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The Good, the Bad, and the Wikipedia February 28, 2007

Posted by Johan in Off Topic.
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The Freakonomics blog has a post on a slight problem with a New Yorker article about Wikipedia. Essentially, the New Yorker has added a note at the end of the article, acknowledging that one of the interviewees in the article, a supposed tenured professor of theology, was in fact a 24-year-old with no degree whatsoever. Perhaps more glaringly, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales claims to have absolutely no problem with the fact that the high-profile contributor had lied about his qualifications.

This is of course entirely in keeping with Wikipedia’s credo, as Stacey Schiff points out in the article:

Wales’s most radical contribution may be not to have made information free but—in his own alma-matricidal way—to have invented a system that does not favor the Ph.D. over the well-read fifteen-year-old.

In Wikipedia, the identity of the contributor is essentially unimportant. The content that is contributed should be judged equally regardless of the expertise of the contributor. However, the whole snafu does reflect rather poorly on the New Yorker, which, after a long article pointing out Wikipedia’s many shortcomings in terms of bias and inaccuracies, was forced to admit to poor source control on their own behalf.

The New Yorker article is rather good, in any case. In tying Wikipedia to a wider history of encyclopedias (encyclopediae?), Schiff offers some much-needed context. Wikipedia sometimes comes off as a phenomenon of our times, unprecedented in history… This is perhaps not so much true when you look at Diderot’s l’Encyclopedie, for instance.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, certainly took a cue from the past:

As an undergraduate, he had read Friedrich Hayek’s 1945 free-market manifesto, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” which argues that a person’s knowledge is by definition partial, and that truth is established only when people pool their wisdom. Wales thought of the essay again in the nineteen-nineties, when he began reading about the open-source movement, a group of programmers who believed that software should be free and distributed in such a way that anyone could modify the code. He was particularly impressed by “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” an essay, later expanded into a book, by Eric Raymond, one of the movement’s founders. “It opened my eyes to the possibility of mass collaboration,” Wales said.

Of course, any social psychologist would tell you that group decisions are by no means superior to individual decisions, but this idea is nevertheless alluring, that pooling knowledge, all our biases will even out to something resembling neutrality, like error variance if you will. I suppose the problem is that insofar as neutrality represents the consensus of the English-speaking world (in the case of the English Wikipedia), young males who spend too much time in front of a computer are somewhat overrepresented in this big melting pot of knowledge.

Schiff also dug out a H.G. Wells quote that I have to re-quote:

H. G. Wells lamented that, while the world was becoming smaller and moving at increasing speed, the way information was distributed remained old-fashioned and ineffective. He prescribed a “world brain,” a collaborative, decentralized repository of knowledge that would be subject to continual revision. More radically—with “alma-matricidal impiety,” as he put it—Wells indicted academia; the university was itself medieval. “We want a Henry Ford today to modernize the distribution of knowledge, make good knowledge cheap and easy in this still very ignorant, ill-educated, ill-served English-speaking world of ours,” he wrote.

Such foresight.

Personally, I’m struck by the huge variability of Wikipedia content. Some articles are truly excellent, while others read as thinly veiled, disorganized editorials.

A separate issue, which does not get so much attention, is that of plagiarism. Traditionally in Academia, this is the great faux-pas. In Wikipedia, however, you often find that going to the first cited source in an article, you discover the entire article text, verbatim. Obviously, many contributors take short-cuts, simply pasting in material they have found rather than putting it through that crucial re-writing and re-phrasing, mastered by undergraduates everywhere.

This is perhaps not so much of a problem. As long as the original source is cited, the only concern with this type of shortcut is one of copyright. One of wikipedia’s founding tenets is that no original research may be cited, and that content must be written from a neutral standpoint. Simply pasting in text from a source fulfills both these requirements quite well.

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