Wikipedia, force for good?
Is Wikipedia a force for good, or do its weaknesses outweigh its strengths?
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Wikipedia’s goal is to make all human knowledge freely available to everyone in the world with an in...
Wikipedia’s goal is to make all human knowledge freely available to everyone in the world with an internet connection. It already has over 1.5 million articles in English alone. This is more than ten times those of Encyclopedia Britannica, its nearest printed rival. Traditional reference works were incredibly expensive, which meant that knowledge was restricted to the wealthy, or those with access to well-funded public libraries. Wikipedia liberates that knowledge.
Wikipedia may make articles available for nothing to those with access to the internet (i.e. still only a minority of people in the world), but many of these articles are not worth reading. Entries are often very badly written and can be very unreliable or misleading. Even on the internet there is no such thing as a free lunch – the high cost of a traditional encyclopedia pays for articles written, checked and edited by experts and professionals. And Wikipedia does not simply provide a poor quality alternative. Worse, it will drive traditional, high-quality encyclopedias out of business by destroying their business model. If Wikipedia makes it harder for ordinary people to access reliable information then the world will be a poorer place.
Wikipedia seeks to achieve its democratic goal by democratic means. As an open-source project it re...
Wikipedia seeks to achieve its democratic goal by democratic means. As an open-source project it relies upon the collaboration of tens of thousands of people who constantly add, check and edit articles. This “socialisation of expertise” ensures that errors and omissions are rapidly identified and corrected, and that the site is constantly updated. No traditional encyclopedia can match this scrutiny, which has also been used successfully to develop and improve open-source software such as Firefox and Linux.
Creating knowledge by consensus or some kind of Darwinian democracy is fatally flawed. A fact is not true simply because lots of people think so. Traditional encyclopedias are written and edited by academics and professional experts, whose reputation is put on the line by the articles they produce. Anyone can write a Wikipedia article, regardless of how much or how little knowledge they have of the subject. Worse, because contributors are effectively anonymous, it is impossible to assess the quality of an article on an unfamiliar topic by assessing the credentials of those who have produced it.
Wikipedia harnesses the best qualities of humanity – trust and cooperation in pursuit of an unselfis...
Wikipedia harnesses the best qualities of humanity – trust and cooperation in pursuit of an unselfish goal. Sceptics essentially take a negative view of society, unable to understand why people would club together to produce something so valuable without any financial incentive. Wikipedia is not naïvely trusting – the majority of entries are written by a close on-line community of a few hundred people who value their reputations. Examples of abuse have led Wikipedia to tighten up its rules, so that cyber vandals can easily be detected and editing of controversial topics restricted to the most trusted editors. But overall Wikipedia is a tremendous human success story, which should be celebrated rather than criticised.
Wikipedia is not immune to the worst qualities of humanity – as is shown by a number of scandals affecting the site. Entries can be deliberately vandalised for comic effect (as happens every April Fool’s Day), for commercial gain, or simply to mislead or insult. Some of these deliberate errors are picked up and corrected quickly, but others lie on the site for long periods. Notoriously, a respected journalist called John Siegenthaler was extensively libelled in an almost solely fictitious article which was not detected for months. Recently one very senior editor was exposed as a college drop-out, rather than the distinguished professor of theology he had claimed to be. Such examples seem to confirm the doubts of Larry Sanger, the original project coordinator for Wikipedia. He has since left and written a number of warning articles about how open to abuse the online encyclopedia is.
Wikipedia emerged very well from the only systematic comparison of its quality against its leading t...
Wikipedia emerged very well from the only systematic comparison of its quality against its leading traditional rival, the Encyclopedia Britannica. A survey in the leading journal “Nature” compared 42 pairs of articles on a wide range of subjects. Experts in each topic found that Wikipedia’s user-contributed articles had only 30% more errors and omissions than Britannica, despite the latter’s much vaunted pride in its expert authors and editors. And as Wikipedia is a constant work-in-progress, these faults were very quickly corrected, whereas a traditional publication will only revise articles at intervals of years, if not decades.
The 2005 Nature comparison of Wikipedia and Britannica clearly found that the online encyclopedia was less reliable. However, the Nature study itself was badly skewed, and Britannica disputed nearly half the errors or omissions for which it was criticised. On this basis, Wikipedia is not just 30% less accurate than Britannica; it would be two and a half times less reliable. In addition, the Nature study took no account of the written quality of the submissions under comparison. All of Britannica’s entries are edited carefully to ensure they are readable, clear and an appropriate length. Much of Wikipedia’s material is a cobbled together from different contributions and lacks clarity.
Nobody at Wikipedia has ever claimed that it is a definitive account of human knowledge or a replace...
Nobody at Wikipedia has ever claimed that it is a definitive account of human knowledge or a replacement for in depth research. But it is an excellent starting point for an enquiry, giving a quick guide to an unknown subject and pointing the enquirer on to more specialist sources. It is used to good effect by students, teachers, journalists and even judges, among many others – showing it is a valued reference source. Experienced users can quickly assess the quality of an article from its written quality and the thoroughness of its references. Nothing on the internet should ever be accepted uncritically, but Wikipedia has earned its reputation and never tried to oversell itself.
Wikipedia has become a standard source of reference because it is free and easy to access, not because it is good. It is frightening that some US judges are beginning to cite its articles in support of their judgements. Many of its users are students, with too little experience to weigh up the quality of an article. Overdependence on Wikipedia means that they never develop proper research skills and come to believe that an approximately right answer is good enough. Wikipedia should be banned for student research papers and other serious uses.
Patchiness of coverage has been a recognised shortcoming of Wikipedia, but it is one which the onlin...
Patchiness of coverage has been a recognised shortcoming of Wikipedia, but it is one which the online community of Wikipedians has been debating vigorously, and which is being rapidly addressed. Critics often use out-of-date examples to berate the site, failing to recognise that Wikipedia’s key strength is that it constantly changes and improves through the contributions of its users. Perhaps those who note that a particular topic is unsatisfactory should sit down and write something to improve it!
One of the major problems with Wikipedia is that it has very patchy coverage. Traditional reference sources provide consistent coverage over the whole field of knowledge, with priority given to the most important topics in terms of space and thoroughness of treatment. By contrast, Wikipedia has very detailed coverage of topics in which its main contributors are interested, but weak material on other, much more important issues. Thus there is much more on the imaginary language of Klingon than there is on the life and philosophy of John Locke.
It is the nature of any encyclopedia to present known facts, and to emphasise these over expressions...
It is the nature of any encyclopedia to present known facts, and to emphasise these over expressions of opinion. In as much as this is a criticism of Wikipedia, then it is a criticism to any reference work, traditional or collaborative. In any case, the main Wikipedia entry for a controversial topic is not the only material available to the user – there are discussion pages which reveal its editing history, clashing viewpoints and rival authorities. These are a rich source for opinion and complement the main articles.
A notable shortcoming of Wikipedia is its obsession with recording facts and difficulty in presenting rival arguments or hypotheses. For many topics this is not a major problem, but in many more the nature of truth is hotly disputed and any entry which seeks to document the issue should present both (or more) strands of opinion. Yet attempts by contributors to express academic arguments, e.g. over different historical interpretations, are often edited out as being insufficiently factual. What remains is then either unhelpfully bland or worryingly one-sided.
Wikipedia is not threatened by variants and rivals that also seek to promote freedom of knowledge. ...
Wikipedia is not threatened by variants and rivals that also seek to promote freedom of knowledge. Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder has consistently said that he is not trying to drive traditional encyclopedias like Britannica out of business, nor to become a monopoly provider of online information. The key principle is the freedom of information, presented as neutrally as possible. This has led to Wikipedia being banned in China, after Jimmy Wales refused to censor articles to make the site acceptable to the Chinese government.
Wikipedia can also be criticised for its inbuilt bias, intolerant of dissenting views. Religious conservatives object to the secular liberal approach its editors consistently take, and have found that their attempts to add balance to entries are swiftly rejected. This even extends to the censorship of facts which raise questions about the theory of evolution. Some conservatives are so worried about the widespread use of Wikipedia to promote a liberal agenda in education that they have set up Conservapedia as a rival source of information.
What do you think?