Wikipedia Remains the Wild West

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WASHINGTON — It’s been an interesting week to start dealing with clients interested in recommendations for texts and library resources. The question I most encountered this week was, “When budgets are tight, why pay for information available for free on Wikipedia?

I answer as follows: (1) Wikipedia is unreliable; (2) Wikipedia articles are often written, edited, and manipulated by those with vested commercial and/or ideological conflicts; and (3) Wikipedia articles are spotty with regard to being vetted or curated by subject matter experts.

For amusement and illustration, I keep my own list of 50 plus significant errors in Wikipedia entries dealing with basic science concepts (e.g., electromagnetic) and science-related issues (e.g., vaccine trials, microchip security, etc.) that have errant factual assertions that have been corrected by other (I personally avoid editing wars) but then reverted back to an incorrect answer by anonymous Wikipedia editors with more power over the entry. The examples are not controversial or close calls.

I have never accepted student citations to Wikipedia, nor have I ever allowed authors writing for me to cite Wikipedia as a source.

Sure, everyone uses Wikipedia, at least for a quick check to see what the unwashed think is important (or conversely what they are missing), but entries are now authoritative and ow need screened with the same skepticism applied to partisan news sources.

Moreover, Wikipedia is filled with plagiarism. I know because a good bit of my own writing is plagiarized there.

The most dangerous thing about Wikipedia is, however, not the howlers regarding science that anyone with reasonable training in any science discipline can spot, but the more subtle and inaccessible errors, errors that range beyond the detection of the well-educated  and which can even fool all but experts in the field.

Having one of the most accessed Academia sites (harvard.academia.edu/KLeeLerner) means that I receive about a half-dozen letters a week from  zealots promoting their crackpot theories everything from advanced mathematics to their own particular applications of special relativity theory. These letters are easy to spot.  Most  have two things in common: (1)  Many of these letters begin with a pronouncement (e.g.,  “Newton was wrong and  “I have invented the true calculus,” or “Everything you thought you knew about thermodynamics is wrong;” and (2) some assertion that contradicts (without any evidence) a well-tested theory  (e.g., violates fundamental laws of thermodynamics, biophysics, molecular biology, etc.)

Almost inevitably, as I fact-check, I find that these same deranged fools have inserted their usually byzantine ideas into Wikipedia articles– often deep in the body of an article –and then cited themselves.  The danger here isn’t that this is going to cost a high schooler a few SAT points or a grade on an AP test, but rather that the errors can mislead graduate students and experts checking something slightly out of field or investors trying to calculate risk. When this happens the same errors — I am sure to the delight of those who first post errant misinformation and to the utter satisfaction of those (including intelligence agencies) deliberately posting misinformation — begins to propagate across multiple articles.

There is simply no real accountability for Wikipedia. Some articles are excellent, and many authors and editors may be sincere, but any medium that relies on crowd-sources entries and editing in an age of anonymous trolls, twits on Twitter, greenwashing, corporate and intelligence manipulation of social media and search results,  and a general unaccountability for Internet postings is going to be as unreliable as the quality of whiskey in a wild west saloon.

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