I’ve heard a lot talk recently about how Wikipedia is bad because “anyone can change anything they want” in an article. A friend of the family has said it, and even one of my teachers said it. I actually become very frustrated by this every time I hear it. It’s mainly because I find Wikipedia to be an incredibly powerful tool and one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the “success” of the Internet. And I’m not alone. I know a number of students and young people who feel the same way. The problem with this mistrust seems to be stemming from some adults who have lived without Wikipedia for much of their lives. I’ve been pondering this over the past few weeks, and then I came across an article today in Technology Review about this very subject.
It was an interesting read for sure, and it brings up some interesting issues about citations. I think the avid nay-sayers generally do not fully understand Wikipedia and the fact-checking that’s involved with the website. I think they generally believe that some 15 year old kid is sitting there filling what he knows about argumentum ad populum (thanks /.) or some crazy person is injecting extreme ideas into a serious article. The fact is simply that this isn’t the case. If an article is found to have something disreputable in it, it’s tagged as such (which is clearly visible to the reader). Since Wikipedia is not willing or able to judge truth from fiction, they rely on the verifiability of questionable statements. As the article notes, this can cause problems because even if a Wikipedia entry is about you, a verifiable reference must be found that can corroborate your claim. They have no way of proving that you are who you say you are, and thus they need evidence. A significant point for the scientific community is that trustworthy evidence is largely based on journal articles, university publications, and university-level textbooks before things like fact-checked sections of newspapers and magazines.
Even with citations, however, things can be wrong or misrepresented, so of course it’s always necessary to take you read on Wikipedia (or anywhere) with a grain of salt. Still, I find that Wikipedia articles tend to be more accurate and less biased than some news agencies’ work. References even act as a way to remove bias by limiting your assertions to something with verifiable proof. Then people can base judgment on the quality of the proof, not on the persuasiveness of the Wikipedia writer.
I guess the underlying point of this post is that you shouldn’t judge something unless you fully understand it. Wikipedia is highly accurate, and the proof that it’s based on is one of its strongest qualities. Question it. Critique it. But, please, don’t just dismiss it because “it can be edited by anybody.” “Anybody” still needs to have verifiable proof of their statements. Wikipedia has made a more profound impact on my life than probably anything else on the Internet. Knowledge should be free, and Wikipedia has aggregated mountains of knowledge that is both easy to access and free for the taking. Gone are the days of lugging out a 20 volume set of Encyclopaedia Britannica only to find out that your version is out-dated. Typing a simple wp Reyes Syndrome into my Firefox address bar brings up most of the latest information instantly. I have gathered immense knowledge over the past half-decade from the giant brain that is Wikipedia. I am (and will be) indebted to it forever, and I hope it never goes away. I have made a promise to myself that once I’ve graduated from school, I will make a significant financial donation to the Wikimedia Foundation and probably another one once I’ve finished residency. The world needs Wikipedia. Go read a few of its articles on something you’d like to know more about. You’re bound to catch a glimpse of how wide its berth of knowledge is. Wikipedia is not just some little tool that can be brushed aside and ignored. It’s a “Google”; it’s a game-changer. And it deserves to be. Please, don’t take it for granted.