One of the extraordinary stories of the Internet age is that of Wikipedia, a free online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit. This radical [Wikipedia is "radical"? Why - because everyone can edit it? That's hardly "radical"; for centuries now everyone has been able to write graffiti on walls and carve arbitrary texts on trees.] and rapidly growing publication, which includes close to 4 million entries, is now a much-used resource. But it is also controversial: if anyone can edit entries, how do users know if Wikipedia is as accurate as established sources such as Encyclopaedia Britannica? [But now those previously confused users will know for sure that Wikipedia is almost exactly as accurate, because the hotshots from Nature examined 42 entries and counted in them only 30% more errors than in the same Britannica entries. A veritable dish of stewed dingleberries. ]
Several recent cases have highlighted the potential problems [Curious how problems that are factual and have happened, become "potential"]. One article was revealed as falsely suggesting that a former assistant to US Senator Robert Kennedy may have been involved in his assassination. And podcasting pioneer Adam Curry has been accused of editing the entry on podcasting to remove references to competitors' work. Curry says he merely thought he was making the entry more accurate. [Of course, no mention is made of how Jim Wales' attempts to fudge his own biography in Wikipedia in violation of Wikipedia's own policy, or of the methodical distortion of facts perpetrated by Wikipedia's science cabal on the Aetherometry entry.]
However, an expert-led investigation carried out by Nature
— the first to use peer review to compare Wikipedia and Britannica's coverage
of science — suggests that such high-profile examples are the exception rather
than the rule.
[It really requires gall to refer to an examination of 42 entries chosen on the basis of innocuousness and length comparability, as an examination of "coverage of science". (Had the entry for "Lymphocyte", for example, been more extensive in Britannica, it would have been excluded from the comparison. Ain't that cute?) And Nature publishes this disingenuous crap? And
how, pray tell, would a comparison of "coverage of science" between the two
encyclopedias allow one to conclude that cases like Seigenthaler's and Curry's,
which have nothing to do with science, are "the exception rather than the rule"?
But let's play Giles' game for a
moment and imagine that the statistics he implicitly wants to make us believe
- 2 "bad" entries to every 42 "good" entries - are in fact representative
of all of Wikipedia. That would mean that 1/20, or 5% of all Wikipedia
entries, were unreliable. How much comfort can a Wikipedia user derive
from knowing that he or she only has 1 chance in 20 of being grossly misinformed
when looking something up in Wkipedia?]
The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three
[How can a count of "inaccuracies" be an indicator of the quality of encyclopedia entries? If one compares two articles about the same scientist, one consisting of an extended description of the scientist's appearance and breakfast habits, and the other a description of his scientific life and work, the first one may well contain many fewer "inaccuracies", but can we therefore conclude that it is of greater merit as an encyclopedia entry? No. And yet here is Nature, pretending that we can.]
how Wikipedia articles are written, that result might seem surprising. A
solar physicist could, for example, work on the entry on the Sun, but would
have the same status as a contributor without an academic background. Disputes
about content are usually resolved by discussion among users.
[Here we have Giles preparing for a role in the WikiJunior project, rehearsing bedtime stories for wikikids. First of all, if you look at the history of the Wikipedia entry on the Sun, you will immediately see what common sense already tells you - that in fact not all "contributors" have "the same status". There is, for example, a person who is fond of replacing parts or all of the entry on the Sun with cheerful greetings such as "Hi Matt". This person's contributions get immediately reverted, without any accompanying discussion, and it is clear that the "status" of the authors of these reversions is considered higher than that of the "Hi Matt" contributor, whose Wikipedia status is that of "vandal". And it is also clear that this has to be the case, because without such "inequality of status"- i.e. without, in effect, the existence of an ever-watchful Wikipedia police force with a de-facto authority to treat others as "vandals" - all Wikipedia entries would, most of the time, hold content comparable to "Hi Matt".
Now, you might say - or Giles might
say - that this is not a proper counterexample to Giles' "equal status" statement,
because the "Hi Matt" person, by the very fact of being a vandal, cannot
be called a "contributor", and replacing paragraphs upon paragraphs of scientific
facts and figures with "Hi Matt" cannot be called a "contribution". But doesn't
this depend on the actual quality of these facts and figures? If, for
example, the facts only mascaraded as facts, but were in reality highly misleading,
wouldn't replacing them with"Hi, Matt" actually be an improvement, a true
And, in fact, sometimes - though not,
presumably, in the case of the article about the Sun - the equivalent of
replacing an entry with "Hi, Matt" is considered a contribution.
This is in effect what happens when an entry is voted for deletion.
Here, replacing an entry - however many paragraphs, facts and figures it
might contain - with nothing at all is not considered to be an act of vandalism;
on the contrary, it is attempts to reinstate the entry that would be treated as vandalism.
Obviously, then, Giles' faux infantilisms notwithstanding, some Wikipedia users have the authority to decide what is and what is not a "contribution", what is and what is not "vandalism" - and thus have a different status within Wikipedia than other users. Where Giles is correct is in stating that this status has nothing to do with academic background - and, as we have shown in our disquisition Wikipedia, a Techno-Cult of Ignorance, it also has nothing to do with expertise or even with elementary familiarity with the subject matter about which decisions are being made. Most often, from what we can detect, it also seems to have nothing to do with intelligence. In fact, it is quite possible in Wikipedia to have a situation where the actual experts on the subject are declared "vandals", and their contributions repeatedly reverted or mangled by the "ranking" users who have access to policial tools such as locking of entries, blocking of edits, pre-emptive screen deletions and suspension of other users. Yes, a cyber-Taliban.
If the "ranking" users - those that are more equal than the others - do not attain this position based on their expertise, what, then, is their "rank" based on? It is based on their devotion to Wikipedia-itself-as-social-dogma, on the amount of time they spend dutifully performing tedious maintenance chores, on their bureaucratic zealotry and their policial aspirations. In other words, in Wikipedia, ultimate decisions about what constitutes "encyclopedic fact" and what constitutes "vandalism" devolve to a cadre of Internet bureaucrats with no other qualifications than their devotion to Wikipedianism.
It is frequently said that errors are not a problem in
Wikipedia because they are so readily correctable. And this is undoubtedly
true with respect to precisely the kinds of errors - factual inaccuracies that
can be spotted in a casual "study" - that the Nature 'investigation' so disingenuously concerned itself with. But Wikipedia's real problems, which Giles' crap article completely fails to mention, are much less correctable. One of the main problems stems precisely from the fact that Wikipedia's de-facto arbiters of what constitues "science", "information",
"fact", "knowledge" - those who make it into the ranks of Wikipedia
administrators, and who have the time and persistence to win any "edit war"
- are Internet technobureaucrats without any actual love of knowledge or
any respect for those who spend their life fighting for it. What these
people mean by "knowledge" is a certain type of mainstream opinion,
shaped by the latest trends in Google, Nature, Wired, NASA, the Sierra Club, etc.
Wikipedia, in spite of its much-waved banner of "Neutral Point of View",
is permeated by a systemic bias. "Neutral point of view", in
Wikipedia, denotes a point of view that represents the 70th-percentile "consensus"
of Web 2.0 technobureaucratic opinion. And the fact that it is a "consensus"
is brazenly used by Wikipedia administrators to rebuke accusations of bias,
as if a "consensus" could not be biased.
the disquisition referenced above,we
have provided detailed documentation of the workings of this bias in the
context of the Aetherometry entry in Wikipedia. But it is easy to
spot it in numerous other entries. Take, for example, the Wikipedia entry
on Halton Arp. At the time of this writing, of the 8 sentences which purport to say something about Arp's scientific work, 3 devote themselves to "warning" the reader how controversial and non-accepted it is. Of the remaining 5, one says "In his books Dr. Arp has provided his reasons for believing that the Big Bang theory itself is wrong". What might those reasons be? The article says nothing about it. Neither does it see fit to mention that the reason Arp left "Palomar Observatory, where he worked for 29 years" and, in 1983, "joined the staff of the Max Planck Institute in Germany", is because he was banned from American observatories for holding dissident scientific views! It is a totally dishonest job. The entry, moreover, almost since its inception in early summer of 2004, has contained a "See also" section, sporting a link to the Wikipedia article on - "Pathological Science" (a link which somebody finally removed in the last few days; we shall see how long that lasts)! This is how the Wikipedia bias works - by omission, circumlocution, displacement of focus, insinuation, abusive labelling, disguised ad hominems. And this is much, much more insidious
than outright factual errors.
Want another example? Look up the Wikipedia entry on Anti-psychiatry. Look at the way all persons, groups and movements who ever voiced any opposition to psychiatry are mushed together beyond any possibility of cogency: Laing and Cooper, Masson, libertarians, "many Marxists", "political prisoners of totalitarian regimes", Scientologists, "several fundamentalist Christian groups", and on and on. And since the first sentence of the article talks about a "movement called anti-psychiatry", we are led to believe that all those groups and persons are united into a single movement. The article provides not a scratch of distinguishing information about the history, nature and specificities of the various "anti-psychiatric" positions which it mushes together. Even more astoundingly, it makes no mention of, for example: Joseph Gabel's theories of psychosis; François Tosquelles; the La Borde experiment - let alone of either Gilles Deleuze or Felix Guattari, or their seminal book "Anti-Oedipus". Instead, it has references to - Wikipedia articles on Tom Cruise and Joe Sharkey! This entry is a testimonial not just to bias and its attendant distortions, but also to plain ignorance and incompetence. But does it contain easily spottable factual errors? If it does, they are completely incidental to the real problems - of muddledness, of willful distortion in order to discredit dissident thought, of representing wildly disparate things together and on an equal footing for the sake of "consensus", and of a simple disregard for history (in this case the history of psychiatry and medicine), thought and understanding. But none of this is addressed, or even acknowledged, in Giles' disingenuous prattle.]
But Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia and president of the encyclopaedia's parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation of St Petersburg, Florida, says the finding shows the potential of Wikipedia. "I'm pleased," he says. "Our goal is to get to Britannica quality, or better."
Wikipedia is growing fast. The encyclopaedia has added 3.7 million articles in 200 languages since it was founded in 2001. The English version has more than 45,000 registered users, and added about 1,500 new articles every day of October 2005. Wikipedia has become the 37th most visited website, according to Alexa, a web ranking service.
But critics have raised
concerns about the site's increasing influence, questioning whether multiple,
unpaid editors can match paid professionals for accuracy. Writing in the
online magazine TCS last year, former Britannica editor Robert McHenry
declared one Wikipedia entry — on US founding father Alexander Hamilton —
as "what might be expected of a high-school student". Opening up the editing
process to all, regardless of expertise, means that reliability can never
be ensured, he concluded.
[And he is obviously right. How can it possibly be ensured? By
Wikipedia's insane principles, even the most faultless, incomparably reliable
article can, at any moment, be modified by any passing bozo into some form
of unreliability - whether subtle or gross. Moreover, if the passing bozo
happens to be an administrator exercising a 'consensual' agenda, that modification
will - in one form or another - keep recurring, and will ultimately be made
The redoubtable Bimbo Wales, in his newest attempt to mend Wikipedia's somewhat cracked image before the end of the yearly funding drive, is now advertising an intended "tightening" of Wikipedia's editorial practices - a tightening which would consist of locking "stable" versions of entries so they can no longer be edited. This, of course, will prevent passing bozos from making modifications, but it raises the question - who is it that will decide when an entry is "stable"? Undoubtedly the same non-passing bozos who have repeatedly locked the Aetherometry entry against edits by people who know Aetherometry; who have raised the toxic and ill-intentioned entry on Schizophrenia into the ranks of a "featured article"; who have tolerated and abetted the reference to "pathological science" in the Halton Arp article and made the anti-psychiatry article into a disgraceful muddle. At what point would these cadres rush in and declare the Halton Arp entry "stable" and ready for "locking" - would the 'definitive' version be the one that had sat there for a year and a half and that referenced "pathological science", or the current version from which this reference has been removed? Would they restore the reference before locking the entry?
The planned locking of "stable" versions of entries will prevent a repeated recurrence of 'scandalous' incidents concerning articles about well-known figures such as Seigenthaler, and will protect the article about the Sun from being replaced by "Hi, Matt". But the locking will be decided upon and performed by the same administrative body who is already responsible for Wikipedia's insidious bias and systemic distortion of truth and facts. It will, therefore, only permit this bias to be even more rampant and unchecked. ]
Yet Nature's investigation suggests that Britannica's advantage may not be great, at least when it comes to science entries. In the study, entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature's news team.
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.
Editors at Britannica would not discuss the findings, but say their own studies of Wikipedia have uncovered numerous flaws. "We have nothing against Wikipedia," says Tom Panelas, director of corporate communications at the company's headquarters in Chicago. "But it is not the case that errors creep in on an occasional basis or that a couple of articles are poorly written. There are lots of articles in that condition. They need a good editor."
reviewers agreed with Panelas' point on readability, commenting that the
Wikipedia article they reviewed was poorly structured and confusing. This
criticism is common among information scientists, who also point to other
problems with article quality, such as undue prominence given to controversial
scientific theories. But Michael Twidale, an information scientist at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that Wikipedia's strongest
suit is the speed at which it can updated, a factor not considered by Nature's reviewers.
[More gummy pablum: it takes no less than a director of corporate communications, backed by 'information scientists' (another brand of technocrat who weaves science with models and opinions), to realize that Wikipedia is poorly structured and confusing (rather than simply confused...). Ah, but wait! Here is the real meat, served up inconspicuously inside the pablum sandwich: those very same unspecified "information scientists" are suddenly insinuated into the picture as quotable judges of how much prominence is "due" to various scientific theories - and look! when they read their information-scientific dueness-meters, the falsification and contempt that dissident science receives in Wikipedia amounts to "undue prominence"! Wow! Go, Connolley, go, Theresa Knott, go, Freddie Salsbury! - you have been lax; you have been insufficiently vigilant; you have permitted the creeping in of a problem that is now being "pointed to" by no lesser experts than unspecified "information scientists"! Incidentally, the only 'information scientist' that Giles could actually identify by name, save himself, made the important discovery that changes in Wikipedia content can happen in nanoseconds... Somehow the existence of this speed is supposed to support a faith in Wikipedia's ability to self-correct. Demented logic.]
"People will find it shocking to see how many errors there are in Britannica," Twidale adds. "Print encyclopaedias are often set up as the gold standards of information quality against which the failings of faster or cheaper resources can be compared. These findings remind us that we have an 18-carat standard, not a 24-carat one."
The most error-strewn article, that on Dmitry Mendeleev, co-creator of the periodic table, illustrates this. Michael Gordin, a science historian at Princeton University who wrote a 2004 book on Mendeleev, identified 19 errors in Wikipedia and 8 in Britannica. These range from minor mistakes, such as describing Mendeleev as the 14th child in his family when he was the 13th, to more significant inaccuracies. Wikipedia, for example, incorrectly describes how Mendeleev's work relates to that of British chemist John Dalton. "Who wrote this stuff?" asked another reviewer. "Do they bother to check with experts?"
But to improve
Wikipedia, Wales is not so much interested in checking articles with experts
as getting them to write the articles in the first place.
[Read: he's interested in finding compliant, servile scientists that join the club of the privileged Wiki-cadres who can determine content and police expression.]
As well as comparing the two encyclopaedias, Nature surveyed more than 1,000 Nature authors and found that although more than 70% had heard of Wikipedia and 17% of those consulted it on a weekly basis, less than 10% help to update it. The steady trickle of scientists who have contributed to articles describe the experience as rewarding, if occasionally frustrating (see 'Challenges of being a Wikipedian' [Appendix 2]).
Greater involvement by scientists would lead to a "multiplier effect", says Wales. Most entries are edited by enthusiasts, and the addition of a researcher can boost article quality hugely. "Experts can help write specifics in a nuanced way," he says.
Wales also plans to introduce a 'stable' version of each entry. Once an article reaches a specific quality threshold it will be tagged as stable. Further edits will be made to a separate 'live' version that would replace the stable version when deemed to be a significant improvement. One method for determining that threshold, where users rate article quality, will be trialled early next year.
Additional research by Declan Butler, Jenny Hogan, Michael Hopkin, Mark Peplow and Tom Simonite.