Wikipedia: The Faith-Based Encyclopedia?
Former EncyclopÃƒ¦dia Britannica Editor in Chief Robert McHenry offers some thoughts on the recently-publicized struggles of WikiPedia:
The premise is this: By making every article open to the revisions, corrections, and updates offered by any and all users, the collective knowledge and wisdom of the whole community will find expression in each article. In short, every article will get better and better. The flaw is this: Many revisions, corrections, and updates are badly done or false. There is a simple reason for this: Not everyone who believes he knows something about Topic X actually does; and not everyone who believes he can explain Topic X clearly, can. People who believe things that are not the case are no less confident in their beliefs than those who happen to believe true things. (In case this point interests you, I have written extensively on it.) Consequently, it is far more reasonable to expect that, while initially poor articles may indeed improve over time, initially superior ones will degrade, with all tending to middling quality and subject to random fluctuations in quality. Note that this has nothing to do with the vandalism or the ideological Ã¢€œrevert warsÃ¢€ that are also features of WikipediaÃ¢€™s insistence on openness and that apparently occupy much of the volunteer editorsÃ¢€™ time and effort.
To the ordinary user, the turmoil and uncertainty that may lurk beneath the surface of a Wikipedia article are invisible. He or she arrives at a Wikipedia article via Google, perhaps, and sees that it is part of what claims to be an Ã¢€œencyclopedia.Ã¢€ This is a word that carries a powerful connotation of reliability. The typical user doesnÃ¢€™t know how conventional encyclopedias achieve reliability, only that they do. Nothing in or around the Wikipedia article on the screen gives any indication that the people who produced it donÃ¢€™t necessarily know, either.
The credentialist in me certainly finds this argument appealing. Still, while admittedly anecdotal, I’ve found Wikipedia articles on things where I have some reasonable amount of expertise but need a quick fact check remarkably reliable for what it is.
There’s little doubt that Britannica’s panel of experts is more authoritative and less susceptible to mischief. Still, they are much slower to update their information to catch up with developments–something at which Wikipedia is astonishingly adept–and, by virtue of being a for-profit enterprise, not readily available for those wishing to look things up but unwilling or unable to spend the money.
Wikipedia is not sufficiently authoritative to serve as a source for academic research, as Steven Taylor has noted repeatedly (see here and here). Like any encyclopedia, though, it’s not a bad starting point for a subject matter novice.
Nature magazine recently conducted a head-to-head competition between Wikipedia and Britannica, having experts compare 42 science-related articles. The result was that Wikipedia had about 4 errors per article, while Britannica had about 3. However, a pair of endevouring Wikipedians dug a little deeper and discovered that the Wikipedia articles in the sample were, on average, 2.6 times longer than Britannica’s – meaning Wikipedia has an error rate far less than Britannica’s.” Interesting, considering some past claims. Story available on the BBC as well.
Related: Wikipedia: Information Anarchy