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A former editor in chief of the

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 16, 2004

A former editor in chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica called Wikipedia a “faith-based encyclopedia”. He’s got a point, but on the other hand, find me the EB entry for the 2004 Presidential election.

Reader comments

ChrisNov 16, 2004 at 1:57PM

But to be honest, how many people would use Wikipedia for information on the Presidential Election?

As much as I love Wikipedia, he does have a perfectly valid point and I still check any information I gain from there with at least one other Internet source to make sure the two match.

Andy BaioNov 16, 2004 at 1:57PM

I love how the Wikipedia crew has already discussed and fixed the one small nitpick about Alexander Hamilton’s birthdate. Also, note that they’ve already modified the wishy-washy language in the FAQ.

r. vacapintaNov 16, 2004 at 2:05PM

I agree with his comments in general but that doesn’t undermine the usefulness and general reliability of Wikipedia. If I had no idea who Alexander Hamilton was, the Wikipedia article on him would be an excellent starting point and much more reliable than the vast majority of unverified stuff on the Web.

All he has shown is that, as a definitive reference, it doesn’t stand up to a focused article written by a scholar who has studied Hamilton all his life. This is a fair criticism but it is also comparing two different types of fruits.

jacobNov 16, 2004 at 2:08PM

As a commenter on Slashdot has noted, the Wikipedia, like any encyclopedia, is primarily useful for quickly gaining a general grasp of a subject, and, like any encyclopedia, should always be regarded as a secondary source of information. And with this in mind, the Wikipedia is staggeringly useful. I’m in love with the site.

Contributing to the Wikipedia is also great fun.

ericNov 16, 2004 at 2:10PM

all nits aside, it’s still free and still fairly reliable. it’s not surprising it’s being belittled by the industry it threatens.

ericNov 16, 2004 at 2:13PM

plus it’s turning into a great, rapidly expanding source for information on aircraft and airlines.

jkottkeNov 16, 2004 at 2:50PM

But to be honest, how many people would use Wikipedia for information on the Presidential Election?

I think that the coverage of current events is where Wikipedia really shines. If you haven’t been following something that closely in the news, it’s a good way to get yourself caught up. See the entry on the Killian memos for a good example. You’d be hard pressed to find that thorough of a summary of the whole thing on TV or in a newspaper or magazine…and even then, it wouldn’t be that readily available.

And just to clarify my “he’s got a point” comment, I agree with him most strongly about his observation of community vs. committee. Editing a Wikipedia page is sometimes like invading someone’s little fiefdom. I’ve attempted to edit a few documents on Wikipedia and with one exception, my edits (which were all attempts at correction, not the addition of new material) have been discarded in favor of the original versions shortly after I made them. I could have joined the discussion behind the page and argued my points, but who has time for that? My edits were factually correct, replacing information that was misleading or wrong…why didn’t those edits stand on merit? Not exactly the open experience that everyone thinks it is. I can imagine that for an expert like Mr. McHenry, an attempt at the wholesale editing of a Wikipedia article on Alexander Hamilton would be daunting to undertake if you needed the approval of the article’s “gatekeepers” for your edits to stick.

The other thing that bugs me about Wikipedia is how informationally insular it is. Just about every link in a Wikipedia entry points to another entry in Wikipedia and links to outside resources are generally relegated to the ends of entries, safely out of the flow of the article. I sort of understand why that is, but it’s not very web-like. Sometimes the best source about something isn’t on Wikipedia and that sort of utilization of the web at large should be encouraged. There’s something disappointing about the idea of Wikipedia being a self-contained entity, largely oblivious to what’s available on the rest of the Web.

XedNov 16, 2004 at 3:53PM

A project to counter some of the problems of Wikipedia is here:

990000Nov 16, 2004 at 3:54PM

I did some sniffing around in Wikipedia to gather some basic information about the upcoming
elections in Iraq [http://990000.com/iraq/elections.html], and though I found it to be
a very informative source, I also found that *some* of the text contains subtle bias.
take for example the George W Bush biography (see the quotes section — funny)
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_W._Bush] and at various points in the
2003 Invasion of Iraq document [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2003_Invasion_of_Iraq]
luckily, it’s slanted the right way. *wink*

PlanethalderNov 16, 2004 at 4:35PM

As much as I love Wikipedia I too never trust it as my single source of information. Nothing should be trusted in this way, not even the EB!

AyushNov 16, 2004 at 5:31PM

Wikipedia is the first place I look when I come across an unfamiliar name or event in the news. That being said, I wouldn’t use it as the only source of information for a project at school. Google makes it easy to pull up multiple credible sources for any topic, and Wikipedia helps summarize all the information out there in an efficient manner.

Other projects run by the Wikimedia Foundation are worth a look, including Wiktionary, Wikibooks and Wikiquote.

FrankNov 16, 2004 at 5:51PM

If he’s annoyed with the article, why not quickly edit it?

I would never rely upon WIkipedia, but it serves as a wonderfull starting point to see what others have found out about the subject and usually gives good leads for further research.

It’s not authorative but it is a pool of knowledge many individuals have gained over time.

Closing of the access a bit might be a good idea at this point though to allow it to improve further.
In evolutionary statistical theory there is a (mathematically rigorous and) intuitive result: The higher the rate of mutation the faster something will evolve to the (fitness) peak, but the further from the peak it will setlle in equilibrium.

It might be an idea to just have a threshold after which articles can only be modified by trusted contributers, or when changes have to be approved (Linux style…)

JoshNov 16, 2004 at 6:20PM

IMO, the simple fact is that Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia: it’s a search aggregator. It nicely summarizes information I could get for myself if I wanted to spend hours googling. This is why it shines on current events: lots of information is available online, and Wikipedia is a great place to find all that information gathered together. Meanwhile, Wikipedia articles don’t bring to the table anything -not- available through Googling—such as nuanced, deep, long-term knowledge of a subject. I too am skeptical that it will -ever- be able to deliver those things because, in general, people with lots of knowledge about Alexander Hamilton write books (or Britannica entries) about him, not Wikipedia articles, and that will probably not change at any point in the forseeable future.

I don’t think there’s any point either in pretending that there’s no difference between Wikipedia and Britannica: though it’s true that you should trust no source completely and indiscriminately, you can trust Britannica a lot more than you can trust Wikipedia. Very often Wikipedia is used as a way of taking shots at old-fashioned stuff like the Britannica, but it’s just like how you can search dictionary.com or you can search the OED: there is a huge difference between them and there’s no point ignoring the difference. This guy’s article just seems like (overdue) common sense to me. It’s awesome that there is a Wikipedia and it is definitely useful, but I think people have been cheerleading a little blindly for a while.

margaretNov 16, 2004 at 7:23PM

actually, Jason, one of the things I like best about Wikipedia is the way each new word that has a Wikipedia entry is linked inside an entry. It may not be web like, but it’s a big improvement over traditional encyclopedias, where I’m unlikely to look up an unfamiliar term when I run across it. The way I can read about the Punic Wars, then hop to an article about Phoenicia, then to one about Tyre, and then to an article about dye, is fantastic in my opinion. I have spent many an hour whiling away my time this way, never leaving Wikipedia- and never needing to.

RolandNov 17, 2004 at 10:43AM

That Quotes section on the Bush page is a good example of why Wikipedia will never be considered a really credible source. Edits are prevented, yet that crap stays there.

essNov 17, 2004 at 5:18PM

Jadon’s post has covered most of what I think about Wikipedia. However, I’m curious r. vacapinta’s comment.

Why apples and oranges? Wikipedia is promoted as an encyclopedia and as Josh points out, it is another type of animal.

Roland - if you read the comments here you will see that some people do consider it a credible source. Don’t know if anyone inludes it in bibliographies, but people do have the idea it’s a more legit source than, say, Oprah.

In other news, friends tell me it’s a great source of plagiarized papers and thus a wonderful resource for teachers and profs.

McHenry’s remark about replacing the shibboleth “community” with “committee” summed it up, I think.

samNov 24, 2004 at 12:31PM

Re ess’s point: I really disagree that Wikipedia articles are generally less detailed than typical encyclopedias and I’m not sure they are less accurate either. They might be less in-depth than the Britannica (in some cases) but if you look at any other encyclopedia - including the zillions of short encyclopedias that flooded the CD-ROM market ten years ago - Wikipedia articles usually compare very well.

I needed to know about hockey and was extremely impressed with Wikipedia’s article (which was detailed, thorough, and contained a link to the official rulebook). Other results in my Google search, including several licensed from published encyclopedias, were useless or worse than useless and very brief.

I had a student job at Microsoft one summer long ago and was tangentially acquainted with the neo-pagan social discussion group there, who were trying to get the Encarta definition for ‘pagan’ extended. Although it *was* changed for the better, it was still neither particularly accurate nor particularly helpful, and about one paragraph long: that’s with people within the company actively agitating for an improvement. Traditional encyclopedias are simply not often that good.

Saying that you can’t call Wikipedia an encyclopedia because it’s less authoritative than the Britannica (although on many subjects I’d personally trust it a good deal more) is like saying you can’t call anything a dictionary unless it’s the OED.

I am consistently amazed - not just impressed, actually amazed - by the quality of wikipedia articles. It has fantastic information and, though I admit I haven’t checked (we have an OED subscription here but I’d have to actually walk over to the library to check Britannica) I am certain that it is much better, on many subjects, than the best available paper encylopedias.

I’m also sure many articles have serious failings, perhaps in the areas where paper encyclopedias tend to be strong (like biography); but my bet would be you can spot those articles at a glance.

To say that it’s nothing more than a search aggregator is ludicrous - just from looking at a few topics I actually know about so can check, I’m sure many contributors are extremely knowledgeable about their subjects. Of course, they all got their information from somewhere (formal study, books, or indeed Google), but by that definition every person is a search aggregator.

Disclaimer: I have absolutely no involvement with wikipedia, don’t use it that often, and have never edited an article there except to correct a typo.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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