are unpaid volunteers–have an obligation to adjust their editing process to make it easier for him, an occasional contributor.

As libertarians of all people should understand, no one is entitled to a free encyclopedia. We should be grateful to the Wikipedia community for giving us an encyclopedia is as good as this on is. Hence, I find Lynch’s apparent resentment of Wikipedia utterly mysterious. Lynch worries that spreading misinformation about chemicals is dangerous. But frankly, you’re a moron if you use information in Wikipedia as the basis of your hazardous chemical handling policy. I rather doubt there are very many chemistry professors using Wikipedia as their textbook, so this seems like a rather overblown concern.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that despite Lynch’s griping, the process appears to have worked. His second round of edits, where he deleted a paragraph he thought was inaccurate and added a request for citation to another claim he thought was questionable, appears not to have been reverted. Moreover, the Wikipedians are a watchful bunch, and they’ve already visited Catallarchy and left comments explaining to Lynch how Wikipedia editing works. If Lynch finds documentation for his claim, or leaves more information on the discussion page, it’s likely that he’ll be able to get the right information into Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is fundamentally a process, not a finished product. Lynch’s complaints are part of that process, and the site is going to get better as a result. He makes the site stronger even as he criticizes it.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: