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The Problem with Wikipedia – Accuracy and Surfer Naivete

If you peruse the controversial topic section of Wikipedia, you find some great gems on how this user-edited encyclopedia can be abused by foolish types. I won’t link to them as they have enough link power to overwhelm even the most authoritative sites on various topics.

Here is my favorite example of vandalism in Wikipedia:

Autism – “The leading cause of Autism is infection through interspecies “relations” with elephants.”

I do not want to make light of the issues Wikipedia creates. I have spoken with many pretty sophisticated Internet users who have been surfing for close to 10 years and not one of them had a clue that anybody could write anything in Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia does have a neutral POV policy and does attempt self-policing, there have been incidents that show abuse can happen. For example, for 132 days an article discussing the JFK assassination claimed that John Seigenthaler, a respected journalist, was involved in the assassination. Needless to say, Seigenthaler was not happy about this falsehood being listed in something many people mistakenly believe is an accurate encyclopedia.

Although some reviews have shown entries to be highly accurate, that does not change the fact that anyone can add an article and write whatever they please – someone has to actually discover the article and dispute it for the inaccuracies to be corrected. I’m sure Mr. Seigenthaler felt the article about him was up 131 days too long. I wonder how many high school teachers were perplexed by papers turned in with this astonishing information.

“My goodness! I had no idea they figured out once and for all who really killed Kennedy!:”

Update – right after I finished posting this tonight a friend sent me a link to an article today in the NY Times, which I just had to insert in the middle of this post.

A History Department Bans Citing Wikipedia as a Research Source

Published: February 21, 2007
When half a dozen students in Neil Waters’s Japanese history class at Middlebury College asserted on exams that the Jesuits supported the Shimabara Rebellion in 17th-century Japan, he knew something was wrong. The Jesuits were in “no position to aid a revolution,” he said; the few of them in Japan were in hiding.
He figured out the problem soon enough. The obscure, though incorrect, information was from Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia, and the students had picked it up cramming for his exam.
Dr. Waters and other professors in the history department had begun noticing about a year ago that students were citing Wikipedia as a source in their papers. When confronted, many would say that their high school teachers had allowed the practice.

But the errors on the Japanese history test last semester were the last straw. At Dr. Waters’s urging, the Middlebury history department notified its students this month that Wikipedia could not be cited in papers or exams, and that students could not “point to Wikipedia or any similar source that may appear in the future to escape the consequences of errors.”

Did not one of these students think to double-check the accuracy of the information in Wikipedia? Why not? Most likely they “assumed” it was accurate.

The real problem lies in the inability to truly monitor individual articles, especially for small bits of vandalism. How many people read that Autism is caused by interspecies relations with elephants? Granted most people would say, “Huh? That’s absurd!” until another editor came along and deleted it. However, there are times when small or subtle changes might not be detected for long periods of time.

I think it is foolish to underestimate the naivete of people surfing the web. This is not to insult people – but most simply trust information that looks official, and few take the time to check the accuracy of information they find on the web. I have a friend who used to send me all the emailable urban myths – free trips to Disney, Bill Gates offering a hundred bucks if you forward the email and they can see how many people it goes to, a guy in west Africa who needs to put 10 million in your bank account so it can be safe, he just needs your routing and account information…

A few years back I had a site that was very popular (I have since let it languish because I don’t have the time for it). It was a fictional unsolved crimes site based on a television series I was developing at the time. My friends posed for gruesome murder scenes and I put up all the evidence for people to solve the cases. I can’t tell you how many people contacted me about these cases as if they were true. Who thinks the policy put up all that evidence on the Internet? Now you might say, oh they weren’t professionals! But I’d say you are wrong – two of the people who asked me for ADVICE on a murder case were police investigators (one a homicide investigator who asked for my help on a drowning case). A tabloid news show producer got angry at me because, he said, he had spent “hours” trying to track down the cases in real life before he figured out they were fictional. Of course, he could have simply emailed me or read the disclaimer page. I suspect he was afraid I would ask for a fee if he contacted me about the cases – so he wasted his time being cheap when I would have immediately told him – It’s Fiction!

I do hope the issues with vandalism, biased points of view, and misrepresentations can be fixed. Otherwise, we will have more people walking around thinking elephant sex causes autism and that journalists are prone to commit political assassinations.

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