The value of Wikipedia

There’s a huge difference between my pseudonymity and that of the Wikipedia authors. I write on blog sites expressing what I clearly identify as my opinion. But Wikipedia purports to be a reference tool offering not mere opinion but reliable information; it purports to be an “objective” summary of knowledge, not merely the opinion of the writers of the articles. In serious encyclopedias, the authors of the articles are named, so that one knows who is responsible for the information presented, and can, if one chooses, follow up on that individual to determine that individual’s qualifications. Not so with Wikipedia. No one knows the qualifications of any of the Wikipedia authors; no one can even tell which person wrote which parts of any given article.

In other words, Wikipedia is an irresponsible venture, in the strict meaning of that term – no one is ever held responsible. Contrast that with a business, where an employee is held responsible and can be fired, or with our democracy, in which an elected representative is held responsible and can be denied a second term of office. We can hold these people responsible because we know who they are and have means of terminating their activity. That is not the case with Wikipedia. It’s a very, very bad model for a reference tool. Essentially it’s an encyclopedia written by the mob. And a mob is never responsible to anyone.

More people use Wikipedia than use the Encyclopedia Britannica or other respected reference works. And it isn’t worthy of the trust that people put in it. If I had my way, I would insist that all Wikipedia contributors employ their real names, the way scientists and scholars in all other venues use their real names. One shouldn’t have any influence whatsoever on a reference tool used by millions if one isn’t willing to put one’s name behind one’s work. Opinions expressed on a blog site, and identified as opinions rather than fact, are another matter entirely. I couldn’t care less who T. aquaticus is, because only a few hundred people on the planet will ever read his posts, but millions of students and other lay folks will cite Wikipedia as if is some kind of authority, and it doesn’t deserve that authority unless it reveals the identity of its writers and editors.


Oh for goodness sake… be brave and end some of your posts after a single paragraph of less than 10 sentences!

I see no difference between you and the many Wiki articles I refer to:

You both can have some great footnotes.
You both can direct others to books or journal articles of merit.
And both of you can be totally full of fluffer-nutter …


Wikipedia has been shown to be just as good as the Encyclopedia Britannica:

If it is worth anything, my actual name is on the papers I have published.


False. Individual articles may be good on Wikipedia – I never denied that. But there is no minimum standard. Encyclopedias like Britannica make sure that everyone writing the articles in an expert in the area. (Wikipedia doesn’t.) And the articles at Britannica and other good encyclopedias are vetted by qualified individuals, which is not the case for Wikipedia. The process at Wikipedia is all wrong. The fact that it sometimes gets things right is more by good luck than by good management.

Answer me this, aquaticus: Would you want a specialist journal in your field run the same way Wikipedia is run? Where anyone could sign up as an editor, and change the words of your articles (“correct” them), so that you had to go back in and fight to change them back? Would you like Greg here, for example, to have the ability to alter your articles? Do you honestly think that a reference work should be produced in such a way?

My point exactly. And if you edit Wikipedia articles, your actual name should be on the Wikipedia talk pages, so that everyone knows who is doing the editing. You should be held responsible for any contents you put on Wikipedia. And currently, no one is held responsible. That’s what’s wrong with the place.

Perhaps, but the results are just as good.

Of course not, which is why I consider peer review journals to be better than wiki articles. I only use Wiki for general knowledge stuff, not as a technical reference. You will notice that I cite peer reviewed journals quite often.


No, they aren’t – not in many areas. On all articles concerning “origins” – articles on ID, creationism, etc., the Wikipedia articles are very biased, and very bad. They contain many false statements. Even the founder of Wikipedia has complained about the behavior of people there.

Wikipedia is fine if you want to look up the height of Mt. Everest or the birthday of George Washington. I’m sure there are many good “meat and potatoes” science articles there, too, written by people who know something, and not altered by idiots with an axe to grind (because no one has a personal interest in altering a technical article on, say, electromagnetic theory. But on subjects that are controversial, the writers and editors are quite frequently unable to resist the temptation to slant the articles according to their own biases.

Good. We agree.

Some authors use their real names, and even list their qualifications/affiliations on their user pages. My profile lists my institution, position (PhD student), and area of study, for example. My university (among others) has an initiative to encourage PhD students to get involved in writing/editing wikipedia articles as outreach.
It is also possible to see who wrote which part of the article by looking at the article history.


I present you, Irony.



I’ve heard of the last claim:

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I have thought to myself, on multiple occasions, “Wow, that Wiki sure could use some tuning up.” However, that doesn’t prevent it from being an extremely valuable tool. Where else can you find a free, current, self-updating, referenced encyclopedia on your phone??! I think it is fantastic! For my usage, it is orders of magnitude BETTER than Brittanica or any other encyclopedia. Yes, some entries are biased and there is little way to avoid that. It isn’t perfect. If a reader decides an entry is too biased, they can either skip to the references or click the X in the corner.

P. S. I said it was free, but I like it so much that I contribute a small monetary amount each month in support.


I find Wikipedia useful and valuable. But I don’t take it as gospel truth.


Regardless of the fact that the quality of the articles is uneven and that some more controversial topics have biased coverage, Wikipedia is one of the greatest human accomplishments of the last 20 years. It’s an unprecedented encyclopedia in the scope of topics it covers and speed in updating articles. Despite its open nature, it’s been remarkably resilient to vandalism, and shows the power of crowdsourcing. Due to the openness of Wikipedia, people can write thousands of good quality articles on obscure topics that they are passionate about. It’s probably the greatest accumulation of human knowledge that we have ever witnessed. It also revolutionized the field of encyclopedias in general, killing Encarta and (I suspect) pressuring Britannica to make some of their articles available for free online.


Yes, the entire history of the article including who wrote which words and how the article has changed over time is available from the article history. Further, most articles - especially for controversial areas - have discussion pages that offer insights into not only why the articles say what they do, but also why other possible inclusions have been omitted.

Eddie clearly hasn’t looked at wikipedia much.


It seems to be an article of faith, among ID proponents, that Wikipedia is bad. Maybe they don’t like the Wikipedia entries on ID.


I think this is quite likely true. As a critic of “ID science” myself, I have still seen what I consider some rather biased entries.

I also think as a new and novel concept, accompanied with some of the original growing pains, Wikipedia has been treated with a high level of skepticism with many people not bothering to check it out for themselves. I think general perception is gradually getting better, but there was considerable resistance in the early years.


Yes, granted. This is especially true of the articles which are genuinely concerned to give a clear exposition of something rather than to argue people into accepting something. I know there are some good technical articles in the scientific area, written by people who know their fields, and it would not surprise me if many of those authors used their real names. But on the more controversial subjects, authors tend not to use their real names, either because they don’t want to take flak for their views, or because they want to insult and belittle other contributors on the Talk pages. If everyone were forced to use his real name, the Talk pages would be much less nasty, because people would be embarrassed to have their wives, husbands, employers, co-workers, friends, children, etc. see how nasty they are in their disagreements with others.

Yes, I know, but that does nothing to hold the authors responsible if their real names are not known. Their nasty behavior in the editing process can’t be shown to their employers, friends, family, etc., and therefore they have no incentive to desist from nastiness and discuss things in a civilized manner. They can just keep deleting whole sections they ideologically disagree with, and abuse the writers of those sections when they protest the deletions.

Regarding your request for references, see evograd’s link regarding Wikipedia’s founder’s objections to the ID articles.

It’s fine for quick lookups of information where it is unlikely that the articles will be wrong. If you want to know Lincoln’s birthday, or who won the Academy Award in 1938, etc., it’s handy, and I use it for that purpose. But I would never allow a university student to cite it as an authority on any academic matter. I tell my students it is sometimes helpful as an introduction to a subject, where the author happens to know what he is talking about (which is not a sure thing), but that all their references have to be to proper scholarly sources. If they are led to those sources by a Wiki article, that’s fine, but the references have to come from those sources, not from the Wiki.

I agree with you about the scope and the speed of updating. Especially the scope: I can sometimes find important minor facts only on Wikipedia, because some devoted aficionado has put them up there. The problems relate to the “democratic” character of the place (which allows twenty-something ignoramuses with lots of time on their hands to keep deleting contributions by learned people with much less time on their hands to wage contents wars), and the control of controversial articles by cabals of the like-minded.

I’m fully aware of this. But in the more controversial areas, the authors generally hide their identities, and so can never really be held responsible.

Yes, I’ve seen some of those discussion pages. Often they contain abuse heaped on polite and sincere participants whose contributions have been arbitrarily deleted, and who are protesting the deletions. And often the reasons given for deletion are blatantly partisan.

Thanks for being fair about that, Curtis. I don’t object to people who strongly disagree with ID, but I do object to people who misrepresent it, delete contrary evidence, etc.

The resistance was based on the idea that in essays students should be using proper academic sources, written by scholars in the field, not diatribes or biased or misinformed histories written by amateurs, hobbyists, cranks, or people with axes to grind. There is nothing wrong with using the site for an introduction to a topic, provided that is followed by the study of material written by experts. But I am now seeing published books where people are citing Wikipedia alone on some points, as if it counts as a scholarly reference – and in my view, it should not – except in those cases where the Wikipedia author identifies himself/herself and the identification reveals that the person is also one who has published on the same subject in proper scholarly venues. That, however, applies to almost none of the articles on “origins” issues.

Do you think you’re unique in saying any of this? That’s all perfectly standard. It’s what all students are advised as well, certainly in my experience. I’ll add that I would say the same for a source like the Encyclopedia Britannica - people should always aim to cite primary sources, not secondary ones.

Such as…?

You say you’re aware of the fact that which author wrote which part of each article is available on the history tab, but earlier you denied this:


Of course I don’t allow students to cite Wiki. I don’t allow them to cite Brittanica, either. But it is a great resource for getting a good handle on a topic and finding specific primary research articles. Pubmed is even better for my topic area, but there is no argument that Wiki is a great resource.


One of the things I do for a living, aside from part-time university teaching, is edit books for authors and publishers. The books are on a wide variety of subjects: politics, education, general science, etc. One book that was offered to me was one on psychology. I was horrified to see that for many points made, the sole authority cited was Wikipedia. I protested this to the author, but he thought Wikipedia was fine. Another book was on biology. The author was regularly citing Wikipedia alone for some points. And for the most part, the Wikipedia material cited was probably entirely correct. But the point is that Wikipedia is put together mostly by amateurs, and that when one is making a scientific argument, even for a popular audience, one should be referring one’s readers to sources written by scientists, not by Wikipedia summarizers of science. I see this happening more and more. The take-away message for readers of such popular books is that the authors are endorsing Wikipedia as a reliable standalone source for science, history, etc. This only encourages students and popular writers to do even less reading of genuine academic sources than they do now, which is little enough. They think, “Well, if Wikipedia is OK with Dr. So-and-So, I guess I can ignore what my high school teacher told me about not relying on Wikipedia.” And that’s a bad message to send.

I agree with this.

Were these actual citations or were they more along the lines of “for more information, check out the wiki page on this subject”? There is a difference, and it relies on context.