Don’t dismiss Wikipedia!

The Weston High School Library recently posted a slide show from Rutgers University explaining why students shouldn’t use Wikipedia. This carefully produced polemic deserves a thoughtful rebuttal; I have endeavored to write one here. Be sure to watch the slide show before reading the rest of this essay.

Those of us of a certain age will remember Hamilton Burger’s frequent cry of “Incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial!” from the old Perry Mason TV shows. The Rutgers slide show on Wikipedia immediately prompted me to raise the same objection. First, however, I do need to acknowledge the considerable amount of truth in the Rutgers argument. Yes, of course there are many biased statements, inaccuracies, and downright lies on Wikipedia. Yes, it should not be cited as an authoritative source in a formal research paper. Yes, Wikipedia sometimes falls short when we’re looking for accuracy, authority, objectivity, and currency.

But that’s just one side of the picture. The authors of this tendentious slide show fail to meet their own criteria by ignoring the other side! Here, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story:

  • Every single example in the slide show comes from a narrow range of subjects in which the perceptive reader should immediately be aware of bias. Indeed Wikipedia should not be relied upon for information about history, politics, or biography — subjects where opinion is likely to substitute for facts, whether intentionally or inadvertently. But there are other subjects where Wikipedia is exceptionally reliable. In two fields that I know a lot about, mathematics and linguistics, it is unquestionably the first place to look for accurate information. Go to Wikipedia to find out about vowel harmony in Turkish, but not about political harmony in Turkey. Go there to find out about number theory, but not about the theory of evolution.

    This is not to say that Wikipedia is 100% accurate — of course it isn’t. But so-called “authoritative” sources aren’t 100% accurate either. I recently gave an assignment in which I asked my freshmen to comment on some statements about geometry from presumably authoritative sources; these contained errors that I was unable to find on Wikipedia but quickly found elsewhere. Even textbooks are far from immune. I am reminded of the late Richard Feynman’s famous critique of a middle-school science textbook that contained questions like, “John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?” Of course professors like textbooks; they write them, after all. The rest of us should be skeptical of all sources, even textbooks.

  • Regardless of the subject, Wikipedia is a fine location for beginning one’s research. It should be your first stop, not your last. I’m reminded of those advertisements in which a dealership or carpet store says, “Shop us last!” Aside from the newfangled use of “shop” as a transitive verb, which I can’t help noticing, I also observe that the slogan makes more sense than the “Shop us first!” that one sometimes sees. Wikipedia is indeed not the place to cite in your footnotes, but shop there first.
  • Finally, the authors of the slide show make misleading use of their own sources. Why on earth do they cite Stephen Colbert of all people — not just once, but twice — as an authoritative source? Their whole argument is undermined by quoting a comedian in this role. Furthermore, although it is cute for them to cite the founders of Wikipedia in support of their argument, they do so in a highly misleading way. They quote one statement, “Wikipedia acknowledges that it should not be used as a primary source for serious research,” without emphasizing the word “primary”; of course it’s not a primary source, but it’s a great place to start in order to continue on to those primary sources. Then they quote Larry Sanger as a “co-founder of Wikipedia” as if he were still on board, whereas in reality he has every reason in the world to be bitter and biased; he is hardly an authoritative or neutral source. Finally, they quote Jimmy Wales (who is still very much on board) in a manner that is clearly incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial: “For God sake, you’re in college; don’t use the encyclopedia.” Go read the original source, and it becomes clear that Wales is talking about encyclopedias in general, not just Wikipedia. He does say that Wikipedia is a good place to start, though you would never know it from reading this quotation that was taken out of context.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Technology, Weston