View Full Version : Follow-up on U of C origin (11-Dec-2008)

C K Dexter Haven
12-12-2008, 04:47 PM
In one of the items in the weekly email I received just today, you said, in response to a reader who quoted a Wikipedia article, "Anybody can add anything to a Wikipedia article. At 2.6 million English-language articles, Wikipedia is assuredly the most impressive piece of participatory scholarship yet produced. The fact remains that, from the standpoint of authoritativeness, a Wikipedia article merely represents the opinion of whoever got to it last."

Well, not quite. What it represents is the degree to which the editor who added the information follows Wikipedia policy on Verifiability, Citing Reliable Sources, and Neutrality. If you come across a poorly written, uncategorized stub article filled with unsourced POV material, then yeah, you shouldn't rely on that material. But at the other end of the spectrum, if you're using a Featured Article--that is, an article that has been Peer Reviewed, and judged to be well written, and comprehensive in its handling of the subject, then yes, you can rely on it, as it does not represent anyone's "opinion", any more than any other source you might prefer to use. For my part, as a Wikipedia editor since March 2005, and an administrator since November 2007, I can assure you that I always follow WP policy, and none of my editors are derived from my "opinion". They're derived from the sources I cite for the material I add. Thus, if the article mentioned by that previous reader of yours cited a book by a historian who is an expert on that school, a New York Times article written by an alumnus on that school, or that school's own website, then you can follow those sources to verify the accuracy of the information. To dismiss any given article, regardless of its quality as merely representing someone's "opinion", without first reviewing it, is not only simplistic, it implies that other sources that have a greater brand name cache, are not themselves derived from the biases of their authors, which is silly.

Keep up the great work, and Happy Holidays!

Luigi Novi

Link to article: http://chicago.straightdope.com/SDC20081212.html

Cecil Adams
12-15-2008, 02:51 PM
Luigi, don't get me wrong. Wikipedia is a noble idea, and definitely has its uses. Even I, who know everything, frequently consult Wikipedia regarding aspects of human knowledge that have momentarily slipped my mind. The fact remains that you rely on Wikipedia at your peril. For the serious student of popular subjects - and I speak from experience - Wikipedia is chiefly useful as a way to track down more reliable sources. A few observations:

1. Wikipedia is at its best for subjects so intimidatingly technical that few amateurs are tempted to mung them up. Many such articles appear to the be the work of professionals writing for and reviewed by their peers.

2. For popular subjects, which the clueless imagine they know something about, God help you. Many of these articles appear to have been written by someone who learned English composition from Sarah Palin. Inane nuggets abound. (If you see an article with a trivia section, you know the knuckleheads have been at it.) Wikitheory is that the rough spots will get smoothed out over time, which is true up to a point, but many articles never get past the 80% level - B-class or C-class, in Wikipedia parlance. What's needed is a professional going-over by a skilled editor. Sometimes this happens. Ain't seeing it often.

3. As you suggest and I can confirm, a shrewd reader can find much that's useful in a Wikipedia article. However, this requires evaluating the underlying sources, which few readers are equipped to do, and which in a traditional encyclopedia you take for granted has been done by someone else. Those versed in wikiarcana can decode the ratings (FA, FL, GA, C, stub, etc.), but honestly now, these are like going through the Britannica and finding margin notes saying "this article sucks."

4. The above having been said, it's impressive to able to google "wikipedia <name your subject>" and have something pop up virtually every time. However, the wikigeniuses have yet to figure out a reliable way of getting passable-but-not-great articles the rest of the way. The attempt to impose some hierarchy on the editing process is a step in the right direction, but wikiadministration clearly remains a work in progress. I watch with interest, though - and I speak as a newspaper guy watching his industry disintegrate. The reorganization of information diffusion occasioned by the Internet is one of the great dramas of our time. No question, in the future and to a considerable extent now, much of what we know about the world around us will come to us as "user-generated content," provided by amateurs for free. But - and I admit to some prejudice - I don't think that means you can dispense with the pros.

Luigi Novi
12-15-2008, 08:11 PM
I never said anything about dispensing with pros. My only comments were in your response to Wikipedia.

Your clarified and more detailed response would indicate that we're essentially in agreement about the basic pros and cons about Wikipedia, though your prescribed criteria of technical vs. popular as a means of predicting the quality of an article isn't the criteria I'd use, though I suppose it may be true to a very general extent; John Seigenthaler, for example, is hardly what I'd call a "popular subject", yet his the article was the flashpoint for a scandalous example of Wikivandalism. Conversely, Eric Bana, Bettie Davis, Emma Watson and the "Trapped in the Closet" episode of South Park are all "popular" subjects, and have achieved Featured Article status. The most precise criterium is sources, not subject.

Thank you for your thoughts. It was nice exchanging ideas with you.