Friday, March 17, 2006

Encyclopedia or message board?

When I was a child my parents bought me an encyclopedia. It was a 1978 World Book. There are various other reputable encyclopedias out there. The most notable one is probably the Encyclopedia Britannica. Nowadays if you type anything into a search engine you are likely to get an entry from Wikipedia among the top results.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, claims that it is "the communal encyclopedia that anyone can edit."

I think it would wise to follow the age old wisdom in the saying "You get what you pay for." As it turns out, since Wikipedia is basically written and edited by its users it's also open to being a vehicle for propaganda. Wikipedia even has to acknowledge the fact that its articles may contain misinformation.

When you purchase an encyclopedia or a membership to an online encyclopedia like Britannica you are paying for the researchers, the writers and the editors. In short you are paying for what experts believe to be the truth.

The scary thing is that more and more people use entries from Wikipedia in arguments or debates. I won't be quoting Wikipedia any time soon.


Xia Diaz said...

Actually, writers for encyclopedias get paid per word they write. Sometimes things are bit exaggerated it or incorrect. So, it's a good reference, but it won't hold water if you're using it for papers (at least history papers).

Anonymous said...

This is a typical complaint, but not a strong argument against its use.
First, many (probably most) of the entries will not be found in another encyclopedia at all. Surely, Wikipedia is superior in those areas, when treated as only one source and perspective of the matter.
As for those areas covered by other compliations: in the areas of my experise, the wikipedia articles, while imperfect, are often better (and are often sourced so you can do your own further research). I frequently see the same weaknesses in 'official' digested sources. This is less true for highly specialized subjects, but improves every day as more are involved.
If you encounter "misinformation", click 'edit' and correct it. Granted, if no one did that, Wikipedia would be useless. On political matters -- especially obscure ones or emerging ones -- the accounts are in fact often useless until enough users have edited. Take a look at an issue that is no longer frequently edited. They tend to be quite balanced.
Obviously, some issues cannot be resolved by compromise among users. Those reflect the majority of users' perspective, but not perhaps not a minority view that is in direct contradiction to basic premises of the article (say, the neo-Nazi view of Nazism). However, you'll be hard pressed to find a source that does not reflect a consensus among a subset of the population that may not be shared by all.
As Xia Diaz notes, encyclopedias are written/published by biased sources as well (or suffer from unintentional inaccuracy). The difference is Wikipedia can be corrected.

Henry "Conductor" Gomez said...

While I acknowledge that there is no perfect single reference source, the arguments in favor of Wikipedia are feeble at best. What I've reade is that it isn't perfect but since it can be corrected it's better than traditional encyclopedias. I disagree. FIrst of all I'm not a big fan of an "evolving truth". Sure things are discovered that change what we know about certain subjects. Back in the old days of World Book we'd receive update books annually. The problem with Wikipedia is that you have no way of knowing whether a puported fact is true or completely conctocted. Perhaps certain subject matter is not as disputed as others but to me an article that has been written or edited by some faceless Internet user has to be dubious. When you buy an encyclopedia, like a newspaper, you are paying for reputation of the source. Since the comment above is from an anomymous user I have no way of knowing what his expertise on the matter is. He may be a paid flack from wikipedia for all I know. And that's the problem you just don't who is writing the stuff and for what reasons.

You may think that invalidates blogs as well but the difference is that blogs reflect the author's opinions. While I bolster my arguments with facts, I am not the reporter of facts but rather the purveyor of my opinions. People read certain blogs because they are interested in the author's opinions, period.

The problem with the "click and edit" argument is that I frankly don't have enough time to monitor articles in my areas of interest and expertise to look out for blatant propaganda. It's not my job. My duty here is to tell people to be suspect of "facts" they obtain from anonymous writers and editors on Wikipedia.

benning said...

And who corrects Wikipedia? No, thanks. I'll grab many sources, if I can, rather than rely on Wiki, or CBS, or even CNN. LOL