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Whinging about Wikipedia 
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Heinlein Nexus
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Post Re: Whinging about Wikipedia
If anyone wants to see the actual llst of errors found in the Nature article (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html), it is at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/extref/438900a-s1.doc.

Certainly it proves that Wikipedia is as trustworthy as EB on matters scientific. One of Jim's points is that it displays bias on controversial matters; the bias of whichever editors happen to dominate its editing. I can't really imagine how one could trust a comparison study of such articles since the much smaller number of experts involved in the comparison than the WP article writing could never be proven to be less biased. And this, perhaps, is the basis of the argument that WP should be on average at least as trustworthy as EB on controversial articles also; it is the product of a large number of people who care about the topic and bias can be evened out.

Jim would retort that truth is not a process of voting by the proletariat. Were this to have mattered, an ancient WP would claim "Earth: Flat" and the modern one might say "Evolution: Half-baked theory." So I looked at the WP article on Evolution just now. It doesn't appear to contain any such taint, less even than has been reportedly in certain school textbooks. It does start with a link to a lengthy article explaining why calling Evolution a theory does not make it half-baked; the main article does not call it a theory at all. In fact it contains a section on "Social and cultural responses" as thoughtful and neutral as any scientist could hope for.

I assert that this bolsters my earlier claim that many eyeballs lead to good results. I would expect more errors in articles about politics or current affairs that deal with topics of much less general interest; hence the reports about (relatively) obscure figures having bogus names, bogus deaths, and bogus assassinations. But in all honesty, I have yet to see anything in Wikipedia that would cause me to have even a mild tremor, let alone the 8.5 earthquake Jim experiences. I've found a few articles on incredibly obscure old British TV shows that had very little to say on the topics, but they were still accurate as far as they went. Someone doing Research with a big R shouldn't stop at WP, but neither should they stop with the EB. I think WP is perfectly acceptable for the average Joe to find out about topic X for non-mission-critical reasons, including homework. I simply don't see the justification for hauling out the crucifix and garlic flowers. Jim has had some unpleasant experiences in attempting to submit information to WP that appear to have colored his opinion of the whole thing to a degree I cannot reconcile with my own experience.

Let's not ignore also the tremendous advantage that WP gives to anyone with a network connection. When I were a lad, knowledge such as that required a trip to the library (and not just my village library, which could no more afford a large encyclopedia than we could) and hours of work that can now be had for the price of a few keystrokes. There is the opportunity for children to grow up vastly better informed. We will not know for some time whether this happens, of course - and as long as homework can be accepted electronically there is the potential for blindly copying and pasting, whereas at least copying text longhand results in the information passing through the brain in the process: that must have been why my high school transferred so much knowledge from our teachers to our notebooks by dictating through our tired hands. But the opportunity is there. The potential benefit is huge. If the choice is between having massive freely available information, the price of which is minor inaccuracies on obscure "soft" topics, and massive amounts of reliable information, the price of which is a dollar figure few families can afford, well...


Fri Feb 27, 2009 7:14 am
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Heinlein Biographer

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Post Re: Whinging about Wikipedia
James Gifford wrote:
Bill Patterson wrote:
My impression is that Wikipedia is regarded now about the same way the World Book Encyclopedia or the Funk & Wagnalls (remember when you got those a volume at a time in the supermarket?) when I was growing up.

Maybe. But even that's wrong. While the lesser encyclopedias didn't have the greatest editorial staffs in the world, they still followed the practice of being written by experts, vetted by experts, and edited by professionals to a reasonably rigid and defined set of standards. Certainly, you took the stuffy and verbose EB over the good old E-Z-2-read WB... but you could reasonably trust the validity of the WB as far as its entry went.

Voting on the facts by experts and idiots (indistinguishable from each other) does not a reference make. Especially when we've established that the senior exiots are arbitrary and largely self-appointed.

Well, my point was that Wikipedia is NOT accepted as an authoritative source, and is not likely ever to be, for much the same reason the WBB was not. WBB was not rejected back in the day because it was dumbed down, but because it pandered to popular prejudices of turnofthetwentieth American culture and included a lot of questionable factual material with no way to distinguish what was questionable and what was not. So the WBB and Funk & Wagnalls was a small-scale forecast of the problems of Wikipedia.

Seriously, if it were not for the fact that it's the only widely available and relatively easy to access source, I don't think Wikipedia would enjoy the popularity it does now. I think it's possible that time will fix the problem (and it won't be the dinosaur print encyclopedias with their bizarre and unhelpful online entries).

If I had to weigh the problems, the keystone issue may be the organization of the data. What Wikipedia can do is provide a start at an answer of "what is x?" which seems to me one of the most basic kinds of questions asked of online material -- and one which google and yahoo cannot really address. The IT of the internet's main front-ends is aged and antiquated. We've gone far, far beyond the point where Google's and yahoo's and others' keyword indexing systems can be helpful and we're on the far end of the marginal utility curve.


Fri Feb 27, 2009 9:19 am
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PITA Bred
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Post Re: Whinging about Wikipedia
I have absolutely nothing against WP as long as it is correctly judged - even the White Queen system of info arbitrage only mildly annoys me, separate from the larger issue. As a first-glance, general-survey, shout-to-the-room source of info, it's almost as amazing as IMDb.

My concerns about WP taking itself too seriously, and being taken too seriously, are based on firsthand observation of what people cite and quote to buttress meaningful arguments - arguments that can have serious consequences, such as loss of a job or other position. The (oh, let's pick a figure) under-25s have the usual brightly ignorant shortsight to be unable to distinguish why WP is a questionable rock on which to rest the word "reference."

As you point out with the lesser encyclopedias of a bygone age, there is a tendency to take the "it's in the encyclopedia, it must be true" position, when anyone with more intellectual experience knows that an encyclopedia is never more than a first approximation and summary, to be used as the steppingstone to real references when needed or demanded.

As Peter pointed out, it used to be difficult to get even this first-approx info, even if you were lucky enough to have a set of encyclopedias in the house. Lowering the bar on both lookup of info and submission of info to the point where "expertise" in either library skills or topic knowledge becomes almost irrelevant is a very two-edged sword... and the "good" edge is rusty, blunt and nicked while the dangerous edge is Herbertian shigawire.

WP is the big pimple on the front of the issue - best summarized as "if it's not on the web, it doesn't exist" and increasingly focused as "if it's not in Google..." Google's attempt to encapsulate all the world's knowledge is admirable and increasingly useful... but my fears of WP are a minor worry compared to my terror of an entity like Google controlling knowledge.

Yes, yes, for now Google is a pale shadow of real libraries etc., but they are voraciously expanding their content every day. For now Google is a benign world-saver. For now Google is backstopped and checked by other repositories.

But what about when it isn't? What about when we've passively or actively turned all our collective knowledge over to Google the Mighty? When libraries close because no one uses them any more except as internet kiosks (already happening); when no one has any personal cache of references because it's just mouse clicks away? (Sad to say, that includes me - our net connection was down the other night and I had no current VideoHound to look up a film datum... stopped buying them years ago because of IMDb.)

So Bush the Third comes along and unlike his predecessors, he and Rovesfeld Jr. are quite net-savvy. Google becomes a gummint pawn and knowledge is back in the hands of a priest class that determines what we get to know.

Case in point: the blurring of Cheney's house in Google Earth for eight years.

WP is just a facet of this, the most prominent, active and obvious one. The concentration of knowledge into the hands of a single entity, no matter how benign-benevolent-common heritage-netsocialist etc., terrifies me.


Fri Feb 27, 2009 10:42 am
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Post Re: Whinging about Wikipedia
while i may be the only sentient being with a net connection who has NEVER visited WP, I do want to echo a bit of Jim's latest posting cc the concentration of knowledge (power) into a single entity

when/if this occurs, Jim is right to fear that this knowledge may become for only the privileged and all too rational- look backwards into history and see how keeping the general populace ignorant is directly related to their enslavement- it occurs over and over- you say that couldn't happen in this age? hmmmmmm....... maybe not in a generation, especially if books still remain, but over time, when people have gotten "lazy" and general reading has become so passe, books will fall into disuse and turn to dust and nothing new is being published, then you have the makings of tyranny ! holy hanna was that a run on sentence or ?

bread and circuses....bread and circuses........ smile and take your happy pill........don't worry big brother will handle all the details cuz we know all <sheeesh don't we have WP?>- isn't ignorance bliss ? revel in it

lol just having a little fun <and trembling at this thought>

Nick


Fri Feb 27, 2009 5:30 pm
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Post Re: Whinging about Wikipedia
oooops got too fired up to proof read- I meant to say (paraphrasing Jim) " fear.......all too rationally"

Coventry would seem appealing under the forementioned circumstances


Nick


Fri Feb 27, 2009 5:35 pm
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Post Re: Whinging about Wikipedia
James Gifford wrote:
No, Peter's been quite on point, and Bill's comments have been insightful if characteristically aslant. Yours seemed a little out of left field.

If you want to accuse me of handwaving and that it's somehow "me" here, fine. I won't argue. I've made my statements, have made them in multiple forums over the years, and have had more people clearly agree with my fears about Wikipedia subsuming the notion of "reference" in an ever-expanding population than have cogently disagreed. Disagreement often takes the form of mentioning the WP vs. EB comparisons (irrelevant) or even showing an obvious anti-expert, even anti-intellectual bias ("We'se all jest as smart as them aaaiixx-perts!")

If you've got an addressable point to make other than that you think WP is just dandy, please take all the space you like to make it. Saying it's somehow "me" adds nothing and is not worth trying to debate.


My point was, and remains, that your whinging about how WP makes a poor primary reference is a strawman, since it *isn't* a primary reference -- just as all encyclopediae are not -- and that was the point I made, which you blew me off about.

If you can find a quote of me that even resembles "WP is just dandy", bring it, James. :-)

Bill Patterson wrote:
Well, my point was that Wikipedia is NOT accepted as an authoritative source, and is not likely ever to be, for much the same reason the WBB was not.


If I'm reading him correctly, his argument is that it not only is accepted as such, but it positions itself as such. On the first point, that's the problem of the people using it, not of the encyclopedia; it's not *our*fault their high-school teachers didn't explain it to them.

On the latter... I would admit that it's arguable. I don't necessarily think it *explicitly* tries to position itself as a primary source, but you could assert that the goals of citation, accuracy, and NPOV make such an inference reasonable. I would disagree, but at least we'd be having the same argument. :-)


Fri Feb 27, 2009 5:50 pm
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Post Re: Whinging about Wikipedia
Baylink wrote:
My point was, and remains, that your whinging about how WP makes a poor primary reference is a strawman, since it *isn't* a primary reference -- just as all encyclopediae are not...

I know that. You know that. Anyone reasonably schooled in librarianship and research knows that.

A growing pool of young bright sprogs does not know that, and evidence it in their daily writings. I don't know if this same crowd would have once referenced EB or WB or whatever with the same degree of smug ignorance; perhaps the need to be in the same room with a physical copy of the data and a librarian or teacher would have cured them more quickly. These bright young futurehopes do not seem to see that WP is a very iffy source of information, however convenient and plausible it may seem to be. That's the problem. They look it up with mouse clicks and have no learned standard against which to judge the quality and validity of the information, because it comes up in the first Google page and looks so... so... official and keeeee-rect.

Quote:
If I'm reading him correctly, his argument is that it not only is accepted as such, but it positions itself as such. On the first point, that's the problem of the people using it, not of the encyclopedia; it's not *our*fault their high-school teachers didn't explain it to them.

You are reading me correctly. That is the problem, in a nutshell. It does not matter where the source of the problem lies; WP itself goes to no lengths to disclaim its nature and its ruling body is pathetically desperate to have the damned thing taken seriously as The World's Repository of Knowledge. You can blow it off as the fault of poor education, but then, you can blow off ANYTHING on those grounds.


Fri Feb 27, 2009 7:40 pm
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Post Re: Whinging about Wikipedia
James Gifford wrote:
These bright young futurehopes do not seem to see that WP is a very iffy source of information, however convenient and plausible it may seem to be. That's the problem.

You left off a couple of letters.

That's *their* problem.

Or did you leave your libertarianism in your other pants tonight?

Should Smith & Wesson be held responsible for Son of Sam?

I didn't think you thought so.

JG wrote:
I wrote:
If I'm reading [James] correctly, his argument is that it not only is accepted as such, but it positions itself as such. On the first point, that's the problem of the people using it, not of the encyclopedia; it's not *our*fault their high-school teachers didn't explain it to them.

You are reading me correctly. That is the problem, in a nutshell. It does not matter where the source of the problem lies; WP itself goes to no lengths to disclaim its nature and its ruling body is pathetically desperate to have the damned thing taken seriously as The World's Repository of Knowledge. You can blow it off as the fault of poor education, but then, you can blow off ANYTHING on those grounds.

"... to disclaim its nature". It says that it's an encyclopedia.

Encyclopedias are not primary sources, any *junior* high english class will teach you that -- that being, in fact, where I learned it.

I think perhaps "pathetically desperate" might be overstating the case a bit; certainly they want it to be accurate, but why is that any different than Robert and Ginny spending $N days on butcher paper to figure an orbit that went into one sentence of a story as a throwaway?

What, in fact "its ruling body wants" is probably best capsulized here, which only took me about 2 minutes to find -- there are several levels of meta, but they're not *that* deep.

You seem to be conflating "users incorrectly apprehending what WP *is for*" with "what WP's editors want it to be, and how well", and I just don't see that they're tied together.

I'm arguing the first point; you're precessing the argument to the second... every time I answer you back with "of course it's not a primary source; that doesn't make it eeevil". :-)


Fri Feb 27, 2009 9:41 pm
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Post Re: Whinging about Wikipedia
Hurm. Okay.

In some brickwork-over-steamed-and-rolled-lawns academic framework, you leave little to argue with. If a BYS uses an inferior source for his/her information, that's their problem. Guess they flunk. Shame on them; they'll have to teach English Lit in a JC.

However, when that BYS is doing work that affects someone else, the flawed source becomes the problem of all those downstream - and they may or may not have any idea they have a problem. This is already happening. I am not citing a vague what-if, could-be, think-bout-this situation: I am referring to specific cases where BYSes who should have known better used greatly inferior web-based info, some from WP, to draw conclusions and make recommendations that affect peoples' lives. Educated BYSes. Some highly educated BYSes.

As much as you are trying to dismiss the problem as one of semantics and a few poorly educated individuals, it is real, it is here and it is only going to get worse as the understanding of what a reference is declines. We've never had anything like WP around before, so comparisons with WB etc. are at best shallow. If this doesn't bother you, go back to sleep - and hope the guy who designed that semi's brakes, you know, the one rounding the corner near your house, got his numbers from a valid source.

And what in the farking zarkwad of the Third Fain of Chudomo gave you the notion I was a libertarian?


Sat Feb 28, 2009 12:37 pm
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Heinlein Nexus
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Post Re: Whinging about Wikipedia
As much as this would snarkily misrepresent Jim's position, I can't help characterizing it as Seinfeld's George Costanza ranting, "We're living in a society here, people!"

8-)


Sat Feb 28, 2009 12:55 pm
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