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[Ira Matetsky, guest-blogging, May 11, 2009 at 11:16pm] Trackbacks
Some First Thoughts on Wikipedia

Hi. Eugene introduced me earlier, and some of you may recognize my name from a recent comment thread or two. As Eugene mentioned, I work as a litigation attorney at a firm in New York City ... and I first met him at a summer school mathematics program (which, I would like to remind him, we were carefully coached not to call "math camp") thirty years ago.

I've been reading the Conspiracy faithfully for five or six years now, and recently I've noticed Eugene's series of posts about court decisions that discuss or mention Wikipedia, the free-content, mass-written, ever-growing online encyclopedia. I've also noticed that in unrelated posts and comments, many Conspirators routinely link to relevant Wikipedia articles and seem to operate from the basic assumption that they will generally be factually accurate. So I infer that there is at least some respect for Wikipedia among some Conspirators. At the same time, I saw the comments on the thread where Eugene introduced me this afternoon, so I know there is some skepticism too.

Eugene's posts, and everyone's comments, have interested me because I've contributed to Wikipedia myself, and I'm an administrator on the site and a member of the in-house Arbitration Committee. (Wikipedians may edit under pseudonyms, and until this point I hadn't mentioned my real name on-wiki, although a determined critic managed to "out" my real identity about a year ago. For anyone curious, on Wikipedia I'm known as Newyorkbrad, Brad being my middle name.)

I hope to do two things this week. First, to explain to Conspirators a little more about how Wikipedia operates and address a couple of aspects that may not have occurred to casual readers. (I might even recruit a couple of new Wikipedia contributors -- but in fairness, I'm going to link to a couple of criticism sites as well, so you'll know what you might be getting into.) And second, I hope to gather input on some important issues from contributors here who will have an intelligent reader's familiarity with the site, but no predisposition in our internal, sometimes eternal, debates.

Anyone who has spent time on the Internet has heard about Wikipedia by now and has at least some knowledge of how it works. But here are some basics for those less familiar, which the rest of you can safely skip and go on to the end or come back tomorrow.

Wikipedia defines itself as "the encyclopedia that anyone can edit." That is literally true: anyone (short of a few sitebanned people) with an Internet connection can sit down at the keyboard and start editing. The "anyone" who can edit includes you, if you are so inclined; you don't even need to register an account in order to edit an existing article, though you do in order to create a new article from scratch.

For my part, I was drawn in as many others are: I ran a Google search to locate some information, and the Wikipedia article was the top result. I saw a mistake in an article and corrected it. (The double brackets are internal wikicode for a link to another page, and I'll use that code here as well.) Interestingly, my introduction to a flaw of the wiki collaborative editing model came a short while later later, when someone took the correction I made and immediately uncorrected it. Fortunately, when I made the change a second time, I figured out how to provide a more detailed explanation in the "edit summary" field, and this time it stuck. If I'd been reverted one more time, I probably would have shaken my head and walked away, as subject-matter experts, unfortunately, often do. But instead, having made one change led me to want to make others, and then I registered to start creating pages, and it became a hobby.

Wikipedia has existed for less than eight years, and its growth and popularity have far exceeded anything that those who created it could possibly have imagined. Today, there are millions of registered "editors" with accounts, although there are probably a few thousand truly dedicated everyday contributors, and there are close to three million articles. Content can be found on virtually every subject one might wish to write about: from Poe and poetry to pomegranites and Pokemon; from Poland and Portugal to Powell and Posner; from Pol Pot and Potsdam to polarity and pottery. (Of these, there may be a disproportionate amount of Pokemon; editors come from an enormous diversity of background but have historically skewed younger, for fairly obvious reasons.)

There are Wikipedias in several hundred languages, of which English is the largest (German is second), and there are also Wiktionary and Wikinews and a Wikiversity and Wikiquote and Wikisource, and Commons (a repository for image and sound files that can be used by all the projects) and Meta (for coordination). All of this is operated under the auspices of the Wikimedia Foundation, a charitable foundation that owns the hardware and is, theoretically at least, in charge of it all. But my involvement with the English Wikipedia is probably enough for one lifetime.

So why does this matter? One reason is that a lot of people find that editing, or even administering the site, is fun. That is is essential, as virtually everyone involved is a volunteer. Another is the satisfaction of contributing to an ever-growing source of "free knowledge." In addition to being "the encyclopedia that everyone can edit," Wikipedia is "the free encyclopedia," whose content can freely be reproduced on other websites or in other media. (This actually happens. One of my first articles was a short biography of a lawyer in Alabama who became a judge in Puerto Rico, named Peter J. Hamilton. It turns out that there is a Peter J. Hamilton Elementary School in Mobile, whose website has a "did you ever wonder who Peter J. Hamilton was?" page, and the answer turns out to be my article.)

But there is another major reason that a lot of people care about Wikipedia, whether they participate themselves in it or not, and why there are many critics concerned about the increasingly widespread role of the site. Because of its popularity and also because of its interconnected network of links, Wikipedia articles tend to score extremely high on Google and other Internet searches. In particular, if one searches on an individual's name, his or her Wikipedia article will generally be among the top group of Google hits -- much of the time the very first one. This has implications that are quite significant and in many instances troubling, which I will be discussing over the next couple of days.

That's long enough for an introductory post; I'm sure many are waiting for me to reach something more controversial. Over the next few days I'm going to explore some specific issues, beginning tomorrow with the question of how Wikipedia articles about living people can affect their subjects, and continuing later in the week with issues of site governance and article quality, behavioral standards and the role of anonymity.

The comments thread should be open, and I'd welcome suggestions for aspects I might address. (I make only one request: that regular Wikipedians who are looking over my shoulder, as well as Wikipedia critics from Wikipedia Review and elsewhere, bear in mind that this is a general-interest audience. Please don't hijack the comment threads with our own internal disputes and debates. No one here wants to read who is a sockpuppet of whom or whether so-and-so's block was fair or not. We have ANI and Wikipedia Review to hash those things out later.)

And one last unrelated request. A couple of weeks ago, [[Saxbe fix]] was the day's featured article, meaning it had pride of place on the main page for a day. I hadn't contributed to the article before, but I did some copyediting while it was mainpaged, and in doing so, I came across the assertion that President Reagan nominated Robert Bork rather than Orrin Hatch to the Supreme Court because Hatch's appointment would have raised an emoluments clause issue and the administration was not convinced that the Saxbe fix is constitutional. Although I had a dim recollection of the issue having come up in passing, I found that statement as written implausible and edited the article to say that this issue played only a small role in Judge Bork's selection. However, I didn't have a good source suitable for citation in the article to support my assertion, and I've been asked for one. This certainly would seem like an appropriate audience to fill in that particular lacuna. So if anyone can help with a source on this, please let me know in in the comments thread so I can go back and add it to the article.

Or better still, go visit [[Saxbe fix]] and edit it yourself.

htom (mail):
Remember, Wikipedia endeavors to be reliably sourced, which is unfortunately a different goal than being merely correct. Both is wonderful if we can do that. (Hi, I'm Ottersmith over there.)
5.11.2009 11:29pm
John Moore (mail) (www):
Welcome! This will no doubt spawn long comment threads. I look forward to your other writings.

One subject that would interest me is any demographic statistics on wiki editors and administrators.
5.11.2009 11:34pm
EverydayLiberal (mail):
I feel like Wikipedia does a particularly good job on "tricky" issues that usually take some time to understand under independent study. I was thankful for the articles on cladistics, for example, when I got stuck on the functional definition of "monophyletic clade". There have been lots of other incidents like that, particularly on mathematical topics, stories which of course escape my memory at the moment. The site is such a blessing and its success has bolstered my limited techno-utopianism.
5.11.2009 11:48pm
John Armstrong (mail) (www):

I probably would have shaken my head and walked away, as subject-matter experts, unfortunately, often do


Using an extreme example for illustrative purposes: I spent six years in graduate school learning, among other things, the ins and outs of quantum mechanics, general relativity, and their interactions. And still, my efforts can be undone by a twelve-year-old who just read The Dancing Wu-Li Masters. I don't care to come anywhere near yet another screaming match with a moron who has no idea what he's talking about.
5.11.2009 11:51pm
Frater Plotter:
Many scholars and professional writers have voiced their objections to the entire programme of Wikipedia. These critiques frequently begin by deriding the "anyone can edit" idea, with claims that this will inevitably mean that all articles descend into vandalism or crackpottery. Equally often they end up in claims of "anti-expert bias" -- or worse: something uglier such as Andrew Keen's anti-amateur bigotry.

(Andrew Keen, for those who don't know, is the fellow who maintains that online collaboration is "Communist", that search engines are "parasites", and that user-driven sites such as Wikipedia and YouTube are worse for scholarship and art than government censorship would be, because they "put artists out of work" -- i.e. that collaborative and folk culture is so vastly inferior to elite culture that it should be eradicated.)

These scholars and writers persist in telling us why Wikipedia cannot possibly work. It has always struck me that they are a little bit like the mythical aeronautics engineers who said that bumblebees cannot possibly fly; or the economists in the old joke that ends, "Sure, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?"

In other words, in arguing all their various theoretical reasons why Wikipedia cannot work, they ignore the observable fact that it does work: that it is a useful resource for thousands upon thousands of people every day. Any scholarly approach to Wikipedia has to start not from a philosopher's armchair contemplation, "What would it be like if someone tried to create a user-edited Web encyclopedia?" -- but rather from a scientist's observation that the experiment is already being done and has produced some results.
5.11.2009 11:53pm
My2Cents (mail):
Ira,

Here is a link to a Conspiracy article referring to the role of the Emoluments Clause in the Bork-Hatch episode. I hope this helps:
http://volokh.com/posts/1227548910.shtml
5.11.2009 11:57pm
eddardStark (mail):
I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on criticism of Wikipedia like that of Oliver Kamm, and in particular his claim that Wikipedia is interested in consensus rather than objective fact.
5.12.2009 12:06am
Dan M.:
The really bad thing about Wikipedia is the prevalence of ideologues patrolling controversial topics. You can't edit any page relating to any person or topic related to the global warming debate without William Connelly or one of his minions editing it to preserve the pro-AGW view.

It wouldn't be so bad if there were experts who made sure that everything on a given topic was correct. But when it's an ideologue who controls the wikipedia pages of all of his rivals it gets rather absurd.
5.12.2009 12:08am
Frater Plotter:
I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on criticism of Wikipedia like that of Oliver Kamm, and in particular his claim that Wikipedia is interested in consensus rather than objective fact.
That "rather than" sounds like an instance of the fallacy of false dilemma, implying that consensus and objective fact are opposed. They are not.

Wikipedia's practice of using consensus does not depend on relativism, or the notion that there are no objective facts. If anything, they depend on the notion that where there is an objective fact about a particular subject, a group of interested and reasonable people, with access to good primary and secondary sources on the subject, will be able to ascertain and agree upon that fact.

In particular, the Wikipedia editing process uses consensus (a consensus of interested editors acting in good faith) to judge whether a fact is well-established enough to include in an encyclopedia.

Wikipedia's practices do not imply the notion that "If everyone agrees that 1 + 1 = 3, then it is so." Rather, they imply the notion that "Since 1 + 1 = 2, everyone who reasonably inquires into the matter of what 1 + 1 equals, will agree that it is 2."

In philosophical terms, Wikipedia's use of consensus is epistemological rather than metaphysical. It doesn't claim that consensus creates truth, but rather that in seeking to know truth, talking about it with others, sharing information, and coming to agreement is a worthwhile tool.
5.12.2009 12:31am
Brock:
Welcome, NYB, long time no talk! Really looking forward to your posts this week; it's a topic that deserves far more scholarship than it has received to date.

[[user:bbatsell]]
5.12.2009 12:32am
Richard Nieporent (mail):
One of my pet peeves is when a student cites Wikipedia as a reference for a technical paper. With the easy availability of Wikipedia, many students avoid using the technical journals either out of laziness or because it is more difficult to read and understand those articles. What these students want is a simple source of information on a subject that doesn't require them to do much work. The problem is that the quality of Wikipedia articles on technical subjects can be quite uneven. Some articles are very good while others are superficial and misleading, if not inaccurate. In addition to the problem of the completeness and accuracy of the information is the fact that the information changes over time. Yes, the student does include the date that the article was accessed. However, it should not be the job of the reader to have to figure out what the contents of the article was at some particular point in time. The student fails to realize that a reference should be something that you can actually refer to and that has a known (group of) author(s) that provides a way of ascertaining the accuracy of the content of the article.
5.12.2009 12:32am
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
1. The main reason WP turns up in searches is because people keep linking to it. If "popularity" means traffic, that should only play a minor role. If anyone wants to help push WP entries lower in the search results, stop linking to it. If you need to reference a WP article, put the link in bare text form, no "a href". Or, put a nofollow tag on the link.

2. Almost all of the external links at WP have a nofollow tag, meaning the link doesn't confer search engine "juice". So, if a WP article is based on and links to a page on another site, WP won't be giving that other site anything despite the fact that the WP article might not exist without the other site.

3. However, some links at WP don't have nofollow. Picture a huge, gigantic funnel for all that link juice coming in from other sites, and then being sent to just a small number of sites. Maybe our host could tell us what those sites are.

4. Maybe our host could provide some examples of WP's very special rules being used to keep truth out of the entries. For instance, something that's obviously true might be consider "original research" and won't be WP-ready until a "reliable source" mentions it, and "reliable source" generally means the NYT, the WaPo, the LAT, or the like. They even more or less say in their rules that if something were important, the MSM would cover it. That reduces the chances that WP will have articles about things the MSM doesn't want to discuss, and it tends to make WP a watered-down version of the MSM.

5. If our host wants to discuss a specific case, maybe he could tell us why negative information was removed from and never added back to this article. AFAIK, it hasn't had any negative information for over a year and a half, despite the fact that some people have questions about the program. If concerns about that program are too wacky to even be mentioned, where exactly is the wacky line and who sets it?

6. Hopefully Daniel Brandt will weigh in.
5.12.2009 12:45am
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
7. For a slightly far-fetched example of problems with WP's rules, if the NYT printed "the sky is green", that could be dutifully added to the Sky article with a nice footnote since they're a en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Reliable_sources

If a blogger then came along and said, "but, the sky is not green", that would probably be rolled back because WP really doesn't like blogs and that edit would probably be considered en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:No_original_research

It isn't too far from that example to things that actually happen.

8. The common defense for inaccuracy offered is, "if something's wrong, go ahead and edit it!" with a cheery smile. At the rate of 10 articles per day, I could only do a few thousand per year, a tiny fraction of WP's articles. In the meantime, many of those that were fixed would be un-fixed, and for the last article I did in the year, WP would have been spreading disinfo for at least a year. Putting me - or hundreds of me's - in charge of keeping WP from spreading disinfo is not going to work.

9. How many unique visitors saw the BHO article and were given an incomplete or inaccurate overview of the candidate?

10. How many rightwing sources are considered "reliable"?
5.12.2009 1:13am
Jacob Berlove:
I have two issues with Wikipedia that I hope you might kindly address.

First, I can't figure out when and why spoiler warnings were removed. The assertion is made that someone coming to read an article on a book can expect to see the book discussed in depth and needs no spoiler, but I've been very frustrated at being no longer able to look up a book just to find out general info, including how fans of the author rate the book, without risking the book being spoiled. Spoiler warnings would seem to provide a lot of benefit with no downside at all. Maybe you can explain why spoiler warnings are no longer in style, and let us know if there's any chance of that policy being reconsidered.

Second, and even more important, given the virtually unlimited capacity of an online encyclopedia, it is particularly distressing that the community has gotten very stingy in judging what people or topics merit articles. What harm is there in maintaining a very liberal policy on what information is not too insignificant to get an article? Relatedly, typically the best quick, online source for looking up information on a topic I'm very curious about is Wikipedia, and the fact that it is an encyclopedia needn't mean that in depth treatment of topics should be discouraged. Yet many articles on scholarly topics seem to go out of there way not to go in depth, not because of contributors' unwillingness to be thorough, but because wikipedia seems to have something against long articles. I'd be very appreciative if you'd discuss these related issues of topic qualification and article length.

Thanks,
Jacob Berlove
5.12.2009 1:22am
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
OK, just two more.

11. Another claim apologists for WP spreading disinfo make is the claim that edits that introduce fake information are corrected within minutes or hours. But, what about those people who see the article in an un-"corrected" state? Won't they think they're looking at the real article, with many of them not realizing they're looking at one containing fake information?

12. If old information keeps getting added to WP articles over time and changes keep getting made that have nothing to do with new information (such as someone winning an award or getting a new job), doesn't that mean that all the previous versions of the article - which may be the #1 search result for that person's name - were at the least not giving a complete picture of that person and may have been misleading all those who saw the article by not information them of relevant information?
5.12.2009 1:26am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
Jacob Berlove,

They'll just claim the same reason that Earth's entry in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy got cut down to "Mostly harmless."
5.12.2009 1:28am
DangerMouse:
Wikipedia is unreliable when it comes to those interests favored by the left. It's that simple. You can't read an article on Wikipedia that the libs like and expect to see well-rounded criticism. In contrast, articles dealing with subject that the libs dislike are routinely full of criticism.

Don't use Wikipedia at all, ever, to research politics, social topics, environmental issues, religion, culture and some history. Politically incorrect information is often purged from those articles, at the behest of the no-life lefty zombies that run the site.
5.12.2009 1:29am
John Moore (mail) (www):
DM

I agree with your observation, but not your characterization of those who run the site. It is the open nature of WP that allows the lefties to dominate - because they are more determined (as in, young and lots of time avail) and because the sourcing criteria inherently favor the left.

However, those who created and run WP seem to really be trying to make it unbiased - they just have an impossible task.
5.12.2009 1:50am
Leo Marvin (mail):

No one here wants to read who is a sockpuppet of whom or whether so-and-so's block was fair or not.

You underestimate the interest here in scuttlebutt, even if we have no idea who you're talking about. And as for Eugene outing your summer in math camp, take it from someone who spent every Saturday during high school in non-curricular math and science classes (time, my friends assured me, God wanted reserved for drugs and sex). I say fly that geek flag high and proud!
5.12.2009 1:55am
Kevin P. (mail):
I edit Wikipedia as kevinp2

Wikipedia's systemic weakness is that leftists are over-represented and persist in unbalancing entire topics.

For instance, the entire topic of global warming is subject to the Group Ownership of William M. Connolley, Kim D. Petersen, Raymond Arritt, Stephan Schulz and some others. Some of these folks are administrators and systematically shut out any contrary opinion or fact.
5.12.2009 2:10am
EverydayLiberal (mail):
I read the "Sonio Sotomayor" article a couple of days ago, and it was particularly funny to read the snippet "widely regarded as a political centrist" [30][31][32][33][34][35]...

Even if you think the articles are mostly free of bias, Wikipedia is clearly dominated by left partisans.
5.12.2009 2:12am
Ken Arromdee:
Wikipedia's practice of using consensus does not depend on relativism, or the notion that there are no objective facts. If anything, they depend on the notion that where there is an objective fact about a particular subject, a group of interested and reasonable people, with access to good primary and secondary sources on the subject, will be able to ascertain and agree upon that fact.

Wikipedia works on "verifiability, not truth". Three guesses as to what happens when something's verifiable but false.
5.12.2009 2:19am
G Miller:
Bruce:
I always assumed that the idea was that Russian speakers
would have trouble figuring out which English words get
the unfamiliar "w" sound and which get the normal "v",
and essentially overcompensate.

Just as modern English speakers, whose usual tongue has
"you" but not "thou", "the" but not "ye", have trouble figuring
out which sentences might call for obsolete "thou", "ye",
or "-est", and overcompensate when trying to speak period English.
5.12.2009 2:26am
grackle (mail):
I have an impression from doing Google searches on various arcane subjects over several years, where I have read material on Wikipedia and found it identically written on other what seem to be primary web sites about the subject matter; i.e. it seems that there is a lot of plagiarized material on Wikipedia freely lifted, without attribution. I am not certain that this is true, but the evidence of my searches points this way. Could you comment on Wiki plagiarism?
5.12.2009 2:27am
Monty:
Jacob Berlove:
Second, and even more important, given the virtually unlimited capacity of an online encyclopedia, it is particularly distressing that the community has gotten very stingy in judging what people or topics merit articles. What harm is there in maintaining a very liberal policy on what information is not too insignificant to get an article? Relatedly, typically the best quick, online source for looking up information on a topic I'm very curious about is Wikipedia, and the fact that it is an encyclopedia needn't mean that in depth treatment of topics should be discouraged. Yet many articles on scholarly topics seem to go out of there way not to go in depth, not because of contributors' unwillingness to be thorough, but because wikipedia seems to have something against long articles. I'd be very appreciative if you'd discuss these related issues of topic qualification and article length.


This is one of my principle objections to wikipedia. I understand the need to respect the privacy of individuals etc, but when that concern is not present, what is the reason for not including things? There are active movements to eliminate 'fancruft', usually arguing that only a fan would care, and therefor it is not worthy of inclusion. Interestingly, this rule rarely applies to really popular subjects, only the fringes where there are limited community members who are personally fans. If people think fitting the mold of the classical encyclopedia is important, there should be a flag that people can check for whether they want to see encyclopedic information, or all information.

My other big problem with Wikipedia is that there are transparency holes. Wikipedia should be applauded for its generally transparent governence, but it doesn't like to admit that the transparency is thrown out the window when there is even a slight threat to the wikipedia itself. Personally, I lost my love for wikipedia over the AACS encryption key controversy. Wikipedia admins took a very agressive approach to suppressing the key after it was released, and did so without transperecny (atleast intitially). Acounts were banned, edits where hidden, and no one was willing to admit openly what the admins were doing. If wikipedia really beleives in transparency, it should maintain it even if there are legal risks, and not cave at the first sign of danger.
5.12.2009 2:38am
Ken Arromdee:
First, I can't figure out when and why spoiler warnings were removed. The assertion is made that someone coming to read an article on a book can expect to see the book discussed in depth and needs no spoiler, but I've been very frustrated at being no longer able to look up a book just to find out general info, including how fans of the author rate the book, without risking the book being spoiled. Spoiler warnings would seem to provide a lot of benefit with no downside at all. Maybe you can explain why spoiler warnings are no longer in style, and let us know if there's any chance of that policy being reconsidered.

The only person ever to try fighting this when it happened was me. Yes, really. This incident was the last straw that really soured me on Wikipedia. And no, Jacob is not a pseudonym for me.

Removal of spoiler warnings was done by a mass of subtle abuses of the system, which included:

-- Removing spoiler warnings using an automated tool which was not supposed to be used for anything controversial, but where not stopping people from using the tool ended up as a single point of failure.
-- The fact that it's much easier to remove something that you can search for than to put it in. Deletion is much easier than addition. Probably the biggest one--a few people removed tens of thousands of them. It's impossible to put them back.
-- Deleting the spoiler warnings with misleading comments implying that it's settled policy (and then using the fact that the spoiler warnings weren't put back to justify the policy).
-- Removal of spoiler warnings in stages. First changing the spoiler warning template to be useless (eradicating the words "spoiler" and "warning". Yes, really.) Not many people object to this because it doesn't directly affect any articles except to make the spoiler warnings look silly. Then removing the template because it's useless (at which point the wording is a fait accompli and it can't easily be changed back).
-- Abusing the idea that if there's no consensus you keep the status quo. If you manage to sneak through something controversial despite there being no consensus for your change, now everyone's stuck--there was no consensus to change it, but there's no consensus to change it back, either.
-- The fact that you can change articles by changing policy pages first to require changes to the articles. At the time when you're changing the policy pages, the people who are interested in the articles don't even hear that anything's going on. Then once you changed the policy page, you can come to the article and say "Too bad, we're making this change and there's nothing you can do about it. You should have participated when we were changing the policy page; it's too late now".
-- The general fact that contesting the deletion of spoiler warnings means navigating a bureaucratic maze of figuring out where the right place to object is (let's see, do you need to do the RFA or the mediation first?)
-- Also, a lot of specious arguments that kept getting repeated loudly. One person claimed that spoiler warnings are banned as "original research" on the grounds that no source exists which says that something is a spoiler. (This person later supported the idea of having quality warnings about articles; needless to say, no source exists which says that a Wikipedia article needs cleanup or quality control.) Then there was the argument that putting spoiler warnings on a plot section is "redundant" because a reader can figure out that a plot section contains spoilers. Of course, all forms of human communication contain redundancy; this argument would suggest that a clock face should never contain more than one number because putting in numbers for all twelve hours gives the user 11 numbers that are of no use whatsoever.
5.12.2009 3:01am
Avatar (mail):
Wikipedia is great for areas of obscure fact - what's the operations history of the CV Enterprise, who was the leader of Prussia in 1844, what is a boson, what's the output of Nevada Solar One? Those articles are highly reliable mostly because they don't contain controversial facts or opinions. Changing them to false facts is pure vandalism, and that's uncommon enough that the site as a whole functions as an excellent general encyclopedia. As other commenters have noted, it's excellent when you've just encountered a technical topic and you need to know what the heck it's talking about, without taking a course on it.

For matters of controversy, it's useless. The page reflects the last group who wanted to register their opinion, or on the topics that have been locked up, it reflects the group that's been placed in charge. Wikipedia doesn't have a good filter for ideological editing - either it's a battleground between multiple forces or a quasi-tyranny of whoever got put in charge. Theoretically you could put together "controversy" pages with a summary of both sides' arguments, but in practice most people don't have the time and the main article is going to get trashed by partisans anyway.

I don't know that Wikipedia can fix that, honestly. I mean, it's difficult to rely on volunteer staff and then complain that they're not showing enough professionalism, right? It might be easier to just mentally file controversial topics as "don't search them on Wikipedia" and live with that.

I also see why Wikipedia is careful to limit the amount of new entries, especially details of particular works of fiction ("fan stuff"). The problem is disambiguation. If I search for "signum", the result I'm looking for is almost certainly related to the mathematical notation, not the character from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. People who want to set up super-detailed wikis for stuff like that are free to (and in fact there's a lot of them out there, many of them even useful.)

I don't know what the ideal solution is with respect to sourcing information. Of course, there's the problem of verifiable-but-wrong. It also discourages subject experts from contributing - "I know this is wrong, but even though I've got a PhD in the subject, I've got to point to an online article saying the same thing to get them to fix it? Bugger that!" At the same time, what are you gonna do? Expert authentication is tough even in real life, with actual matters of controversy and money at stake. Nobody's going to run a background check on you so that you can edit articles about Bourbon monarchs without a hassle.
5.12.2009 4:56am
Bob The Lawyer:
Avatar is right. Controversial articles are often a mess. A similar problem is that, the further away an article or point of view is from the mainstream, the more its edits will be dominated by a small minority that cares passionately about it. So fringe subjects are often treated with disproportionate respect and lack of context - conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, minority views of historical events, obscure political beliefs and - yes - Pokemon.
5.12.2009 6:41am
corneille1640 (mail):
One thing I'd be interested in Mr. Maretsky addressing would be Nieporent's point (@ 12:32 am) about use of Wikipedia by students. In my experience teaching history to undergrads, I notice a large amount of plagiarism off Wikipedia. I notice so much, that I tell them I prefer them to cite the Wikipedia rather than not cite. However, saying this seems to give Wikipedia a legitimacy that it probably should not have. I'm not saying it is wrong to use Wikipedia; only that it is hard to explain to first-year undergraduates, most of whom will not study history or any of the other "liberal arts," that Wikipedia must be used with care.

I look forward to reading Mr. Maretsky's posts!
5.12.2009 8:18am
rick.felt:
As other commenters have noted, it's excellent when you've just encountered a technical topic and you need to know what the heck it's talking about, without taking a course on it.

I don't know if others have noticed this, and if this is the case, perhaps Mr. Maretsky can address it, but I've found that the articles dealing with legal issues are among the poorest-written, least comprehensive, and most error-filled articles on Wikipedia. Now, I can hear the responses already, but I don't think they apply:

(1) "Legal issues are often controversial, and all of Wikipedia's controversial articles are bad." True to an extent, but only a fraction of legal issues are particularly controversial. I expect a big fight over the Roe v. Wade article. But there are plenty of totally boring, non-controversial topics within the law (e.g., mechanic's liens or bankruptcy cram down) that suffer from the same problem.

(2) "You have advanced knowledge within the legal field, so your knowledge is going to exceed the content of the article, and you'll be able to nitpick and find flaws that the unlearned would not notice." Again, true, but the law is not the only area where I have specialized knowledge and experience. Before I was a lawyer I was a research chemist, and the chemistry articles are fine. The articles related to my hobbies are fine, too. It's just the legal articles that are terrible.
5.12.2009 8:43am
Phil17 (mail):
A commenter above listed a pet peeve" when a student cites Wikipedia as a reference for a technical paper."

One of my pet peeve is when someone complains about Wikipedia being used as a source for papers.

I still remember my surprise, sometime in high school, when I was told that citing an encyclopedia in a term paper was bad form. My parents had purchased an encyclopedia years earlier, and we had classes teaching us how to look up material in an encyclopedia - I came to think of the encyclopedia as the ultimate in knowledge.

My teacher set me straight. An encyclopedia is an acceptable, even desirable tool for an elementary or middle school student. But at some point, one needs to learn that reading an encyclopedia isn't research. An encyclopedia, almost by definition, is a secondary source. By the time of high school and college, it is time to move on to primary sources, and for some, to move on to original research. It was an eye-opening moment.

So while I agree that Wikipedia is not an acceptable cite for a technical paper, I object to those who single out Wikipedia as not acceptable, rather than explaining that Wikipedia, just like Encyclopedia Britannica, is a secondary source, and a good technical paper should be citing primary sources.

This doesn't means a good student will ignore Wikipedia - they can use it where it is strong - read the relevant articles to get a decent summary of the subject (except for politically controversial subjects) and review the citations. Keep in mind that the citations are biased toward online sources, so make sure to load up on printed material not easily available online.
5.12.2009 8:44am
I_Edit:
Wikipedia is a tool -- and as with any tool, you have to know what it is good for and what it is not good for. As many posters pointed out, controversial subjects draw ideologues. But newspapers have slants too.... so do individual writers. Read a few articles about Israel and Palestinian conflicts. Fox news is rightist, CNN is leftist. Watch both. Watching either one, exclusively, is not wise. Proper use of any informational tool is to know these things, and to cross-reference information from multiple sources.

I tell students to not believe any single source w/o doing background work first. Even Encyclopedia Britannica has errors. I make it a habit at least once a week to include some easily provable falsehood in my classroom discussions. As the semester progresses, more students catch them, and they become much more vocal when they do.

I believe that Wikipedia -- and in particular it's foibles -- is itself a wonderful illustration of why we have to be more informed consumers of information.
5.12.2009 8:52am
Abdul Abulbul Amir (mail):

Wikipedia is great for areas of obscure fact - what's the operations history of the CV Enterprise, who was the leader of Prussia in 1844, what is a boson, what's the output of Nevada Solar One?


I used to think that as well, until my son told me about how his college buddies would change such items to win bragging rights bets. Ugh! You probably never knew that Beethoven was temporarily the leader of Prussia in 1844.
5.12.2009 9:00am
Bama 1L:
Phil17, if students cited encyclopedias, their instructors would certainly complain. But students don't, so instructors don't. Wikipedia has replaced Britannica as the lazy student's single source. Add to that the fact that you don't have the Britannica editors but just whatever internet user last felt knowledgeable and you can see why instructors become very wary whenever they suspect Wikipedia has been used.
5.12.2009 9:06am
Patrick from OZ (mail):
Like Monty and Jacob above, I find the deletion of 'unmeritious' articles profoundly disappointing, particularly on the scale it seems to happen on. If they aren't meritorious then no-one will read them.

And it seems to, as noted above, impose conformity on a particular world-view. The discussion page on deleting the anti-earth day page was very illustrative of this - quite clearly, some administrators were not going to consider that significant unless it was the front page of the NYT.
5.12.2009 9:22am
Richard Nieporent (mail):
Phil17, I don't just single out Wikipedia as being unacceptable. Rather, I tell students up front that acceptable references are from the technical literature, e.g., IEEE and the standards organizations. What I still get are references to magazine articles and Wikipedia.
5.12.2009 9:45am
common sense (www):
Although far less common, law professors are not above citing to wikipedia in submitted journal articles. Excepting articles about Wikipedia, or citing to wikipedia to prove some point not related to the substance of the Wikipedia article, this is clearly unacceptable.
5.12.2009 9:56am
Harold1995:

Wikipedia is unreliable when it comes to those interests favored by the left. It's that simple. You can't read an article on Wikipedia that the libs like and expect to see well-rounded criticism. In contrast, articles dealing with subject that the libs dislike are routinely full of criticism.

Don't use Wikipedia at all, ever, to research politics, social topics, environmental issues, religion, culture and some history. Politically incorrect information is often purged from those articles, at the behest of the no-life lefty zombies that run the site.


QFT
5.12.2009 10:05am
Harold1995:

Even if you think the articles are mostly free of bias, Wikipedia is clearly dominated by left partisans.


QFT
5.12.2009 10:06am
Harold1995:
I regard Wikipedia as a Cult rather than an encyclopedia. Views that do not conform to leftist PC orthodoxy are mercilessly routed out and stricken from the site.

Thus, Wikipedia isn't an "encyclopedia that anyone can edit." It's an encyclopedia "controlled by far left ideologues who require that articles conform to a specific worldview."
5.12.2009 10:08am
Harold1995:

I edit Wikipedia as kevinp2

Wikipedia's systemic weakness is that leftists are over-represented and persist in unbalancing entire topics.

For instance, the entire topic of global warming is subject to the Group Ownership of William M. Connolley, Kim D. Petersen, Raymond Arritt, Stephan Schulz and some others. Some of these folks are administrators and systematically shut out any contrary opinion or fact.


QFT
5.12.2009 10:10am
Patrick from OZ (mail):
would QFT once and for all in the one comment have been too much?
5.12.2009 10:22am
Frank_B:

2. Almost all of the external links at WP have a nofollow tag, meaning the link doesn't confer search engine "juice". So, if a WP article is based on and links to a page on another site, WP won't be giving that other site anything despite the fact that the WP article might not exist without the other site.

Surely it's easy to see why Wikipedia does this. An encyclopedia anyone can edits has enough problem with spam, even without the google-bumping incentives. Most blog comments are nofollow for precisely this reason. I'm mystified by the concept that using "nofollow" is somehow greedy, or that being a "Blackhole of link energy" is a damning criticism. Wikipedia has certain problems, and by changing the incentives with nofollow, we ameliorate those problems.


3. However, some links at WP don't have nofollow. Picture a huge, gigantic funnel for all that link juice coming in from other sites, and then being sent to just a small number of sites. Maybe our host could tell us what those sites are.

Fellow called Gregory Kohs (who you might be) criticizes Jimbo Wales' for-profit side project Wikia because it allegedly leaches off the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. This is a good example of it.

Wikia, as you apparently know, enjoys some following links from Wikipedia. Google juice to the whole net has been turned off, no matter how reputable the site, but "interwiki links" to for-profit Wikia are allowed. For example, see the Wookieepedia articles (Order D6-66, ect.) linked from Wikipedia. That strikes me as unjustified.

See also techcrunch 2007.
5.12.2009 10:41am
RichW (mail):
I am a University Lecturer of Information Systems at New Jersey Institute of Technology teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses. We usually try to have students 'academic' sources, i.e., refereed journals. Now you can look at Wikipedia as 'refereed' but there is doubt as to the qualifications of the referees since it is open and hard to assess what those qualifications are.
That said we allow Wikipedia as a source of demographic and technical facts. BUT, we usually want them to use a refereed source if possible as backup to that and in general want a couple of cites.
This is based, in part, on the idea of having verifiable sources from generally recognized domain experts that refereed sources tend to be more accurate and reliable. That is not to say that mistakes are not made or that a journal may not have a particular slant but the larger community exerts some policing of the process to limit this.
5.12.2009 10:47am
A. Zarkov (mail):
Although I use Wikipedia for some subjects for a quick start on something, I don't rely on it, especially with regard to anything controversial.

I have now come to the conclusion that we are-- on the whole-- worse off with Wikipedia than without it. False information, or incomplete information is worse than no information. For example Wikipedia is one of the worst sources you can come to on global warming. Look at the section on cloud physics-- it's tiny with no clue that this is the Achilles heel of the general circulation models. Any attempt to correct this deficiency won't last long. I would rather people went out on the net and did their own research than rely on Wikipedia.
5.12.2009 10:48am
Kirk:
rick.felt,

I certainly hope your #2 is not really being raised by anyone in defense: any decent simplification should be recognizable as still being generally true, or a good approximation, or something like that. Something that an expert will immediately identify as "error-filled" should not qualify as a decent abstract.
5.12.2009 11:02am
David Drake:
1. I find Wikipedia good for general background, even on controversial topics. It gets me started. I particularly make use of the book sources often cited at the end of articles. Those plus the Amazon ratings help me locate good books.

2. I never cite it in political discussions. Politics has gotten so polarized today that one of my interlocutors believes that the New York Times, CNN, and Wikipedia are biased to the right! So I have to really dig for facts.

3. On that topic, many Wiki entries are copies of info available elsewhere on the internet. As to who came first, I can't tell--it is, to me, equally likely that someone else copies Wiki than that Wiki copies them. (I am not a Wiki editor or anything so maybe those folks could tell). It is depressing to search a topic and then find four or five identical entries on four or five different internet sites, down to the typos.

4. If I were a student, I would not cite it in a paper nor (of course) simply copy what's there into my paper as if I had written it. If I were still a teacher, I'd (a) tell my students not to cite it, but that they could get started there but that they'd better not stop there or plagiarize it or any other source, and (b) look at the Wiki entry before grading papers and then fail any student who copied the entry plus invoke any other systemic remedies for plagiarism.
5.12.2009 11:24am
Frater Plotter:
Of course, the sort of folks who think that Wikipedia is "run by far left ideologues" are usually the sort of folks who think that the American political mainstream is "far left" for having elected Barack Obama by a solid majority. In reality the mainstream in a pluralist, open society is broad enough to include many views, and an encyclopedia project which explicitly recognizes this fact has demonstrated itself more capable of neutrality than one organized around the views of a single editor-in-chief.
5.12.2009 11:45am
Brad Patrick (mail):
Thanks for showing up here, NYB. Good company you keep. :)
5.12.2009 11:50am
Joseph Slater (mail):
Frater Plotter:

As I've noted before, if you hang around this blog long enough, you will learn that some commentors here believe the following groups in the U.S. are at least liberal and often "leftist," as a whole: the media, lawyers (including big law firms), the entertainment industry, unionized workers, blacks, hispanics, women, big businesses (with their PC affirmative action programs), Jews, poor people, rich people, pretty much anyone involved in education as a profession, and various other groups, including, of course teh gays. Of course, you can get to a majority of Americans quickly here, without even having to count all these groups, but somehow, it's all them who are out of step with the real America.
5.12.2009 12:08pm
Desiderius:
"It's an encyclopedia "controlled by far left ideologues who require that articles conform to a specific worldview.""

And then there's the other 99% of it. Good grief, people, its fine to turn into your parents, but did you have to turn into your crotchety old uncle?
5.12.2009 12:11pm
Desiderius:
Ira,

Please soldier through. I exceedingly curious for more tales of your Wiki experience.
5.12.2009 12:13pm
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
There is, of course, no such thing as liberal bias. All the liberals rush to tell me that, so it must be true.

Also, I just checked and I'm not Gregory Kohs, whoever that is.
5.12.2009 1:17pm
U.Va. Grad:
Shouldn't you be off telling Nick Gillespie what a bad investigative journalist he is, lonewacko?
5.12.2009 1:24pm
Anononymous314:
The fact that a member of the Kangaroo Court known as ArbCom is a member Conspirator has noticeably lowered the regard I hold for the VC.
5.12.2009 1:32pm
geokstr (mail):

Frater Plotter:
Of course, the sort of folks who think that Wikipedia is "run by far left ideologues" are usually the sort of folks who think that the American political mainstream is "far left" for having elected Barack Obama by a solid majority. In reality the mainstream in a pluralist, open society is broad enough to include many views, and an encyclopedia project which explicitly recognizes this fact has demonstrated itself more capable of neutrality than one organized around the views of a single editor-in-chief

Making up what you claim conservatives believe again, I see.

We don't for a second believe that "...the American political mainstream is "far left"...", that is actually what the left has been trying to get us to accept for several years now. We still think this is a center-right country. We do however think that all the players mentioned by my Obamamania IV ladder match opponent below are definitely either "far left" or have been bought off by the far left (with the exception of big businesses who often have these PC programs simply out of fear of far left retribution).


Joseph Slater:

As I've noted before, if you hang around this blog long enough, you will learn that some commentors here believe the following groups in the U.S. are at least liberal and often "leftist," as a whole: the media, lawyers (including big law firms), the entertainment industry, unionized workers, blacks, hispanics, women, big businesses (with their PC affirmative action programs), Jews, poor people, rich people, pretty much anyone involved in education as a profession, and various other groups, including, of course teh gays. Of course, you can get to a majority of Americans quickly here, without even having to count all these groups, but somehow, it's all them who are out of step with the real America.


And if you hang out here, you might also come to believe that conservative = Nazi from the commenters on the left.

And how exactly you get to a majority by adding up those groups is beyond me. Obama got 53% of the vote when all those groups helped totally obfuscate who he was, combined with an unpopular president (whose low ratings were heavily influenced by the incessant pounding he took for 8 years from those same groups), and the conveniently timed economic collapse from a process largely set in motion and pushed heavily by "far-leftists", that home ownership should be available to everyone regardless of the ability to like, actually, you know, pay for it or something. That caused several million moderate independents to vote against the party in power. If those few million vote the other way, Obama does not win.

Now of course, they're claiming some kind of supermajority massive huge mandate, that the American people knowingly wanted them to radically transform the American economy.
5.12.2009 1:41pm
Joseph Slater (mail):
24aheadDotCom:

I don't know what liberals tell you, but here's what conservative Richard Posner recently said (cut and pasted from www.fivethirtyeight.com):

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.
5.12.2009 1:45pm
Blue:
Er, Slater, you do realize that 538 is unapologetically leftist and Democratic, right?
5.12.2009 2:01pm
Joseph Slater (mail):
Blue:

I realize that 538 is unapologetically Democratic. I wouldn't call it leftist, but the point is that it's a quote from Richard Posner, who is usually thought of as being on the conservative side of things. So unless you think 538 is making that quote up -- and that would be quite out of character -- I don't see what point you're making.

I don't mean to hijack this thread away from an interesting discussion of Wikipedia, by the way. Just a response to the "it's all a LEFTIST CONSPIRACY folks."
5.12.2009 2:06pm
DerHahn (mail):
Nate Silver picks an interesting point to cut off his quote.

The next line (emphasis added)

And then came the financial crash last September and the ensuing depression.

I wonder what Posner calls what happened between November 1929 and January 1, 1940.
5.12.2009 2:08pm
Bruce Hayden (mail):
1. The main reason WP turns up in searches is because people keep linking to it. If "popularity" means traffic, that should only play a minor role. If anyone wants to help push WP entries lower in the search results, stop linking to it. ...
I don't think this is quite correct. Google, at least, does more than just look at popularity of a given page. In particular, it tries to determine what sort of information your are looking for. Thus, if you are looking for some product, comparison shopping is often provided up near the top. And, if it determines that you are looking for information, and there is a Wikipedia entry for that information, it is typically provided up near the top. Of course, since rankings are based on clicks, and clicks are to a very great extent dependent upon page placement, this is self-reinforcing.

My information here comes from a client who does search engine optimization (i.e. massages web pages to get higher placements). One of his points is that Google, in particular, is a rapidly moving target. What is true one week, may not be the next. So, this may already be well out of date.
5.12.2009 2:18pm
John Moore (www):

I don't know what liberals tell you, but here's what conservative Richard Posner recently said

If you read enough conservative writings, you can always find stuff like this - especially after a devastating electoral loss.

It does not, however make it true just because a conservative wrote it.
5.12.2009 2:19pm
Bruce Hayden (mail):
I use Wikipedia heavily in my work as a patent attorney. It is a fast way to come up to speed on any number of technical subjects. I also use it for background information a lot. But, like most here, I don't trust it for controversial subjects.

Several months ago, I reconnected with Mike Godwin, after a couple of years of not communicating with him. He is now GC for the Wikipedia Foundation. Finding that out, I told him of my love/hate relationship with Wikipedia. His response was that it is a great initial or secondary source, but you need to use it for just that, and not rely on it as a primary source. Instead, you can use it as a jumping off place for more research. Except for the most egregious political cleansing of entries, I think that he is exactly right.
5.12.2009 2:31pm
Joseph Slater (mail):
It does not, however make it true just because a conservative wrote it.

Obviously. It's just that I was responding to a quote dismissing what "all the liberals" say, so I had to find a non-liberal source.
5.12.2009 2:32pm
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
Meanwhile, back at the topic, my point is that any claims that WP doesn't have a distinct bias are obviously wrong because one set of people claim it isn't biased and another set claims it is, and both are large sets.

As for Bruce Hayden's comments, Google bases most of what it does on links. People sell links on their sites for that specific reason. By that I mean real links, not Javascript-based ads or similar. So, if I had thousands of other pages linking to one of my pages using a certain phrase, there's an excellent chance that my page would appear near the top for that phrase.

As for WP, some suspect that the search engines hand-edit the results so it appears at or near the top, as Google does with Youtube. However, a good part of that placement is no doubt due to links, and if WP suddenly got a lot fewer links they might fall or at least their placement would be even more suspect.

Google occasionally runs a click-through script, and I imagine that plays a role in placement although I don't know exactly how they use it. They might have Javascript that records what you click through even without the clickthrough script, so when I want to visit WP through a search I always copy and paste the link.
5.12.2009 2:36pm
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
Bruce Hayden says: His response was that it is a great initial or secondary source, but you need to use it for just that, and not rely on it as a primary source.

That's just great. The problem is that millions of people are using it as their primary source and may be basing voting decisions and the like on it. When you actually look at its impact on millions of people, you'll see that WP is as pernicious as the MSM.
5.12.2009 2:40pm
Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk (www):
The idea that Judge Posner is a "conservative" is true only if one is using either a very broad or very idiosyncratic definition of the term. For example, his pragmatic judicial philosophy and approach seem a far cry from the sort of orginalist/textualist theories that conservatives advocate.

On the topic of Wikipedia, I think it may serve as a fine starting point for casual research; but, I cannot imagine why anyone would place serious reliance on it as a source given its obvious shortcomings (e.g., "Irish student hoaxes world's media with fake quote").
5.12.2009 2:43pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
And then came the financial crash last September and the ensuing depression.

I wonder what Posner calls what happened between November 1929 and January 1, 1940.
I don't know, but Arlen Specter calls it a Super Duper Depression.
5.12.2009 3:22pm
Patrick from OZ (mail):
I hate lefties and the lefty-biased media as much as just about anyone, trust me. And I have had my share of rage against idiotic WP-admins deleting pages and monitoring edits to protect their precious little worldviews - should we call it WP_PC_trolling?

But that doesn't mean I hate wikipedia. I think it is a truly fantastic resource and an even better idea. The argument that WP is bad because people misuse it or use it unwisely strikes me as pathetic. Does it apply to guns, for example? What about money? What about voting full stop?

In short, anything can be used badly or unwisely, it is hardly an argument against the thing in question. I would rather focus on improving WP, most of all (imho) by making it very hard to delete a page.

One way to do this would be to require at least 10 admins voting for deletion and greater than 10-1 admins in favour before the page goes down, and in the interim just retaining the 'flagged for deletion' banner. That would prevent the most egregious abuses and (it seems to me) be truer to WP's primary goal of disseminating information freely and widely.
5.12.2009 3:26pm
Thehappysmith (mail):
I edit at WP as thehappysmith (shocker), though it's been a while since I did any significant editing there. Like you I too found it fun to edit, for a time, but as things have changed I've found it's become less fun.

I have restricted my editing in the last few years to articles about places where I live or have lived and of which I have first-hand knowledge, and articles about obscure plant taxa. Even these have ceased to be fun to edit, and I wonder at what rate editor turnover is occuring on wikipedia--i.e. the rate at which editors who would like to ensure the accuracy of pages about which they have genuine knowledge are being replaced by editors with superficial knowledge who enjoy the competitive nature of edit wars more than the search for accuracy. I once spent the better part of two months engaged in a back-and-forth over the existence of a tree growing outside my office, but which was unknown in the states and belonged to a genus that an uninformed writer had once claimed was monotypic. That writer's article was posted on the web, but the truth was only to be found in actual libraries. Trying to convince an editor with no special knowledge and only a link to an outdated article posted online by the New York Botanical Garden not because of its accuracy but because, in the the NYBG's own admission, it had very nice watercolors with it, that a tree I could walk outside and touch did not in fact exist wore me out. I haven't edited much since. I find myself doubting the accuracy of even technical articles these days, since I can visit any two articles about native North American trees and find meaningful inaccuracies on at least one them, and if I correct them, they'll just get reverted unless I have a web article to back me up. It's not worth it any more.
5.12.2009 3:26pm
Desiderius:
John Moore,

"I agree with your observation, but not your characterization of those who run the site. It is the open nature of WP that allows the lefties to dominate - because they are more determined (as in, young and lots of time avail) and because the sourcing criteria inherently favor the left.

However, those who created and run WP seem to really be trying to make it unbiased - they just have an impossible task."

Which makes them not unlike just about every other institution liberals (as opposed to the left) have created these last 200 years. Perhaps a better approach than endless attacks on the creators or their institutions would be a concerted effort to combat the dominators themselves, in alliance with the creators, rather than antagonism against them or endless appeals to a standard of fairness that is in fact impossible to achieve.
5.12.2009 4:27pm
Boy Wonder:

Of course, the sort of folks who think that Wikipedia is "run by far left ideologues" are usually the sort of folks who think that the American political mainstream is "far left" for having elected Barack Obama by a solid majority. In reality the mainstream in a pluralist, open society is broad enough to include many views, and an encyclopedia project which explicitly recognizes this fact has demonstrated itself more capable of neutrality than one organized around the views of a single editor-in-chief.


Holy Fuzzy Math Batman!

Let's see, Prop 8 passed with 52.24% of the vote in Kalifornia. Leftists constantly tout Prop 8 as "barely passing" or "narrow" as to its margin of victory.

Obama was elected with 52.87% of the popular vote. Yet Leftists categorize his victory as "solid" or in same cases a "landslide" or "mandate."

What a difference .63% makes.
5.12.2009 4:35pm
Patrick from OZ (mail):
Frater Plotter:

... an encyclopedia project which explicitly recognizes this fact has demonstrated itself more capable of neutrality than one organized around the views of a single editor-in-chief.

This strikes me as prima facie false. What encylopaedia 'organised around the views of a single editor-in-chief' is actually considered more biased than WP? Names? I'm willing to consider reputable speciality encylopedia as well.
5.12.2009 4:41pm
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
A related issue is that BobCyclopedia's biases can be analyzed and used to show whether Bob is biased or not and that can be used to hold him accountable. If he lies, that will serve to discredit him. With WP, you're dealing with thousands of contributors, almost none of whom are accountable. If Jimbo393 lies, what are you going to do after he simply changes his handle?
5.12.2009 4:45pm
A Law Unto Himself (mail):
BOTTOM LINE - if you want to find a simple fact or formula (I found the definition of trapezoid for my son who was confused by his geometry homework) it works.

If there is any controversy in the subject material, it is LESS THAN WORTHLESS.
5.12.2009 4:52pm
Guest14:
A lot of the problems Wikipedia has with controversial subjects stem from reality's well-known left wing bias.
5.12.2009 6:22pm
Bolie Williams IV (mail) (www):
The whole "notable" issue has gotten absurd. Some people who are moderately well known on the Internet (especially webcomic authors) are deleted as "not notable" while extensive articles about fictional minor characters in books or television shows are kept as "notable." I find it amusing that Wikipedia is an excellent resource for trivia about fictional worlds (from books, television, videogames, etc...) but the editors look down their nose at the authors of fictional worlds...
5.12.2009 7:13pm
FDA:
Ira,

There was a confidential opinion issued by the Office of Legal Counsel to reagan on this. The issue was resurrected again during the Clinton administration. It is referenced at the Heritage site on their Cosntitution section and in the NYTimes (but I cannot link the NYT now, will try to send later).

www.heritage.org/Research/LegalIssues/wm2149.cfm

(Hello from your first job in law, btw.)
5.12.2009 8:33pm
NickM (mail) (www):
Even articles that haven't been vandalized are often lousy.
Let's take the articles for the last 2 Congressmen from Florida's 16th district (Tim Mahoney and Tom Rooney). Both articles are rather bare-bones.
The Mahoney article contains grossly obsolete statements, such as:

Some professional political pundits, such as Charlie Cook, have already reclassified the race as "Leans Republican."

Has no one who read that article in the last half year noticed that sentence? I had not read the article at all until today.
The Rooney article says this about his election:

His victory was solid, and reception good on the most part, and as one young fan noted when asked on a local news channel what he thought about his new Congressman, Joe Zarcone stated, "Oh yeah! I love Tom Rooney!" His leading victory was attributed by widespread campaigning

In addition to the illiteracy evident in the last sentence and the fanboy quotation in the prior sentence (I wouldn't be surprised if Joe Zarcone or someone he knows well wrote it.), there is no mention whatsoever that his victory had anything to do with a sex scandal involving his opponent - a scandal important enough to cause the major local newspaper to change its endorsement.
That was put in on May 8 by someone with no other contribution history to Wikipedia. This is an article about a member of the House of Representatives. 4 days is more than enough time for someone to have noticed the addition of junk to it. I hadn't read the article previously.

I decided to also look at the article for the newly chosen Minority Leader of the CA State Assembly, Sam Blakeslee.
His article is basically a summary of the biography on his legislative website. He's in his third term in the legislature, so people have had time to come up with more. Never fear; the WikiProject California is on the case. Of course, they have rated this as low importance. I'm not really sure how a state legislator ends up being low importance, but that's how it goes.
If you look at the chart of members of the California State Assembly, there's one who doesn't have any page at all! If you then go to the alphabetical list, 11 members aren't on it!
If you then go to the California State Senate page, you find that whoever has edited it can't even keep straight the number of members of each party in the legislature (different portions of the page say 14 and 15 Republicans). The good news is that they do have pages on all 39 current members (there's one vacancy with a special election pending).
I spent a little more time looking at CA current and former state legislators' pages.
The Nell Soto page (former St. Assemblywoman and St. Senator, who died this year) was the second one I went to - I know a bit about her because a friend of mine ran against her several years ago. It contains a real howler. In May of last year, somebody with the IP address 76.166.244.235, who has never contributed to any page other than that one, changed this:

In 2007, Soto was not in Sacramento for 25 days while she was out sick, but collected a total of $22,032 as a [[per diem]] that is supposed to be for travel and living expenses - as long as the Legislature is not in recess for more than 3 days in a row.

to this:

In 2007, Soto was criticised for not being in Sacramento for 25 days while she was out sick, and collecting a total of $22,032 as a [[per diem]]. This money is a standard amount paid out to legislators not just for travel and living expenses, as she was criticized for, but also to pay for district office space, utilities, and staff resources etc.

This is grossly false. Per diem is for the legislator's personal expenses, not for staff or office expenses. Those come out of a separate office budget each legislator is given. This falsehood has been there for just under a year, without being edited. It is "sourced" with a link to a Sacramento Bee story that is now unavailable.

This is a poor record for Wikipedia on fairly significant public figures - and with one exception, it's not even ideological.

Nick
5.12.2009 8:43pm
Larry Fafarman (mail) (www):
Dangermouse said,
Don't use Wikipedia at all, ever, to research politics, social topics, environmental issues, religion, culture and some history. Politically incorrect information is often purged from those articles, at the behest of the no-life lefty zombies that run the site.

I wholeheartedly agree. Wikipedia is OK on non-controversial topics but really sucks royally on controversial topics. On controversial topics, Wickedpedia is not even a good source of references because politically incorrect references are routinely purged.

I made a suggestion for handling controversial entries: When an item is disputed, simply enter a brief description of the item, a statement that the item is disputed, and links to external websites or separate Wikipedia discussion pages where the disputed item is discussed or debated. There would be no Wikipedia endorsement of the disputed item and Wikipedia article pages would not be cluttered up with long discussions of controversial items. THIS SIMPLE, SENSIBLE SUGGESTION WAS IGNORED. Wickedpedia's preferred methods for handling disputes are censorship and endless edit wars. Wickedpedia also has a crazy set of rules that the control-freak Wickedpedia administrators exploit to "lawyer you to death" if you try to make a politically incorrect entry. One of Wickedpedia's problems is that it tries to look like a printed encyclopedia and fails to take advantage of the Internet's capability of instantly linking to external sources where disputed items can be discussed and debated.

Wickedpedia has reached the point of no return -- all the decent people have left the organization in disgust and all that is left is a bunch of crazies.

I am glad to see that there are so many other commenters here who share my negative opinion of Wikipedia.

My blog has three post-label groups of articles that attack Wikipedia [1] [2] [3]
5.12.2009 11:40pm
Ken Arromdee:
My blog has three post-label groups of articles that attack Wikipedia

Your link #3 has a complaint that Wikipedia wouldn't list the creationist "Of Pandas and People" as a banned book.

The book was not allowed to be used to teach science in a classroom. That's no more a "banned book" than saying that teachers can't use Harry Potter to teach science means that Harry Potter is a banned book.
5.13.2009 12:22am
Larry Fafarman (mail) (www):
Ken Arromdee moans,
The book was not allowed to be used to teach science in a classroom.

The book was not in a classroom -- it was in the school library and was optional reading. The book's mere mention in a classroom was banned by a federal judge. The book was banned. It doesn't matter why the book was banned, the fact is that it was banned. B-A-N-N-E-D.

That's no more a "banned book" than saying that teachers can't use Harry Potter to teach science means that Harry Potter is a banned book.

That's a straw man argument because teachers would never try to use Harry Potter books to teach science -- Darwinists are very fond of making straw man arguments. If teachers tried to use Harry Potter books to teach science and such use was formally banned, then yes, the Harry Potter books would be banned books. And it is impossible to make an objective determination of whether or not a book is a banned book if subjective factors -- such as how legitimate a book is as a science textbook -- are allowed to enter into the determination.

Anyway, there was a big dispute over whether Pandas should be listed as a banned book by Wikipedia. I proposed that the book be listed along with a statement that the listing was disputed and links to external websites where the dispute was discussed or debated. In Wikispeak, that approach would have been the NPOV (neutral point of view) approach. All sides would have been presented, there would have been no Wikipedia endorsement of the listing, and the article would not have been cluttered up with discussions or debates of the dispute. No soap -- the Wickedpedians rejected the proposal. The Wickedpedians completely rewrote the whole banned-books article just to avoid listing Pandas, showing that they really believed that Pandas qualified as a banned book under the original criteria.

Here is the Wikipedia debate -- in which I participated -- over whether to include Pandas in the Wikipedia list of banned books. This debate is a classic example of the "lawyering to death" that I spoke of -- I used logical arguments whereas a control-freak Wickedpedian administrator named Kim van der Linde kept demanding over and over again, like a broken phonograph record, that I provide a "reliable non-partisan source" that says that Pandas is a banned book.

A Darwinist commenter strikes out again.
5.13.2009 5:00am
Ken Arromdee:
I think you do have somewhat of a point here, but not as much as you think. The ALA's definition says that a book which is banned from the curriculum counts as a banned book. Thus, not being allowed in a science curriculum should count.

It is true that Wikipedia has a "no original research" rule, which says that you can't decide that something is a banned book yourself; you need a source which calls it a banned book. On the other hand, the original research rule is is easily abused. It should not be used on straightforward logical deductions. The definition of a banned book is so straightforward that insisting that someone else apply the definition first is like insisting that a source which says someone was born in Detroit, Michigan is not good to indicate that they were born in the USA.

On the other hand, common sense says that a book which isn't allowed to be taught because it's not accurate shouldn't count as a banned book.

It looks like what happened is that people recognized that the book isn't a banned book simply by common sense. Like many Wikipedians, they refused to apply common sense to editing Wikipedia and instead tried to stretch the rules to give them an excuse. So you're right, but you're also wrong--their stated excuse for not listing the book is flimsy, but the book still doesn't belong. Rewriting the article so that the book doesn't count is actually a pretty good solution--obviously books which aren't accurate shouldn't count; if the article is phrased so as to allow for them, the article should be fixed.
5.13.2009 10:41am
Cato The Elder (mail):
Here's another prominent example of leftist bias:

I had been taking a course some years ago on Criminality, and during a school break, was trying to get a head start on a paper at the local library which I had not been to before. I needed some DOJ statistics, specifically on murder, and so I decided to look it up on Wikipedia. After the couple of click-throughs that always occur when I browse, I was trying to find "rape statistics" - and of course, the politically correct administrators had blocked all mention of them, because they probably are very discomfiting to the liberal crusaders who still insist you can be locked up just for being Black. The statistics on interracial rape particularly, since there are more than 30,000 black-on-white offenses and less than 10 white-on-black offenses committed in a single year.

I just rechecked the page a minute ago, and one can note that this has been marked "controversial" since 2007, and yet the tag still remains there even now, roughly mid-2009. The article is chock full of references to the "unreliability" of DOJ statistics &"under-reporting" of male-on-male rape in prison - I doubt very much that any of those statistics exist, but if they do, by all means write them up for all to see! Hilariously enough, when I checked the discussion page, a feminist administrator was one of those primarily responsible for suppression of rape statistics!
5.13.2009 2:00pm
Larry Fafarman (mail) (www):
Ken Arromdee said,
It is true that Wikipedia has a "no original research" rule

The "no original research rule" is a perfect example of a stupid, arbitrary Wikirule. This rule says,

Editors should not make the mistake of thinking that if A is published by a reliable source, and B is published by a reliable source, then A and B can be joined together in an article to reach conclusion C. This would be a synthesis of published material that advances a new position, and that constitutes original research. "A and B, therefore C" is acceptable only if a reliable source has published the same argument in relation to the topic of the article.

In other words, if one reliable non-partisan source says that bears live in the woods and another such source says that bears shit, concluding that bears shit in the woods is "original research," which is not allowed on Wikipedia.

On the other hand, common sense says that a book which isn't allowed to be taught because it's not accurate shouldn't count as a banned book.

You still don't get it. The question of a book's accuracy can be subjective, and -- as I said -- introducing subjective issues prevents an objective determination of whether or not a book should be considered to be a banned book.

My main point is that there was a significant dispute over whether the book should be listed, and I proposed a simple, sensible solution for resolving that dispute: list the book, state that the listing is disputed, and provide links to external websites where the dispute is discussed or debated. Wickedpedia's preferred ways of handling disputes are censorship and edit wars.

Rewriting the article so that the book doesn't count is actually a pretty good solution


No, it is not good solution, for reasons stated in the Wikipedia discussion.

The arbitrary, dogmatic, tyrannical Wickedpedia administrators are impossible to deal with. On the global warming issue, a journalist said,

In contrast to the high-handed treatment that greet global warming skeptics, those who support the orthodoxy are puffed up and protected from criticism, their errors erased and their controversies hushed. This is the case with Naomi Oreskes, a scientist with a PhD who had arrived at an absurd finding: That no studies in a major scientific database questioned the UN view of climate change. . . . .

. . . .In any event, her Wikipedia page is not really about her but her study, which has been thoroughly discredited by credible journalists and scientists. To suppress these critiques, the trollers apply Wikipedia's bewildering rules as to what can and can't appear, and when the rules are inadequate, the trollers make up new ones on the fly.

Several weeks ago, as I described in an earlier column, I attempted to correct passages on the Oreskes page that would lead readers to think her study had been vindicated and also to think that U.K. scientist Benny Peiser, one of her critics, had abjectly withdrawn his criticisms. Wikipedia's rules thwarted me, used to revert my corrections, again and again. Those who came before me in attempting to make corrections, and, I would find out, those who came after, were similarly thwarted.

Wikipedia refused to accept Peiser's critique, or his interpretation of his own views, or an account of his views that he had provided to me, or an account of his views published in a peer-reviewed journal, or an account of his views published in The Wall Street Journal, or an account of his views published by the U.S. Senate committee on environment and public works. Instead, the Wikipedia trollers insisted that all of the above sources were disqualified or irrelevant under Wikipedia rules, and that the trollers' own understanding of Peiser's views trumped all others.

Saying that Wikipedia sucks is a gross understatement.
5.13.2009 3:39pm
Bolie Williams IV (mail) (www):
Arguing that an Intelligent Design book was "banned" from a science classroom is like arguing that astrology books are "banned" from science classrooms. ID is not science. Should every pseudoscience book be listed as "banned" just because schools only teach science in science class (though this isn't true... ID is taught in some schools).

Of course the "no original research" rule means that wikipedia should theoretically give equal weight to things like astrology, intelligent design, homeopathy, and other quackary since many people believe them and there are published sources out there that claim there are true. I'm not sure that that lots of people forming a consensus is a good way to find the truth...
5.13.2009 3:55pm
Larry Fafarman (mail) (www):
Bolie Williams IV moaned,
Arguing that an Intelligent Design book was "banned" from a science classroom is like arguing that astrology books are "banned" from science classrooms.

Bolie, I came here to bash Wikipedia, not to argue about whether or not Of Pandas and People should be listed as a "banned book." I didn't even raise the Pandas issue here -- someone else did.

By not following my proposal of listing the book along with a statement that the listing is disputed and links to external websites where the dispute is discussed or debated, Wikipedia violated its own rule of covering all viewpoints held by "significant" groups, including significant minorities (BTW, I am not conceding that only a minority thinks that Pandas should be listed). The Wikipedia rules say,

If a viewpoint is held by a significant minority, then it should be easy to name prominent adherents; [link]

"Prominent adherents" of listing the book as a banned book are the Discovery Institute and William Dembski.

Of course the "no original research" rule means that wikipedia should theoretically give equal weight to things like astrology, intelligent design, homeopathy . . .

That is not what the "no original research" rule says.
5.13.2009 8:09pm
YellowMonkey:
Wikipedia is a haven for members of cults and terrorist groups to spam
5.13.2009 9:47pm
YellowMonkey:
Also, in Wikipedia election processes, everyone wants a guy who will not do anything to them (hold them to account). As a result, the net result is that people tend to not get voted in unless they engage in "small target politics", ie having no policies. Then people complain about why the leaders don't do anything and don't care about cult advertising etc... and so forth.

As for the smaller wikis, I'd rather not start. I know one ethnic group on Wikipedia where all of them insist on using "martyr" and "freedom fighter" on all people of their own race. Not hard to imagine what happens on smaller mono-ethnic wikis where these guys can just post their racial supremacist nonsense in complete bliss
5.13.2009 9:55pm
YellowMonkey:
In reality, the high-ranking admins of Wikipedia do not actually run it. The ethnic warlords do. The high-ranking admins only reinforce/acquiesce what the warlords want. Sure they punish a few other "important" people for misconduct, but these are just token shows against the ones whose powerbase are on the decline.

There's more 200 times more inconsistency on WP than there is by the most corrupt/hopeless sports umpires out there
5.13.2009 9:58pm
Ken Arromdee:
You still don't get it. The question of a book's accuracy can be subjective, and -- as I said -- introducing subjective issues prevents an objective determination of whether or not a book should be considered to be a banned book.


You're missing my point. The only reason needed to keep the book out of the list is common sense. It's just that Wikipedians don't like to use common sense, so instead they abused the rules. The abuse of the rules was irrelevant, since the book doesn't belong in the list even without an abuse of the rules.
5.14.2009 12:46am
Larry Fafarman (mail) (www):
Ken Arromdee and Bolie Williams IV, you are both thread-hijacking trolls. This thread was supposed to be about Wikipedia, and you hijacked this thread for the purpose of bashing intelligent design and the book Of Pandas and People.

Ken Arromdee moans,
The abuse of the rules was irrelevant

What do you mean, "the abuse of the rules was irrelevant"? On Wikipedia, the rules are supposed to be everything! The rules are supposed to be sacrosanct! These rules are used to "lawyer to death" anyone who tries to make a politically incorrect entry! And I described how the rules were abused in the case of Pandas: The rules say that Wikipedia is to present all viewpoints held by "significant" groups, a group is "significant" if it has "prominent adherents," and the viewpoint that Pandas should be listed as a banned book had prominent adherents that I named, the Discovery Institute and William Dembski. And as I said, I did not ask that Pandas be listed as an undisputed entry.

Lawrence Solomon, the journalist I quoted previously, wrote in the National Review,

Ever wonder how Al Gore, the United Nations, and company continue to get away with their claim of a "scientific consensus" confirming their doomsday view of global warming? Look no farther than Wikipedia for a stunning example of how the global-warming propaganda machine works.

As you (or your kids) probably know, Wikipedia is now the most widely used and influential reference source on the Internet and therefore in the world, with more than 50 million unique visitors a month.

In theory Wikipedia is a "people's encyclopedia" written and edited by the people who read it — anyone with an Internet connection. So on controversial topics, one might expect to see a broad range of opinion.

Not on global warming. On global warming we get consensus, Gore-style: a consensus forged by censorship, intimidation, and deceit.

. . . . Turns out that on Wikipedia some folks are more equal than others. Kim Dabelstein Petersen is a Wikipedia "editor" who seems to devote a large part of his life to editing reams and reams of Wikipedia pages to pump the assertions of global-warming alarmists and deprecate or make disappear the arguments of skeptics.

. . . . .Now Petersen is merely a Wikipedia "editor." Holding the far more prestigious and powerful position of "administrator" is William Connolley.

. . . . . by virtue of his power at Wikipedia, Connolley, a ruthless enforcer of the doomsday consensus, may be the world's most influential person in the global warming debate after Al Gore.

. . . . . Wikipedia is full of rules that editors are supposed to follow, and it has a code of civility. Those rules and codes don't apply to Connolley, or to those he favors.

. . . ..Nor are Wikipedia's ideological biases limited to global warming. As an environmentalist I find myself with allies and adversaries on both sides of the aisle, Left and Right. But there is no doubt where Wikipedia stands: firmly on the Left. Try out Wikipedia's entries on say, Roe v. Wade or Intelligent Design, and you will see that Wikipedia is the people's encyclopedia only if those people are not conservatives.

Again, here are links to my blog's three post-label groups of articles about Wikipedia -- [1] [2] [3]
5.14.2009 3:09am
Ken Arromdee:
What do you mean, "the abuse of the rules was irrelevant"? On Wikipedia, the rules are supposed to be everything!

The abuse of the rules was irrelevant because the book doesn't belong in the list even without abusing the rules.

Besides, they finally kept the book off the list by rewriting the article so that the book isn't eligible, which does not abuse any rules and which is what they should have done in the first place.
5.14.2009 5:59pm
Larry Fafarman (mail) (www):
Ken Arromdee moans.
The abuse of the rules was irrelevant because the book doesn't belong in the list even without abusing the rules.

You said that already. This thread is supposed to be about Wikipedia and you are still trying to hijack it to argue about Of Pandas and People.

Even if the book doesn't belong in the list, that does not excuse abusing the rules. The rules say that Wikipedia should cover the viewpoints of all "significant" groups -- I went through that already.
Besides, they finally kept the book off the list by rewriting the article so that the book isn't eligible, which does not abuse any rules and which is what they should have done in the first place.

The rules are still abused by the new article because a "significant" group believes that the book belongs in any general list of "banned books." Wikipedia could have followed my simple suggestion of listing the book along with a statement that the listing is disputed and links to external websites where the dispute is discussed or debated. I challenge you to tell me what is wrong with that suggestion. I have to go over these same points over and over again because you just keep ignoring them.

Also, a lot of important information was lost when the article was rewritten and rewriting it took a lot of unnecessary work.

Wickedpedia sucks and you look very foolish bending over backwards trying to defend it.
5.14.2009 8:15pm
Jon Awbrey (www):
Greetings,

I wanted to share some of my experiences with Wikipedia here, but weariness overcomes me of late when I turn to that subject, so I'll just post a link to a vein, er, thread that I opened for that purpose over at The Wikipedia Review, whose relative quiet I hope will make it easier for me to gather my thoughts.

Cf. First Thoughts and Last Laughs on Wikipedia

Be There RB^2,

Jon Awbrey
5.15.2009 8:28am

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