Wikipedia: Good Enough

Oliver Kamm declares himself “an enemy of Wikipedia” because its “purpose is to secure consensus rather than accuracy.”  Norm Geras demurs:

This is a metaphysical rather than practical objection. In matters of information, of truth and falsehood, I, too, am for accuracy. But when I go to Wikipedia I am not doing philosophy, I am not researching a scientific paper, I am not seeking medical advice for a desperately ill person that I will then get him or her to act upon, and I am not figuring out how to construct a bridge over which millions of tons of traffic are to pass. I am mostly trying to get a quick answer to some factual question – such as what is someone’s date of birth, what is the location of a certain town, in what order did Darryl Heimschmarrel write his 15 books, and where is the Droke of Garwinton. Most of the information I get off Wikipedia is accurate. I am at liberty to check anything I doubt, or anything at all.

As with my discussion with Stacy McCain on cultural literacy, I find myself strangely on the populist side.

No, Wikipedia isn’t a scholarly tome or even Encyclopedia Britannica. Then again, my very expensive volumes of the latter are no longer even displayed on valuable bookshelf space, having escaped the rubbish bin only because my visceral self has not caught up to my intellectual self on the matter of sunk costs.

Wikipedia is convenient, incredibly up-to-date, and generally quite good.   Only on the most controversial and timely topics is it sometimes wildly inaccurate — and even then for short periods. (See British Conservative Party Edits Wikipedia to Back Brown Claimfor an amusing recent example.)

Photo by Flickr user Todd Mecklem, used under Creative Commons license.

FILED UNDER: General,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Eneils Bailey says:

    Wikipedia is convenient, incredibly up-to-date, and generally quite good. Only on the most controversial and timely topics is it sometimes wildly inaccurate — and even then for short periods.

    Wow, That sounds like my first cousin on drugs.

    Never could quite figure out what a “short period” for him was…..

  2. Franklin says:

    If you need to look up some math or scientific equation, I would confirm that Wikipedia is just about perfect.

    About controversial topics, of *course* you have to be aware that it may not be perfect. But you’ll often find a ton of references at the bottom of the page which further help your search for truth.

  3. tom p says:

    When I was a kid, we had a set of EBs. There was a certain feeling of power that came with the possession of those volumes: “Within these leaves are distilled the entire knowledge of mankind.” It was a b*tch to grow up and find out that nothing could be further from the truth, still I miss the feel of those old brown tomes.

    For quick (and relatively accurate) fact checking, you can’t beat Wiki. But, “buyer beware”…

    While recently doing some basic research for an article I am writing I looked up “fer de lance”(bothrops asper) (a central and south american pit viper) I read: “It has been suggested that the venomous bite of B. asper was a factor in the choice of certain Mayan settlements such as Nim Li Punit, where the thick jungle inhabited by these snakes was used as a defensive boundary.”[9]

    I have a little bit of experience with this snake, and between that and what else is in the article, I found the inference of that statement (that the Mayans picked certain sites for their villages for the prevalence of FdLs) to be ludicrous on its face. I followed the cite and sure enough, the author made reference only to the fact that these snakes exist in the jungles where the Mayans built their villages.

    In other words, approach with a healthy skepticism, and follow the cites.

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  4. tom p says:

    Wikipedia is convenient, incredibly up-to-date, and generally quite good.

    and

    Wow, That sounds like my first cousin on drugs.

    Never could quite figure out what a “short period” for him was…..

    HA! Eneils, I was right with you until you said, “him”…

  5. I find myself falling into the purely pragmatic argument here. It’s good enough. For the tasks it’s not good enough for, such as the aforementioned scholarly work, people don’t use it. But for general, quick overview, “encyclopedia” content, it’s good enough, and as long as it stays that way and stays so cheap to maintain, people will keep using it, and rightly so. It’s called “efficient allocation of resources.”

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  6. just me says:

    I think it is a useful starting point when looking for facts. I think it is better with regard to facts than opinion, and I think some topics may end up with a bias. One thing i do like are that there are often external links to other sources-often primary in the footnotes area.
    .
    I don’t think it is a great cite for papers and such, but I think it is a starting point.

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  7. John Burgess says:

    I do think ‘good enough’ is about right.

    I think, too, that it’s even better if you click on the ‘Discussion’ tab to see the fighting over the inclusion or deletion of materials on the topic. To me, that is more useful than the cites at the bottom of the page as those are subject to editorial whim as well.

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