How trustworthy is Wikipedia?


in Geek stuff, Internet matters, Writing

Every page on Wikipedia has an accompanying ‘Talk’ page, where people discuss the main article and propose changes to it. Having a look at some of the talk pages is informative because it really shows off the lack of expertise among the people who are working on these articles. Much as I enjoy and admire Wikipedia as an effort, seeing things like the discussion on ‘tar sands’ makes me wonder how trustworthy the site is as a source of information. Often, the arguments on talk pages seem to be superficial and unsupported by evidence or strong argumentation.

As with everything else, we need to try to retain healthy skepticism about new information without becoming dogmatic about what we already believe. That is a tough thing to accomplish – especially given the scope and complexity of issues affecting us all.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Litty November 26, 2007 at 7:13 pm

[W]e need to try to retain healthy skepticism about new information without becoming dogmatic about what we already believe.

This is one of the central challenges of modern life.

Milan November 26, 2007 at 7:37 pm

It is. We cannot be experts in everything, but we are often called upon to determine who is trustworthy in relation to questions we know little about.

Anonymous November 26, 2007 at 8:32 pm

I sure hope Wikipedia is trustworthy… I’m doing an awful lot of my studying for med school off of it…

Addendum: I would never actually rely on the information to treat a patient… Don’t get (too) scared.

AT November 27, 2007 at 2:40 am

[W]e need to try to retain healthy skepticism about new information without becoming dogmatic about what we already believe.

This is one of the central challenges of modern life.

Forgive me, but I think it is one of the central challenges of life.

Jessica November 27, 2007 at 5:16 am

Among my friends “I read it on Wikipedia” is tongue-in-cheek shorthand for “this information sounds plausible, but could very well be total crap”. It can be useful and interesting, but everything there must be taken with grain of salt.

I may have mentioned an anecdote from Neil Gaiman’s blog that pretty much illustrates one of the many issues I have with Wikipedia,

“A friend — a movie writer — recently commented to me that, while he used Wikipedia a lot, the Wiki articles on anything he actually had personal knowledge of were mostly only about 60% accurate. ‘I think you can change them,’ I told him. ‘That’s part of the Wiki thing, isn’t it?’

‘I did,’ he said.

‘Oh. Well, then.That’s all right.’

He shook his head. ‘I checked last week. Somebody already changed them all back.'”

R.K. November 27, 2007 at 9:42 am

In the end, you just need to be aware of the nature of Wikipedia and use it appropriately. It is a great way to explore knowledge in a general way. It is less suitable for nailing down particular facts – especially in esoteric areas of knowledge.

Anon November 27, 2007 at 8:57 am

As Stephen Colbert argues, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” To help correct that, Conservapedia was launched as a counterweight to Wikipedia.

Here is one of their classic entries (since replaced with something less laughable):

“The secularist view of the Cactaceae is that they are roughly two million years old, and that they have evolved exclusively in the new world. This view fails to explain, however, how it is that the Opuntia genus is native to the island of Opus, near Greece. Cacti are known for their high content of alkaloids, and have often been used in the sacramental rights of the Native Americans. Because of this, the early Catholic missionaries in the west thought the plants to be the work of Satan, and this is perhaps a preferable view to that of materialistic evolution since it is difficult to imagine how something like mescaline could have evolved by natural selection. Besides that, the psychoactive content of many cacti have inspired the writings of such ungodly men as Aldous Huxley and Albert Hoffman.

Several species of cactus are now endangered in the west due to “poaching” by collectors and invasive species. But, since Genesis suggests that man has been given dominion over all of the earth, the environmentalist concerns on this note are entirely inappropriate. It may also be that environmentalists, in addition to flauting the Word of God, are merely concerned about the effects that declining cactus populations will have on their supply of mescaline. “

tristan November 28, 2007 at 8:47 am

I find peoples distrust and dislike of wikipedia to be wierdly pathological. It is in completely plain site what it is – anarchic knowledge. No one holds the key to power, anyone who wants can change articles (certainly there is some mitigation for articles that have too much back and forth, but I don’t believe even in these cases that the mitigator is the “expert”.)

I use wikipedia when I want to know something, but I don’t need to know it for sure. I’m fine with knowing things that might be the case. It’s important, I think, to gather potentially false information, otherwise you would get horribly upset if you ever ended up being wrong. I try to be wrong at least 35% of the time.

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