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Type in almost anything into a search engine and, aside from porn, Wikipedia will feature fairly prominently in the results as representing facts on that topic. Is that really a good thing?

In journalistic circles, Wikipedia is regarded a joke. Most credible publishers will automatically reject any work whose author cites Wikipedia as a source for basing an argument (yes, OK, I do it). This opens up an interesting debate and a few of my own favourite thoughts on this most nefarious of Internet inventions.

Wikipedia’s goal is to become an encyclopedia of everything; a one-stop shop for knowledge on any topic, corporation, person, historical event, war, scientific discovery, theological debate, everything.

To this end its style guidelines state that all articles must be in a neutral voice. A noble aim, except every article is written by people and no person is neutral: everyone is swayed by popular opinion. Everyone who reads a (real or online) newspaper, listens to the radio, or watches news on TV is manipulated — sometimes very subtly — into taking a particular stance. Consequently Wikipedia is swayed by majority thinking, led by the mainstream press.

Permit me to take a tiny detour to illustrate a point…

Spin it

Remember Abigail? The girl who was out walking her baby in the park and was knifed? The day after it happened The Daily Star ran with this headline:

Young Abigail was out for a spring stroll with her baby when the knife-wielding maniac struck

Mild sensationalism, you think? Designed to manipulate people into either buying the paper and/or evoking empathy for the “victim” (whom I’d guess 99.997% of the population never knew) with very little corroborating evidence to the contrary at the time of publication. It directs your thought processes by using her first name; painting a serene setting; mentioning the baby; and generating animosity towards the man. All in seventeen well-crafted words.

While such an attack is no doubt deplorable, consider one of these scenarios — all valid outcomes that could have surfaced after investigation — that might shed a different light on things:

  1. What if this so-called knife-wielding maniac was her jealous boyfriend who had found her cheating on him?
  2. What if the man in question had spent the night on the park bench and had been robbed?
  3. What if her partner had come home the day before to find her beating their baby because she couldn’t cope with it crying, she’d thrown him out and it was his knee-jerk way of stopping her causing further harm to the infant?

Two wrongs of course don’t make it right, but human emotion is a complex animal; especially given there are so few places to legitimately vent our rage in today’s society.

Thus I’d argue the paper could have run with something like:

Woman in hospital after being knifed in throat

It’s factual, has no media spin associated with it, and doesn’t lay guilt without proof.

Fitting in

So how does Wikipedia fare in this regard? Pretty badly it seems. If I edit any article to provide a controversial counterpoint it could be rejected by wiki admins with higher authority than I have. The article could even be locked or I could be banned if I persisted, regardless if my comments were well balanced. So, primarily, my views have to fit in with those of the editors in order to be published.

Second is the laughable notion of authenticity. The rules state that I cannot claim anything in my neutral voice on a Wikipedia page unless it is backed up by a credible citation. Two immediate problems:

  1. This citation is a web link and all web links are transient at best, or their content can be altered at a later date.
  2. A ‘credible’ source carries more weight if it is one of the news websites; Fox, CNN, BBC, MSN, etc. All of which are edited by people with varying socio-political views; most of which are owned by a tightly knit media group; and most of which are guilty of sensationalism as highlighted above. If I link to one of these articles — and I’d of course pick the best fit from the varying versions of “the truth” that supported my wiki argument — it validates my writing and trumps anything that 10 000 bloggers might have written in opposition.

Marge, there’s the truth or… THE TRUTH

A wonderful example of the transient nature of Wikipedia can be found in the twelve-volume encyclopedia of edits to one wiki page. This exercise focused on The Iraq War and catalogues every edit made to that single page over a five year period.

While the author of the volumes and the various blogs that linked to it are quick to claim that it’s brilliant to document public squabbles and arrive at the “true” definition of what really happened in that media-for-oil war, very few touched on the problem that plagues Wikipedia’s mission statement of becoming the de-facto truth: at any point in those five years and 12 000 edits to that page, someone wanting to know about the Iraq War from a Google search would more than likely land on the wiki page and be presented with “The Truth” as it was on that day. 11 999 (and counting) of those edits were, by inference, wrong or at best misleading.

So the academics have it right: Wikipedia should never be trusted under any circumstances to deliver fact. Which begs the question: what is the point of its existence?

5 vagabonds left a mark

    Julian Landerreche

    Well, I think I get your point, and I don't think it's easy to come up with a good, almost-absolute answer to this riddle... for the very same reasons the Wikipedia is flawed: I can't handle the truth either.

    Should any other encyclopedia be trusted, for that matter?
    Should any source be trusted, being it online (transient) or printed on paper (quickly outdated, and equally flawed about who is saying "the truth"), for that matter?
    Printed encyclopedias doesn't have edit/revision tools nor a discussion/forum place available for consumers. Wikipedia has them and Wikipedia visitors used them.

    Also, should we trust any information or knowledge that we cannot prove empirically by ourselves?

    Yeah, we all "know" the Earth is round, globe-shaped and that it orbits around the Sun, but how many of us have gone out there to really, scientifically, prove it?
    We just trust what teachers taught us about Cristobal Colon or Galileo Galilei and their discoveries.
    At that point, it is "creer o reventar" ("have faith or go bust", "believe it or not").

    I think this kind of questions leads to byzantine discussions, intellectually appealing but mostly impractical for all purposes.

    At the end of the day, I think the Web is a great place to share knowledge on every topic, even for hot, discussed topics with "more than one truth". The tools that empower that sharing are still being shaped, refined and re-defined.

    Personally, I usually refer or visit the Wikipedia just as another source to help me achieving a better understanding (or "to reach a better degree of truthness for a topic") on any topic I'm interested in.

    Stef Dawson

    Yep, always a struggle to know what’s real without perceiving it for oneself. And, as you say, printed media is worse… “It’s in a book: it must be true”!

    I don’t think there’s any right answer and unless the real Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is ever published, I reckon Wikipedia is as close as we’ll probably get to an encyclopedia of everything.

    You have hit the mark precisely: perhaps the moral of the tale is to believe what you like, but take anything you read or hear with a grain of salt, unless you can prove it for yourself.

    [ P.S. sorry for the mangled characters and deTextiling of stuff on comment submission. The XSS filter in the prognostics plugin is too strong and I need to figure out a way to fix it ]


    In fact, Wikipedia has at least the same quality than some of the best printed encyclopedias.

    Some of articles suck, but other encyclopedias also have some sucking articles, redacted from a neutral point of view but with some subtle incorrections.

    Why Brittanica is better than Wikipedia. How to measure it?

    You can assume that web is mutable. Some URL that today point to an interesting article tomorrow leads yo to a 404 error, or to modified version of the article, with very subtle modifications.

    i.e, in 2008 were an plane accident in Madrid Airport. Every five minutes most Spanish online papers updated the amount of victims but the didn’t writed that it was a modified article or that the emergency team has didn’t finished to count the bodies. Same URL but diferent continue. Why? To attract pageviews. My workmates was hitting F5 repeatly to have the updated figure, but with every page printed the ads was also printed. The news are changed every four or five minutes y most newspapers, even the serious ones.

    The conclusion is that the true depends only os the here and the now.

    You cannot check every article of a encyclopedia, even with a clear sources you cannot check all the sources of most articles, but at least Wikipedia stores the changes in articles.

    Stef Dawson

    Exactly. What is true today may not necessarily be true tomorrow, and in that regard Wikipedia is streets ahead of any printed journal. And the fact the changes are logged is very important (although whether proposed changes that don’t make the grade are logged, I’m not sure).

    My point was that if its mission statement is to be the ultimate online resource for everything about anything, it’s doomed to fail from the start by virtue of the fact very little is ever fully understood — certainly in the scientific world — and historical events are largely hearsay.

    Compounded by this is that the wiki editors — the ones with the power to ban people or redact edits — have dubious political backgrounds at best. For instance, not one of the Wikipedia pages surrounding the build up to or events of World War II mention that Hitler was funded by US industrialists and political risers like Prescott Bush. Given the evidence — all freely available to piece together from reports at the time and subsequent publications — this seems like a glaring omission considering we teach kids such “facts” about history in school.

    If I went in and made a balanced statement to that effect on such a high-profile page, it would be removed immediately or not permitted on the wiki. The reasons are many, I’m sure. Incidentally, the financial link is mentioned in a Guardian article linked as a resource off the Prescott Bush wiki page, but you need to know to search for him to find it.

    The upshot is that if we assume all facts appearing on Wikipedia have to be aligned with the views of its editors, we can only conclude it’s not much more use as an encyclopedia than it is a mainstream news outlet.

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