Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Of Wikipedia and Its Detractors

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia where everyone can edit almost every single article in it. Over the years, it's been a rare gem of the internet. As a not-for-profit website without any commercial affiliation, it's become a surprisingly successful internet website. It has achieved tremendous popularity, consistently ranked in the top 10 result of most Google searches, and most amazingly, continued to prosper although it's funded only through annual fundraising campaigns.

As far as its popularity goes, Wikipedia has its own share of detractors. Due to its editable nature, Wikipedia's accuracy has long been a subject of debate. Some people compared it to the accuracy of the good ol' trusted Encyclopaedia Britannica, and found that the accuracy of both encyclopedias are rather comparable. However, some people rejected this controversial finding, citing the study methods as being inaccurate and biased towards Wikipedia. On the other hand, many people have been critical of Wikipedia's accuracy. For example, university lecturers routinely (and rightly) reject Wikipedia as a reference in any academic work. And people frown whenever someone quote a piece of information from Wikipedia.

While I agree with and recommend a healthy dose of skepticism towards the accuracy of Wikipedia, I hate it when people go too far in discrediting it. I especially dislike it when this happens:

Friend: Hey do you know who was the person involved in <an event>?
Me: Eerm, if I'm not mistaken, it's <someone's name>.
Me: *Go to Wikipedia and look it up*
Me: Yeah, according to Wikipedia it's <someone's name>.
Friend: Hey but it's Wikipedia! I don't trust Wikipedia. I never visit Wikipedia for any information.
On another occasion, when I was having a discussion about an issue online, I recommended people to read its Wikipedia article for an overview, and someone replied,
Why do you always recommend Wikipedia? Do you know that we are not supposed to trust it? For your information, if you cite Wikipedia in university, they will mark you down for that.
I personally think that those detractors have gone too far. When I recommend Wikipedia as a starting point for reading in an issue, I have never meant it to be the most authoritative and accurate source in the world. Nobody ever claimed it to be absolutely accurate and unbiased, and the encyclopedia itself admitted the fact too. It also openly advises the users that the information in the articles are not to be cited in any academic work, because of its nature.

Still, as an overview, Wikipedia is a great resource. For areas in which I am relatively knowledgeable, Wikipedia has been accurate most of the time. Medicine wise, most diseases and symptoms are accurately described, and most articles have reference from authoritative textbooks and websites. For mathematics, the articles have been well-written, despite being unprofessional and messy in certain articles. For recent events, it's one of the most updated, comprehensive and well-referenced source you would find online. Whenever there are some big massacre, bombing or other big-scale tragedies, Wikipedia always satisfies my need with referenced details.

At this point, you might want to quote vandalism and biased articles in order to rebuke my paragraph above. I concur that there are indeed occasional vandalisms and bias in Wikipedia articles. Therefore, it is best not to give it more trust than your newspapers and textbooks. Give it an equal amount of trust or mistrust as you would hold towards any traditional media or poster or books or brochures. Be aware that Wikipedia could be written by anyone, from a university professor to a primary school kid. Treat everything with skepticism.

Wikipedia is not as bad as some detractors made it to be. Some people go as far as saying that
Why would you donate to Wikipedia, seeing that it's actually inaccurate and is prone to vandalism?
I feel that those people do not get the spirit of collaboration and free knowledge. Wikipedia might not be the most authoritative resource out there, but in terms of the depth and the width of knowledge within, Wikipedia is second to none.

Treat it as a knowledgeable teacher, read it like an inquisitive kid, and doubt it as with any other information you gather in your life. You would gain much more precious knowledge from it than lose your "accuracy" from its occasional inadequacies. Above all, don't be haughty and tell people off when they bring up anything they learnt from Wikipedia. It's equivalent to telling people off "Hey it's just a brochure" when people tell you something from a brochure. I see it as a form of puffed-up intellectual superiority.