Clash of the Titans XXIII: Wikipedia

May 18, 2007, 11:30 am; posted by
Filed under Debate, Mike J, Steve  | 3 Comments

In this corner, arguing for Wikipedia, is Mike J!

And in this corner, arguing against citing Wikipedia, is Steve!

Let’s be honest and first admit that Wikipedia has its shortfalls. The accuracy of many articles is a concern, and it the format also has difficulty when the facts about a person are beyond question, but open to several different interpretations. My dissertation will be on revival evangelist Charles G. Finney.

His Wikipedia entry has a tag warning that the information provided may not be neutral. Why? The biographical facts of Finney’s life are unquestioned, and much of his writings survive. But Finney is a controversial character because people are not sure how to interpret his legacy. Was he a Calvinist? Was he not? Did he save American Christianity or kill it? Were his methods of evangelism a consistent mechanism for the Holy Spirit’s act or a clever substitute for the Spirit? Everyone who thinks about Finney has a stake in the answers to those questions and so his Wikipedia entry can be a battleground.

Yet let’s also be honest and confess that complete and total accuracy and neutrality is not the role that Wikipedia plays in our culture. It may well be true that Wikipedia is not completely accurate or neutral; it also is no doubt true that I don’t have four wheels and a horn. That’s because I’m not a car, nor should I apologize for not being one.

In the same way, Wikipedia is not a completely accurate or neutral source for information, nor should it apologize for not being one. The site itself even says so: on its “about” page, we are warned that especially newer articles may contain “significant misinformation, unencyclopedic content, or vandalism.”

No, you can’t cite Wikipedia authoritatively. But you can learn from it. When I needed a jumpstart for another paper on Finney, Wikipedia led me to a site with all of Finney’s works. The links also led me to a bit of interesting debate from varying perspectives on Finney, as well as the website of the church he founded. While I couldn’t cite anything directly from the site, I found it helpful in getting off the ground.

Wikipedia is also able to cover more arcane and interesting topics than a normal encyclopedia. Hitting the “random article” button five times gave me articles on HSY (a Korean fashion label), Tagin (an Indian people-group), ’70s Rock Must Die (a 2000 album by a group called “Lard”), Carson High School, and Kirkland House (one of the undergrad houses at Harvard). Who else would cover all of these things at all, even if their coverage wasn’t completely bias-free (as if any coverage ever is)?

You also can enjoy Wikipedia. Some people decry the vandalism and turf wars that go on — I sort of like it. It’s a case study in people being people — sort of like Survivor on the internet. If people want to waste their lives arguing on Wikipedia, isn’t it at least nice that we can be amused by their foolishness?

So instead of being disappointed that Wikipedia refuses to be respectable, let’s enjoy its strengths: it has potential to provide new information on esoteric topics and provide geek drama at the same time.

What’s not to like?

There’s a lot to like about Wikipedia, conceptually. There are millions of frequently enlightening articles, especially those on uncontroversial matters, ephemeral lists, and complex topics. Most of their guidelines and principles are wise and thoughtful, and no one denies it’s an educational and entertaining way to spend an hour.

But other than this article, I will never cite to it here.

Wikipedia often reminds me of feudal Europe in the Middle Ages — rule by the whims of the few. You know the party line — anyone can edit anything — but in truth, the site is like any other bloated bureaucracy, full of ardent protectors of power and self-interest.

If an article has a wise, benevolent ruler, or a good group of editors, it may be neutral and well-sourced. But in the frequent event there’s a turf war among users who each want it their way, it becomes part-faculty meeting, part- soap opera, a storm of endless bloviation about complex acronyms and ‘sockpuppets.’ Kissinger once said, “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” I think he used that example only because he wasn’t yet able to watch “Netscott” and “Radiant!” argue for days about whether discussions or surveys were better to “build consensus” on Islam and Slavery.

More than just the culture irks me. When researching our Council question about drugs, I read the Wikipedia article about the War on Drugs. It had a questionable claim that marijuana was America’s largest cash crop, and cited an article in a British newsletter, which in turn cited a report from something called the Bulletin of Cannabis Reform. Apparently, as long as information is cited, it can come from the most biased sources. In fact, most of that article reads like the platform of the Marijuana Reform Party, but good luck getting its defenders to let you change that. People, even those who should know better, frequently defend their work like it was their child, especially about politics.

Remember Richard Gere publicly kissing that actress in India? I looked her up, and the second result was , which called her an “AIDS sufferer.” That didn’t seem right, so I looked further — turned out she only PLAYED an AIDS sufferer in a movie; she was actually an AIDS activist. And “activist” was on Wikipedia for weeks, until someone changed it slyly. And there it stood, proud and unchallenged, for over a week, until I came along.

This is why I can’t and won’t cite Wikipedia — you can’t trust it. And you can’t count on anything to still be there in two minutes, let alone two weeks. For instance, “DanEdmonds” decided it was inappropriate to include “AIDS activist” in the article, so he removed it.

I went to the Wikipedia ‘drugs’ article as I wrote this, and its first sentence read: “Drugs are good for you.” I changed it back immediately; the sentence had only been up an hour. But in the past 24 hours, there have been 19 similar attacks by vandals — it’s almost all that’s done to change the page. What a waste of time!

You know quite well how many morons and troublemakers there are in the world. If you still want to trust a vast random sampling of humanity to be authoritative about any subject, be my guest. I’ll stick to using it to find Sir Mix-A-Lot trivia. Did you know politics are “important” to him?



3 Comments to “Clash of the Titans XXIII: Wikipedia”

  1. Steve on May 18th, 2007 1:15 pm

    Another related point: even its founder admits Wikipedia has a liberal bias.

  2. Brian on May 18th, 2007 3:50 pm

    It seems like both sides in this clash have come to similar conclusions: not citing it but using it for enjoyment or humorous trivia.

  3. Steve on May 18th, 2007 4:05 pm

    In the end, perhaps yes, but there are real differences in the way we view and characterize the site that produce (I think) an identifiable conflict.

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