Some people are condescending toward people who use or quote Wikipedia. That this is at least uncalled for (and maybe even blatantly wrong, on which you’ll read some more later on), is clearly demonstrated by the samples that Richard Dawkins took. Read here what he said on the topic of the trustworthiness of Wikipedia.
Dawkins on the reliability of Wikipedia
And then there is the perennial problem of sorting out true information from false. Fast search engines tempt us to see the entire web as a gigantic encyclopaedia, while forgetting that traditional encyclopaedias were rigorously edited and their entries authored by chosen experts. Having said that, I am repeatedly astounded by how good Wikipedia can be. I calibrate Wikipedia by looking up the few things I really do know about (and may indeed have written the entry for in traditional encyclopaedias) say ‘Evolution’ or ‘Natural Selection’. I am so impressed by these calibratory forays that I go, with some confidence, to other entries where I lack first-hand knowledge (which was why I felt able to quote Wikipedia’s definition of the Web, above). No doubt mistakes creep in, or are even maliciously inserted, but the half-life of a mistake, before the natural correction mechanism kills it, is encouragingly short. John Brockman warns me that, while Wikipedia is indeed excellent on scientific matters, this is not always so “in other areas such as politics and popular culture where . . . edit wars continually break out.” Nevertheless, the fact that the Wiki concept works, even if only in some areas such as science, flies so flagrantly in the face of all my prior pessimism, that I am tempted to see it as a metaphor for all that deserves optimism about the World Wide Web.Richard Dawkins (2010) | Net gain. [Emphasis added.]
The above was also published in Dawkins’ 2017 essay collection Science in the soul. In this republication, the following footnote was added after ‘even maliciously inserted’:
Insertions are sometimes more vain than malicious. While performing my ‘calibrating’ read (see above) of the entry on natural selection, I noticed that the limited bibliography contained a book which I had read and knew was scarcely if at all relevant to the subject. I went in and deleted it. Within half an hour it was back, I’m guessing reinserted by the author. I deleted it again. It returned again and I gave up, beaten. It isn’t there, by the way, in the much longer and more thorough entry.Richard Dawkins (2017) Science in the soul. Selected writings of a passionate rationalist. Bantam Press. Ed. Gillian Somerscales, p. 189.
Dawkins experiment replicated
Pop science magazine Live Science replicated Dawkin’s experiment by “consulting experts from two very different walks of life: theoretical physics (Adam Riess) and pop music (Nate Donmoyer).” The scientist was a lot happier with what he saw than the pop music-expert. ” It’s remarkably accurate (…) better than 95%,” said Riess. “10 factual errors” said Nate Donmoyer, who was asked to study the page about the band in which he himself is the drummer. The article concludes: “It may make sense that Wikipedia would have more reliable articles about academic topics than pop culture ones, considering that the latter are more prone to rumors and hearsay.”
Wikipedia on Wikipedia
However, Wikipedia has the following to say about it’s own reliability.
Wikipedia is not a reliable source. Wikipedia can be edited by anyone at any time. This means that any information it contains at any particular time could be vandalism, a work in progress, or just plain wrong. Biographies of living persons, subjects that happen to be in the news, and politically or culturally contentious topics are especially vulnerable to these issues. Edits on Wikipedia that are in error may eventually be fixed. However, because Wikipedia is a volunteer run project, it cannot monitor every contribution all of the time. There are many errors that remain unnoticed for days, weeks, months, or even years. Therefore, Wikipedia should not be considered a definitive source in and of itself.The explanatory supplement to the Wikipedia:Reliable sources guideline.
Although strictly true, it’s a bit harsh on itself. There’s actually an article on Wikipedia which considers it’s own reliability: Reliability of Wikipedia. It points out that it’s reliability has been tested:
– through comparative review
– through analysis of the historical patterns &
– strengths and weaknesses inherent in the editing process unique to Wikipedia.
Nature on Wikipedia
The second paragraph states that Nature said (in 2005) that Wikipedia’s scientific articles came close to the level of accuracy in Encyclopædia Britannica and had a similar rate of “serious errors.” That happened in the article: “Internet encyclopaedias go head to head” in which Wikipedia and Britannica’s coverage of science are compared.
A few (curtailed) highlights:
- … an investigation carried out by Nature suggests that high-profile examples are the exception rather than the rule…
- … the exercise revealed numerous errors in both, (n=42), the difference in accuracy was not particularly great…
- … 8 serious errors (e.g. misinterpretations of important concepts) were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, 4 from each…
- … editors at Britannica would not discuss the findings, but say their own studies of Wikipedia have uncovered numerous flaws… [LOL]
Political biases in Wikipedia
Finally, a few notes on the warning John Brockman gave Richard Dawkins about the not-so-excellency of Wikipedia articles concerning politics.
That Wikipedia’s articles on politics are politically biased is one thing, but do not forget that most encyclopedias and science magazines et cetera are written mostly by journalists and academics, and both those groups are majorly left-leaning. When I discussed this topic, I got to know that history students back in the days (and, I hope, still today) where advised to use approximately three encyclopedias to cancel out each others errors. That same heuristic should always be applied, to everything. Don’t read only one newspaper, read a bunch; don’t check only one newssite, check a few; don’t subscribe to just one blog, subscribe to a dozen; don’t believe that one medical expert, get a second opinion.
And, most importantly, do not forget to think for yourself: it’s good to trust but it’s better to check.