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.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Are you completely nuts? Wikipedia is exactly as Lynch says it is, a time-sink for people with nothing better to do than spread misinformation. If you follow the history of any significant article, you’ll see that they generally start off pretty good, as the initial entries are written by experts. But over time they degrade as the army of morons replaces things they don’t understand with their personal opinions.

    Whether we’re “entitled” to a free encyclopedia or not, an objective, dispassionate assessment of Wikipedia has to conclude that it’s a pile of crap. And that’s what Lynch is saying, and he’s right.

    As to your claim that only a moron would take it as credible, kindly bear in mind that there are billions of morons in the world.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Are you completely nuts? Wikipedia is exactly as Lynch says it is, a time-sink for people with nothing better to do than spread misinformation. If you follow the history of any significant article, you’ll see that they generally start off pretty good, as the initial entries are written by experts. But over time they degrade as the army of morons replaces things they don’t understand with their personal opinions.

    Whether we’re “entitled” to a free encyclopedia or not, an objective, dispassionate assessment of Wikipedia has to conclude that it’s a pile of crap. And that’s what Lynch is saying, and he’s right.

    As to your claim that only a moron would take it as credible, kindly bear in mind that there are billions of morons in the world.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Tim Lee

    It’s quite possible that I’m completely nuts. Which might be why I regularly find useful information on Wikipedia.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Tim Lee

    It’s quite possible that I’m completely nuts. Which might be why I regularly find useful information on Wikipedia.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Wikipedia has an agenda. It seeks to redefine reality according to the sensibilities of its editors, who tend to be pro-regulation, pro-big government, left-wing, general-purpose American liberals. Their collective sensibility rules at Wikipedia, because at the end of the day it’s the numbers that determine what stays in and what comes out. A popularity contest is a poor way to arrive at truth.

    Go read the Wikipedia entry on Net Neutrality and tell me how far you can get before you fall down on the floor laughing or start cussing and throwing things at your computer. This is a political and policy question where the Wikipedians have decided they want a certain outcome – a law to pass – and they don’t mind doing injury to the facts to make it happen.

    In fact, go read any entry that has political or policy significance and you’ll see the same thing. Wikipedia is even more biased than the mainstream corporate liberal media can even imagine being.

    It’s a joke.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Wikipedia has an agenda. It seeks to redefine reality according to the sensibilities of its editors, who tend to be pro-regulation, pro-big government, left-wing, general-purpose American liberals. Their collective sensibility rules at Wikipedia, because at the end of the day it’s the numbers that determine what stays in and what comes out. A popularity contest is a poor way to arrive at truth.

    Go read the Wikipedia entry on Net Neutrality and tell me how far you can get before you fall down on the floor laughing or start cussing and throwing things at your computer. This is a political and policy question where the Wikipedians have decided they want a certain outcome – a law to pass – and they don’t mind doing injury to the facts to make it happen.

    In fact, go read any entry that has political or policy significance and you’ll see the same thing. Wikipedia is even more biased than the mainstream corporate liberal media can even imagine being.

    It’s a joke.

  • http://booksdofurnisharoom.blogspot.com X. Trapnel

    Absolutely astonishing! A website created and maintained mostly by American nerds reflects the biases of American nerds with respect to contested policy issues? This calls for serious action!

    What really makes me laugh about the example is that the very first things I see when I look up Net Neutrality are two huge warnings telling me that, 1st, the article is about a current event, and 2nd, the neutrality of the article is disputed. Before I’ve even started reading, I know to be on my guard.

    Reliability is a probabilistic property. Wikipedia’s reliability is high but quite variable across different domains. Moreover, it’s pretty easy to predict which domains will be less reliable and to take account of this. The bottom line is that saying “Wikipedia gets wrong a controversial issue I care a lot about, therefore it must be a joke” is about as valid, epistemologically speaking, as “But nobody I know voted for Bush, so there must have been fraud!”

  • http://booksdofurnisharoom.blogspot.com X. Trapnel

    Absolutely astonishing! A website created and maintained mostly by American nerds reflects the biases of American nerds with respect to contested policy issues? This calls for serious action!

    What really makes me laugh about the example is that the very first things I see when I look up Net Neutrality are two huge warnings telling me that, 1st, the article is about a current event, and 2nd, the neutrality of the article is disputed. Before I’ve even started reading, I know to be on my guard.

    Reliability is a probabilistic property. Wikipedia’s reliability is high but quite variable across different domains. Moreover, it’s pretty easy to predict which domains will be less reliable and to take account of this. The bottom line is that saying “Wikipedia gets wrong a controversial issue I care a lot about, therefore it must be a joke” is about as valid, epistemologically speaking, as “But nobody I know voted for Bush, so there must have been fraud!”

  • Doug Lay

    I took a look at the entry about the DMCA, about which a number of us feel approximately the way Richard feels about Net Neutrality. The entry could be a lot better, and although Tim gets quoted (cool), the entry implies he is a full-time Cato employee, which is (I believe) incorrect. Maybe someone should change that (I volunteer, if Tim confirms that he is not “of” the Cato thinktank) and we’ll see if the “idiots” revert the correction.

  • Doug Lay

    I took a look at the entry about the DMCA, about which a number of us feel approximately the way Richard feels about Net Neutrality. The entry could be a lot better, and although Tim gets quoted (cool), the entry implies he is a full-time Cato employee, which is (I believe) incorrect. Maybe someone should change that (I volunteer, if Tim confirms that he is not “of” the Cato thinktank) and we’ll see if the “idiots” revert the correction.

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Noel Le

    Richard, keep in mind that with leftist-Libertariens like Tim Lee, it doesn’t matter how accurate, high quality, commercially valuable, technically progressed or useful something is; all they care about is whether something reflects their take on Libertarien values. Whether websites, online encyclopedias, business models or technical designs can, in and of themselves, reflect philophical values, at least for me, is dubious.

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Noel Le

    Richard, keep in mind that with leftist-Libertariens like Tim Lee, it doesn’t matter how accurate, high quality, commercially valuable, technically progressed or useful something is; all they care about is whether something reflects their take on Libertarien values. Whether websites, online encyclopedias, business models or technical designs can, in and of themselves, reflect philophical values, at least for me, is dubious.

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Noel Le

    Doug, that DMCA entry on Wikipedia actually isn’t terrible. Thing is, the passage they cite from Tim, where he argues that DRM is not successful at stopping piracy, is misplaced.

    Whoever the Wikipedia author is, he does not seem to understand that DRM is a first line technical barrier to deterring piracy, with the DMCA its legal backup. As a policy argument, it does no good to cite the failure of DRM to stop all piracy; all that does is reiterate justifications unpinning the DMCA.

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Noel Le

    Doug, that DMCA entry on Wikipedia actually isn’t terrible. Thing is, the passage they cite from Tim, where he argues that DRM is not successful at stopping piracy, is misplaced.

    Whoever the Wikipedia author is, he does not seem to understand that DRM is a first line technical barrier to deterring piracy, with the DMCA its legal backup. As a policy argument, it does no good to cite the failure of DRM to stop all piracy; all that does is reiterate justifications unpinning the DMCA.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Doug, it would be more accurate to say that I wrote the paper for Cato. I don’t currently have any formal affiliation with Cato other than having written a paper for them. “Cato thinktank” also strikes me as a rather awkward way to phrase things.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Doug, it would be more accurate to say that I wrote the paper for Cato. I don’t currently have any formal affiliation with Cato other than having written a paper for them. “Cato thinktank” also strikes me as a rather awkward way to phrase things.

  • Doug Lay

    I modified the sentence in question to read:

    “Timothy B. Lee, in a paper written for the Cato Institute, wrote:”

    I didn’t sign in or explain the change. We’ll see if it sticks.

  • Doug Lay

    I modified the sentence in question to read:

    “Timothy B. Lee, in a paper written for the Cato Institute, wrote:”

    I didn’t sign in or explain the change. We’ll see if it sticks.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    I had noted the same thing in response to a post back in August by Patrick Ross over at IP Central,
    Wikipedia Responds to IP Central in which he had noted that an item about a certain Battista Agnese apeared to have been copyrighted without giving proper credit. My response was:

    Comments

    Well, of course you realize that you have just contributed to Wikipedia, albeit indirectly.

    Certainly, the article will be fixed to give the proper credit, and to remove itme if copyright did not allow quoting.

    This is one of the real strengths of the open source process–the ability to subsume the work of your critics into your process of continuuous improvement.

    Posted by: enigma_foundry at August 15, 2006 02:23 PM

    Patrick Ross and the others at IP Central of course pretended to ignore the significance of my comment, and ranted about how wrong the quoting without giving credit was.

    But that is typical for those at IP Central, to ignore, and pretend to allow comments on their items (despite many items not allowing comments, there is still the “Post a Comment” link under all articles)

    And then when you do send an email reply, the comment is given some ridiculous title, and not appended to the comment steam of the original item (The Solveig method of avoiding comments…)

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/ enigma_foundry

    I had noted the same thing in response to a post back in August by Patrick Ross over at IP Central,
    Wikipedia Responds to IP Central in which he had noted that an item about a certain Battista Agnese apeared to have been copyrighted without giving proper credit. My response was:

    Comments

    Well, of course you realize that you have just contributed to Wikipedia, albeit indirectly.

    Certainly, the article will be fixed to give the proper credit, and to remove itme if copyright did not allow quoting.

    This is one of the real strengths of the open source process–the ability to subsume the work of your critics into your process of continuuous improvement.

    Posted by: enigma_foundry at August 15, 2006 02:23 PM

    Patrick Ross and the others at IP Central of course pretended to ignore the significance of my comment, and ranted about how wrong the quoting without giving credit was.

    But that is typical for those at IP Central, to ignore, and pretend to allow comments on their items (despite many items not allowing comments, there is still the “Post a Comment” link under all articles)

    And then when you do send an email reply, the comment is given some ridiculous title, and not appended to the comment steam of the original item (The Solveig method of avoiding comments…)

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Thanks Doug!

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Thanks Doug!

  • http://www.knowprose.com Taran Rampersad

    Umm. Everyone is a Wikipedia editor. It’s a choice.

    However, policies on dispute resolutions and deletions are ambiguous. The bureaucracy creates it’s own lean in the Wikipedia, and because of that some of the criticism by Sean Lynch should be taken on board.

    In other words, ignoring the criticism will not make the Wikipedia stronger – and that is what I have seen a lot of in recent months as an editor.

  • http://www.knowprose.com Taran Rampersad

    Umm. Everyone is a Wikipedia editor. It’s a choice.

    However, policies on dispute resolutions and deletions are ambiguous. The bureaucracy creates it’s own lean in the Wikipedia, and because of that some of the criticism by Sean Lynch should be taken on board.

    In other words, ignoring the criticism will not make the Wikipedia stronger – and that is what I have seen a lot of in recent months as an editor.

  • http://mcgath.blogspot.com Gary McGath

    I used to believe in Wikipedia too. But I increasingly saw areas where a few people had camped out to make sure that nothing contradicting their point of view appeared.

    The last straw came with the article on “Boy Scouts” (look it up and look at the discussion page, if you want). I added a simple link to an article on controversies about their practices. This was deleted. I added it again; it was deleted again. I tried a bit of explanatory text, to answer the objection that there is more to the Boy Scouts than the BSA; this got deleted. Fallacious arguments of every sort, including a lie or two, were thrown at me; for instance, deleting a link was called “moving” it, as if each article should be linked to from only one place.

    I tried following the mediation procedure; the few mediators Wikipedia has are so backlogged in such controversies that I found myself waiting for weeks.

    Most of the editing I’d done was simple copy editing which provided momentary breaks from work. But at this point I realized that editing Wikipedia was no longer a pleasant diversion, and gave up.

  • http://mcgath.blogspot.com Gary McGath

    I used to believe in Wikipedia too. But I increasingly saw areas where a few people had camped out to make sure that nothing contradicting their point of view appeared.

    The last straw came with the article on “Boy Scouts” (look it up and look at the discussion page, if you want). I added a simple link to an article on controversies about their practices. This was deleted. I added it again; it was deleted again. I tried a bit of explanatory text, to answer the objection that there is more to the Boy Scouts than the BSA; this got deleted. Fallacious arguments of every sort, including a lie or two, were thrown at me; for instance, deleting a link was called “moving” it, as if each article should be linked to from only one place.

    I tried following the mediation procedure; the few mediators Wikipedia has are so backlogged in such controversies that I found myself waiting for weeks.

    Most of the editing I’d done was simple copy editing which provided momentary breaks from work. But at this point I realized that editing Wikipedia was no longer a pleasant diversion, and gave up.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I used the example of the net neutrality entry because it’s something the readers of this blog are in a good position to understand, but I could have used others. I’m one of the people who invented the twisted-pair cable system used by the network we call Ethernet today, hence I have particular insight into the subjects of Ethernet and StarLAN. Both of those articles contain significant factual errors, and attempts to correct them have proved fruitless.

    The only “sense of entitlement” that those of us who’ve tried to correct Wikipedia errors feel is the entitlement to see our work protected from idiots, and that’s not happening.

    Wikipedia certainly has its place in the world: as a first stop in researching a subject, it’s better than Google for finding a good set of links. But it appears that many people – journalists in particular – make it their only stop, and to the extent that that happens, it’s a destructive force.

    Web sites attract audiences with a point of view; most of the people who have diaries on DailyKos are not libertarians, for example. And the Wikipedia editor audience certainly has theirs, a POV skewed wildly towards received wisdom, conformity, mediocrity, authoritarianism, and the like.

    It’s foolish not to recognize that.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I used the example of the net neutrality entry because it’s something the readers of this blog are in a good position to understand, but I could have used others. I’m one of the people who invented the twisted-pair cable system used by the network we call Ethernet today, hence I have particular insight into the subjects of Ethernet and StarLAN. Both of those articles contain significant factual errors, and attempts to correct them have proved fruitless.

    The only “sense of entitlement” that those of us who’ve tried to correct Wikipedia errors feel is the entitlement to see our work protected from idiots, and that’s not happening.

    Wikipedia certainly has its place in the world: as a first stop in researching a subject, it’s better than Google for finding a good set of links. But it appears that many people – journalists in particular – make it their only stop, and to the extent that that happens, it’s a destructive force.

    Web sites attract audiences with a point of view; most of the people who have diaries on DailyKos are not libertarians, for example. And the Wikipedia editor audience certainly has theirs, a POV skewed wildly towards received wisdom, conformity, mediocrity, authoritarianism, and the like.

    It’s foolish not to recognize that.

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