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May 6, 2005 / jnolen

Wikipedia is not infallible; but then neither are we

Paul Boutin has a brilliantly written article on Wikipedia at Slate today. Paul sets up his article with a fortunitously timed and incredibly accurate comparison between Wikipedia and the H2G2. I have just re-read all of the Hitchhiker books in preparation for the movie, and I'm crushed that it never occurred to me do an article on the uncanny similarities between the two works.

Unfortunately, despite how much I admire his writing and his brilliant premise, I firmly disagree with his thesis.

Boutin writes,

Excessive nerdiness isn’t what’s keeping Wikipedia from becoming the Net’s killer resource. Accuracy is. In a Wired feature story, Daniel Pink (kind of) praised the hulking encyclopedia by saying you can “[l]ook up any topic you know something about and you’ll probably find that the Wikipedia entry is, if not perfect, not bad.” But don’t people use encyclopedias to look up stuff they don’t know anything about? Even if a reference tool is 98 percent right, it’s not useful if you don’t know which 2 percent is wrong.

First, there is no source that we can trust to be 100% accurate — not even a real ink and paper encyclopedia with paid writers and editorial boards. Assume that such authorities deserve implicit trust and you might as well be living in the middle ages. Infallibility is not something I’m willing to ascribe to religious leaders, much less encyclopedia articles.

The Wikipedian cry of “stop complaining about it and fix it” is valid, but it diverts attention from Wikipedia’s even greater strength: transparency. With a traditional encyclopedia, the writing, editing and assembling of the articles is an opaque process. With wikipedia, it’s all out in the open. You can see what articles were added and deleted; sentences that were excised as incorrect or non-nuetral; arguments that the community had over facts and opinions; who eventually won and why. And you can make your own decisions armed with far more information that a traditional encyclopedia would ever give you.

Obviously, not that every Wikipedia reader will go to the trouble of doing “meta-research” on an entry. It really depends on how important accuracy is in a given situation. For example, I’m going to be extra vigilant if I’m trying to learn about dangerous chemicals. Or if I’m writing my dissertation, I might want a secondary source. But if I’m researching the history of the Heavy Metal Umlaut, or reading about Star Trek, then 98% accuracy may be just fine.

Wikipedia is as least as important for a pioneering methodology of radical openness as it is for the actual content of the encyclopedia. So use Wikipedia for what it is. Take its information with a grain of salt (as indeed you should with even the stuffiest leather-bound volume). And realize that Wikipedia has already changed the world by showing that trust, openness and evolution can be just as powerful as hierarchy and control.

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