Wikipedia: The Faith-Based Encyclopedia?

Former Encyclopædia 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 “revert wars†that are also features of Wikipedia’s insistence on openness and that apparently occupy much of the volunteer editors’ 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 “encyclopedia.†This is a word that carries a powerful connotation of reliability. The typical user doesn’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 don’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.

Update: Slashdot confirms something commenter Arwel noted:

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

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. M. Murcek says:

    The principle that applies is the Law of Ultimate Syzygy:

    If you put a teaspoon of wine in a barrel of sewage, you get sewage.

    If you put a teaspoon of sewage in a barrel of wine, you get sewage…

  2. Jay Cline says:

    update their information to catch up with developments–something at which Wikipedia is astonishingly adept–

    I was using Wiki just this morning, reading an article on Charles Lindbergh. It had been obscenely graffitied.

    I jumped to Wiki’s Contact Us page, only to find very simple instructions to correct it. So I did. But a little investigation, using Wiki’s tools, revealed that the perp had been making mayhem all over Wiki, and not more than a couple hours before I saw them.

    So I started to track down the articles the perp had profaned, only to realize all but one other mess had already been cleaned up.

    Yes, it is real easy to write graffiti on Wiki’s wall. But unlike New York, it is even easier to clean up.

    And there are a whole lot more of us than them.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    In looking over the posts on Beyesian statistics/methods I’m actually pretty impressed. Overall, the information is pretty darned good. Of course, extrapolating from that data point to the rest of Wikipedia is inapprorpriate, but there is some good stuff in there, IMO.

  4. Kent says:

    I have found some of the articles on the loftier reaches of mathematics and physics quite good. But I have also found some remarkably poor ones, such as the article on degenerate matter, which besides being incomplete, has some factual errors in what is said. And this in spite of the fact that the article has been edited several times.

    I have also seen articles that can only be described as propaganda or advertising (not that there’s a huge difference.) I once found an article on a “remote viewer” (a kind of clairvoyant psychic) that could only be characterized as an advertisement for his professional services. Come to think of it, it’s still there.

    I sometimes use Wikipedia for a quick lookup on something I already know a lot about, because I can usually spot the bunkum if it’s present. I wouldn’t feel very comfortable using Wikipedia for something I didn’t know much about.

    On balance, I have to go with the sewage analogy.

    I have enough more to say that I should probably just go off and start working on an appropriate blorticle.

  5. Arwel says:

    “Nature” has done an interesting comparison of 42 science-based articles on both Wikipedia and Britannica Online ( ). It makes interesting reading, and not much comfort for Mr McHenry, since it shows Britannica is not much more accurate than Wikipedia! “Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.”

  6. Just Me says:

    It is a good place to start, or can be a quick link for some basic facts, but in general I don’t use it or view it as an authoritative source.

    I think quality has a lot to do with the subject being researched.

  7. ChrisO says:

    Kent, thanks for pointing out that article on Paul H. Smith – it was clearly a vanity article, which should never have been posted in the first place. It was contributed by an anonymous editor (probably the man himself) and nobody had touched it since. I’ve deleted it now.