Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Case for Wikipedia

I effing LOVE Wikipedia. It is basically my number one source for information on any topic I want to look up. However, whenever I mention that “I was reading about something on Wikipedia”, I am almost immediately met with comments like “Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source”, or “I would never use it, cause you can have it say whatever you want”, and other such comments. I have heard this from professors, teachers, friends, and even one random lady I was chatting with in an airport.

While I would never ever cite Wikipedia in an academic paper, I do think that its un-reliability is HIGHLY overblown. I don’t think these sorts of comments are fair to how good of a source of info Wikipedia actually is. In this blog, I am going to try to convince you that it is indeed a reliable source of information. I have several arguments, and will start with the weakest, ending with the strongest. By the end, I hope you will agree that at the least, it is not as bad as you might have once thought. Let’s begin…

1. Everything that I have ever looked up, that I know anything about, has been highly accurate. I challenge you to look up a topic you feel knowledgeable about, and see how accurate/inaccurate it is. I am sure you will be surprised. Even Richard Dawkins has stated that (something to the extent of) "you would never think such a thing would work. But everything I have ever read on Wikipedia, which I have known something about, has been surprisingly accurate."

2. If you don't cite sources, the things you write will either be rejected, or the article will warn readers that some statements are in need of references (and tell you which ones).

3. If you write nonsense, it is corrected almost immediately. When wikipedia first started getting popular, I would go to the Tieton, WA page (my home town), and change it to say that my dad was the founder (see picture below). Within minutes, I got a pop up from a Wikipedia monitor saying "Hey, we appreciate your enthusiasm, but make sure you cite your source." So I created another Wikipedia page, about my dad, as an attempt to cite that as my source. Didn't work. And by the next morning, everything was back to normal. If you continue to break Wikipedia’s rules, not citing sources, or trying to enter in false information, your computer will no longer be allowed to access the edit ability on Wikipedia.

4. Most convincingly, in a 2005 study, Nature had experts of their field review scientific articles from Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica (not knowing which was from which, obviously). They found that articles from Wikipedia had an average of 3.86 errors per article, while Encyclopedia Britannica had an average of 2.92 errors per article. Hardly significant, if at all.

More recently, a 2008 study concluded that their "results increase confidence in Wikipedia as a good information organizer for science in general."

If citing Wikipedia is seen as bad, then citing the Encyclopedia Britannica should be seen as bad too. Earlier, I mentioned that I wouldn’t cite Wikipedia as a source. What I would do, though, is find the source that the Wikipedia article cites, and use that. Easy.

As a final point, it takes years for new editions of encyclopedias, or even just regular books to be released, which include updated information. Wikipedia, on the other hand, can be updated immediately. I wonder how many textbooks and encyclopedias have a "criticism" section on mirror neurons, citing Greg Hickcok's 2009 paper? I would venture to say probably none.

In conclusion, you can see that Wikipedia isn’t just a free range sort of site where anyone can get away with saying any crazy thing that comes to their mind. It is monitored (not only by Wikipedia volunteer experts, but by people who do care about keeping it accurate), moderated, and always tells you when something is not quite right. And what it does have, is nearly as accurate as your encyclopedia! From these reasons, I think we can reasonably conclude that Wikipedia isn’t nearly as bad as people make it out to be.

The end.