Whats wrong with WikiPedia?

Whats wrong with WikiPedia?

Summary: I just read  Wikipedia's Wales on education: Openness leads to critical thinking and while I agree that 'collaborative knowledge' encourages critical thinking, I do not believe that Wikipedia is necessarily a good example of that.  Academia has a long tradition of peer review from which the concept of collaborative knowledge surely comes but, with the peer-review model comes accountability.

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TOPICS: Open Source
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I just read  Wikipedia's Wales on education: Openness leads to critical thinking and while I agree that 'collaborative knowledge' encourages critical thinking, I do not believe that Wikipedia is necessarily a good example of that. 

Academia has a long tradition of peer review from which the concept of collaborative knowledge surely comes but, with the peer-review model comes accountability.  The idea of collaboration in order to collect and develop complete knowledge and ideas is great -- and has long been practiced in the classroom.  But, in a classroom setting, as in academia in general, there is a strong sense of ownership and accountability.  (And even then, in every collaborative group, there is always some guy who does little or nothing while the rest of the group does all the work!) 

In such a setting, students are expected to be able to backup their conclusions by documenting their work -- and the sources of their information.   In developing critical thinking, it is important for the student to understand the relative value of one source of information over another.  All sources should not be considered equally valid.  For instance, the evolutionary biologist's view of the world is dramatically different than that of the theologian.  Both have valid perspectives but in completely different contexts. 

In recent months, Wikipedia has come under fire for permitting anonymous individuals to edit any entry whatsoever.  How does this foster crticial thinking?  If one doesn't know the credentials of a source (or perhaps multiple sources), how does one judge if their information is of any value.  In the most charitable of circumstances, we can hope that if incorrect information makes it into such an entry, that the intentions of the contributor were not in question -- just the same, the information is wrong!  And the Wikipedia reader has no way to judge which information from unnamed contributors have any merit. 

So as not to cast my criticism on WikiPedia specifically, this problem is charactertics of the Internet itself.  Anonymity is prized as a feature of Free Speech which protects those with unpopular positions from ridicule but in fact anonymity denies the reader the ability to judge if the contributor of the information -- whether on WikiPedia, on some newsgroup, or writing on some blog -- has the credentials to know what they are talking about. 

Should information be freely available on the Internet -- just as it is in any public library?  Of course!  But, just as in the public library, where I can read about the author of a book judge if he/she has the credentials required to speak on a particular subject, I should expect to have access to the same level of information about an author on the Internet.  If I don't have that access, how can I lend any credibility at all to the information at hand? 

Good intentions aside, WikiPedia does a disservice to its readers by presenting itself as an authoritative source of information if it is unwilling to insist on publishing the name and credentials of its contributors.

In a society which largely gets its NEWS from Late Night monologists, we can ill-afford to have the very people we are trying to educate believing that every source of information is equally reliable. 

Topic: Open Source

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14 comments
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  • I know I've had this conversation before

    Great post, as usual. This really goes back to the idea that we as educators no longer need to impart a myriad of facts to our students. Rather, since they have the sum total of human knowledge quite literally at their fingertips, we need to teach them how to obtain, filter, and synthesize information.

    A colleague called into question the validity of the blog as journalism. However, in a forum such as this, the mechanism of peer review and clear knowledge of credentials still exists. Not so in Wikipedia (or the first three hits on Google, where most of my students find their references, or Joe's Website o' Facts, or wherever).
    mrdatahs
    • Ah yes, Google ...

      While I use Google all of the time (best of the lot, I suppose) I think that you get flooded with so much useless information that even an experience searcher (which I am not) often cannot effectively filter it for the content they really need. When you think you've got your selection criteria narrowed down, you still end up with hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of hits which seem to be order more for their commercial value than for their academic value. It would be nice if one if these search companies would be geared toward academic concerns. Such a search engine could be put to great use by academicians. I wonder if IRS code would permit 501(c)3 support for such a venture (to cut out the commercial angle). Imagine "Google - Academic" ... Advertising free and funded out of a Google-established 501(c)3.
      M Wagner
  • A Legal Model

    So I'm attending law school in the evenings, and one thing I've learned so far is that EVERY assertion in a legal doc needs to come with authority. If you make an assertion on a point of law, you must have a citation from an appellate decision, cited by volume number, starting page and point page. Judges won't take assertions on faith, and I don't see why wikipedia readers should either. Why shouldn't every statement of fact be footnoted in a wikipedia article, just as it would be in a legal brief. Wouldn't this level of rigor allow for collaborative writing w/o giving up properly sourced backup? Sources could then be collaboratively judged a la Ebay seller ratings and inaccurate or poorly respected sources could simply be rejected by the system automatically.

    I don't see whats wrong with requiring people to use their names or some identity to edit the pedia. It would strongly discourage malicious editing. Doubt Wales will adopt these ideas but I think there is a place for wiki with citations.
    rkoman@...
    • It's an excellent suggestion ...

      ... and equally appropriate for the hard sciences and for fields which are highly subjective as well as law, which is based largely on case law and precedent -- not just US Code.
      M Wagner
  • I'm not sure that Wikipedia is as bas as people are painting it

    For as long as there has been human knowledge, information has been presented both objectively and subjectively and falsely.

    The much vaunted peer review is helpful only to some extent, as it is prone to inertia where it is a matter of when (not if) new ideas/information find it much harder to get treated seriously.

    A public knowledgebase such as wikipedia is prone to "vandalism", but is that any worse than the often closed doors of the peer review process. Which is better?
    zkiwi
    • Perhaps not worse ...

      ... but certainly not sufficient. At least the people doing perr-review all know each others crednetials, and the outsider knows the credentials of those doing the peer-review. I would not question the motives of the WikiPedia folks but but I certainly do question the motives of those who post or edit entries anonymously and the casual reader has no was to judge if a post has any merit or not if it remains unsigned, or for that matter if it is signed and the contributor does not offer any credentials with his contribution. What I was responding to was the claim that WikiPedia fosters critical thinking. In order to compare critically two conflicting pieces of information one must be able to ascertain the credentials of the two sources.
      M Wagner
      • Yes, but...

        I think you are discounting the inertia (and I dare say politics) of the current peer review process. In the traditional peer review process students only see the end result of the process, not the process itself.

        In fact, it is a fairly widely held view that if you are going to submit something for peer review that you pretty much have to be in agreement with some or all of the reviewers. In that case, is that actually science? And perhaps it explains in part the growing preference to publish on the web rather than through the traditional channels of peer review.

        Students, I think, can readily see Wikipedia's "peer review" in action, especially if they are told that Wikipedia is a "thing in motion", and that data found on it will change over time. the hope is that (as with traditional peer review) "the truth will out".

        If however, students are doing their research using dumb searches and not applying critical thinking then nothing will save them, not even peer reviewed work.
        zkiwi
    • Do not loose sight of the problem

      THe problem is not that Wikipedia is jam packed with crap, thats not the problem at all as a great deal of what Wikipedia offers is quite factual and accurate. The problem is, anytime you are researching and are looking for answers to questions you do not know the truth about already, you have no way of knowing if what Wikipedia is giving you is accurate on that specific point you happen to be looking at. Without reliable accountability and reasonable trust of the source of the information, which is impossible without having a clue of the source of the information, the information has no real value for research purposes.
      This of course complicates the use of Wikipedia, at all, as its held out as a resource for research, not a supermarket tabloid to be read for entertainment purposes. WHere one has no ability to accuratly assess the factual quality of any single peice of information on such a website, one of course cannot rely on any of it; hense it ends up being usless for the purposes for which it is held out for.
      Cayble
  • I'm not sure that Wikipedia is as bad as people are painting it

    For as long as there has been human knowledge, information has been presented both objectively and subjectively and falsely.

    The much vaunted peer review is helpful only to some extent, as it is prone to inertia where it is a matter of when (not if) new ideas/information find it much harder to get treated seriously.

    A public knowledgebase such as wikipedia is prone to "vandalism", but is that any worse than the often closed doors of the peer review process. Which is better?
    zkiwi
  • There's nothing wrong with Wikipedia

    But anyone relying on it without checking their facts ought to have their head examined.

    Wikipedia is on open info store. The info is not verified, and should be treated as such. It's fine for casual research, but it is not an official statement of fact.
    shraven
    • Which is why ...

      ... I pointed out the falacy of the original claim that WikiPedia fostered critical thinking or collaboration. One cannot compare conflicting informaiton if one knows nothing abotu where the information came from. Thanks for the comment. - Marc
      M Wagner
  • What's wrong with academia & peer review?

    Mr. Wagner: IMNSHO ?Academia? has long held the tradition of using their ?clubs of celebrated credentials? as the judge, jury and executioner of new or novel ideas that might possibly contradict the experts (the academicians) who write and profit from selling their text books to captive students. Ever hear of cold fusion?

    Collaboration could work in a classroom setting; in a perfect world. I don?t know how you define this word, but the classroom settings I?ve seen didn?t practice, encourage or even mention it. Since ?modern education? seems to have relegated U.S. students to a mediocre status in the world, whatever is being used by whatever name you call it doesn?t seem to be working.

    How does Indiana or other Universities think they are fostering critical thinking? By exposing students only to a limited set of theories from the credential club? Students didn?t dare disagree with their professors at any recent time, if they wanted to pass the tests and get a grade. It doesn?t matter whether the subject is anthropology, medicine or zoology.

    How many peer reviewed papers have appeared in prestigious medical journals that have later turned out to be a white wash on flawed studies funded by pharmaceutical companies? How has the peer review process helped at the FDA to prevent hundreds of harmful medicines that had to be withdrawn because the known side effects were disastrous to health?

    If a student wants to collaborate only by using the peer reviewed ?facts?, what good is this effort? Where do all the people go who have opposing ideas or observations that don?t agree with the experts?

    Peer review is one of the sacred pillars of the academic and scientific elite. Those who disagree or try to present opposing ideas are almost always dismissed in derogatory terms such as "maverick," "failure", ?lacks proper credentials?, ?disagrees with the experts?, ad nauseam.

    But, peer review has even been questioned by no less that the Supreme Court! It is apparent that many in academia, science & the legal profession are unhappy about the admission by the highest court of the land that peer review in various circumstances might well be seriously flawed, for all its vaunted credentials.

    With all the glaring examples of failure in peer review from the clubs limited by credentials, how can I lend credibility at all to the biased information from the vested interests? Wikipedia doesn?t claim to be perfect. Although the original arguments offered by the author and ?Development Specialist? seems to imply that only the credentialed crew and peer review has perfect credibility.

    I agree that those who contribute information online should be proud enough of their writing to be properly known, credentials or not. If you read the Wikipedia pages about contributions, you will find many interesting tenets. Since each Wikipedia topic also has a Discussion page, all the ?peers? who want to disagree with the stated information have a place to express their opinions.

    Until something nearly as good comes along from academia, I will continue to use Wikipedia and judge for myself the content that I find there.
    wlmeyer
    wlmeyer@...
    • Based upon what?

      You say above ...

      "Until something nearly as good comes along from academia, I will continue to use Wikipedia and judge for myself the content that I find there."

      Academia has its flaws but how can you judge for yourself the content that you find if you have no idea from where the information came?

      If you read two articles in WikiPedia which are seemingly in conflict, how do you decide which one is more likely to be accurate if you don't know anything about the contributor?

      Can I put as much trust an article about health written by a tobacco executive as I can an article written by the NIH? Probalby not. If WikiPedia does not tell me which wrote (or edited) the aritcle, I have no way to judge for myself that it is accruate in any way.

      Thanks for the comment. - Marc
      M Wagner
      • Well

        In case you hadn't noticed, you don't get to find out anything much about work that failed a peer review. You don't even get to know it was up for peer review unless you were part of that particular item's review process.

        For further thought I refer you to:

        http://naturalscience.com/ns/articles/01-02/ns_mh.html

        and

        http://www.scienceboard.net/community/perspectives.142.html
        zkiwi