Home About Subscribe Search Member Area

Humanist Discussion Group

< Back to Volume 32

Humanist Archives: Jan. 20, 2019, 6:56 a.m. Humanist 32.362 - the question on Wikipedia

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 362.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
                Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org

        Date: 2019-01-19 09:24:34+00:00
        From: Ken Friedman 
        Subject: My Wikipedia Question 

Dear Friends,

While I've seen a lot of good ideas and interesting information in the
responses to my question, I observe that no one has addressed the question of
reliability and the massive load of problematic articles.

Everyone points to the massive engagement of Wikipedia with educational
programs, wide usage, editing festivals, etc. All this is true. It's as though
the world suddenly developed motor traffic over a period of twenty years with
urban streets designed for cars and the highway system. There would be lots of
attention to it and every university in the world would have an area that
studies or works with the phenomenon. (In fact, most do -- urban planning,
civil engineering, architecture, transportation design, and others have
departments that attend to, plan for, work with, and analyse the effects of
motor traffic, along with special areas of medicine, law, political science,
chemistry, and many more.)

To say that universities and everyone else work with or use Wikipedia in some
way is true, but insufficient. Wikipedia is without question the world's
largest reference work, is most widely used, and one of the largest and most
widely used web site. My problem is that it doesn't yet do what it was
designed to do: deliver reliable and accurate information across the wide range
of its nearly 6,000,000 articles (in English). The question is what might be
done to bring that situation into being.

CocaCola and PepsiCola are a massively successful and a widely used products.
The necessary design of the CocaCola product leads to adverse health effects.
When people point this out, no one says, "They serve CocaCola in the
cafeterias at Harvard!"

Unlike Coke and Pepsi, Wikipedia was established for benevolent purposes. Even
so, something has gone wrong when a majority of articles revert to mediocrity in
a system where human editors and bots interpret any change as damage. Something
has gone wrong where editors delete or reject biographical articles because they
don't properly apply notability criteria. Something has gone wrong when
editors trim biographical entries or revert improved entries to earlier states
due to length while the Wikipedia system uses 150 times as much space to archive
873,775,490 prior states of articles. Something has certainly gone wrong when
bots compete with one another to change Wikipedia articles back and forth and
back and forth again without human oversight.

Everyone here -- myself amongst you -- seems to use Wikipedia. We all agree
that it is a good place to begin. We all agree that we should teach our students
to read Wikipedia with a critical eye -- I'd say that we should read all
sources with care and critical reflection, and I'd guess most of you agree.

There seems to be slightly less agreement on reliability, since many people say,
correctly, that one finds mistakes in every book. This is true, but relatively
meaningless. There has never been a serious comparison of Wikipedia against any
other reference work using properly considered methods that allow for a
responsible comparative sampling across the range of articles in each book. (The
studies that show Wikipedia to be nearly as good as any other source usually
involve cherry-picking. This is done by comparing a small, selective group of
the best articles in Wikipedia against comparable articles in the other source.)

A friend of mine at the University of California was formerly an advisor to
Britannica. He once recounted an experience that took place at one of the
advisory board meetings. Another advisor with a Nobel Prize in physics pointed
out that many articles will inevitably be wrong as scientific knowledge moves
forward. He gave the example of an article by James Clerk Maxwell in an early
edition of Britannica that turned out to be wrong on some point as physics moved
forward. But he said that this wasn't a problem. The article was up-to-date
and correct when Maxwell wrote it, it was based on the best science then
available, and it reflected judicious and appropriate expertise.

There will always be mistakes in every book. Nearly every reference book has
mechanisms for removing errors and improving quality. Current editions of
Britannica no longer contains Maxwell's mistaken point.

Wikipedia as it stands now does not seem to be able to do this. Articles revert
to a consensus of opinion by generally amateur editors, with the consensus
enforced by administrators who focus internally on Wikipedia customs and culture
rather than focusing on how to represent what Jimmy Wales describes as "the
sum of all human knowledge."

While I find the ideas and thoughts on the value of Wikipedia valuable, I am
hoping for an answer to a specific question that no one has yet addressed:

Is there a way to improve the reliability of Wikipedia across the entire

Or, perhaps to put it another way: Is there a way to ensure that *every*
Wikipedia article is as reliable as *every* article in Encyclopedia Britannica?



Ken Friedman, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The
Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Tongji University in
Cooperation with Elsevier | URL: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/she-ji-the-

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation
| Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| Email ken.friedman.sheji@icloud.com |
Academia http://swinburne.academia.edu/KenFriedman | D&I

Unsubscribe at: http://dhhumanist.org/Restricted
List posts to: humanist@dhhumanist.org
List info and archives at at: http://dhhumanist.org
Listmember interface at: http://dhhumanist.org/Restricted/
Subscribe at: http://dhhumanist.org/membership_form.php

Editor: Willard McCarty (King's College London, U.K.; Western Sydney University, Australia)
Software designer: Malgosia Askanas (Mind-Crafts)

This site is maintained under a service level agreement by King's Digital Lab.