Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My I Hate Wikipedia Rant

Why do so many people, including a dismaying number of homeschoolers, consider Wikipedia to be a great resource for doing research? The enthusiastic comments at Joanne Jacobs' site, for instance, depress me. Wikipedia is not at all a place I would send a student, even--especially--for a first overview of a topic.

Too many times, I've looked up information on something I already knew a fair bit about, and have been appalled at the low quality and the nonsense quotient of the articles. (For instance.) The entries on Catholic subjects tend to be lifted wholesale from the old public domain Catholic Encyclopedia, to which I can just go directly, thank you very much. Entries on just about everything tend to stress the interests of the average internet user, meaning I can't just give my daughter free rein to use Wikipedia because biographies often have an extensive and prurient discussion of the sex life, known or speculated, of the subject; and absolutely everysubject has a list of every science fiction movie, novel, or tv show that relates in even the most tangential way to the subject of the Wikipedia entry. The articles are distorted toward the interests of the general internet public (not to be confused with the actual general public); and while it may sound insufferable of me to say it, a good encyclopedia article ought instead to be proportioned to what is important, not to what the readership wants to read about most.

Take the entry for T.E. Lawrence. In an article eight pages long, over a page is devoted to Lawrence's sex life. Another page and a half is devoted to random trivia, much of that also concerned with his sex life (scars on the buttocks!), and most of it pointless (did you know a road in Plymouth was named after him?).

Students don't just pick up information from their reading; like all children, they're looking for indications from the adult world about what's important, what ought to interest an educated adult, and how information is organized. Sending them to Wikipedia first teaches them that sex, controversy, trivia, and attenuated links to sci-fi are the most important part of everything, and that Powerpoint-style bullet points are the preferred method for conveying information textually. No thanks.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, I will readily concede that Wikipedia isn't for children, which isn't a flaw in my mind, though obviously YMMV.

And second, I will also concede that Wikipedia does have errors. When I first moved to Nevada I looked up the Wiki entry on the state and read that some of Nevada's mountains exceed 15,000 feet (which would make them taller than the Rockies and the Sierras). But this error was soon corrected, which is what generally happens to Wiki's errors: someone notices, and it gets fixed. Errors on obscure topics that hardly ever get read probably stay there longer, but that's the way it goes.

You note twice that dead-tree encyclopedias are generally superior to Wiki. This is partially true. However, Wiki is invaluable to people like me, who 1) don't have encyclopedias at home; and 2) live in small towns where the local library's resources are mediocre.

It should be noted that Wiki contains an immense amount of information that would be difficult or impossible to find even in a good library. For example, do you want to know exactly how the NFL calculates quarterback passer ratings? Wiki has it.

Are you a college math student struggling with quadratic reciprocity? Again, Wiki to the rescue - the article is seven pages long, covers all the major features, and I can vouch for its accuracy.

Is it true that black holes have no magnetic fields? Wiki can tell you, and the article does differentiate between those areas that are evidentially verified and those that aren't.

This is the feature that makes Wiki completely different from dead-tree encyclopedias: the more technical and abstruse the subject, the more reliable Wiki's article will be. (Funny how that works.) And Wiki covers millions of topics that cannot be found in dead-tree form outside of major research libraries.

Maybe your complaints should be limited to liberal arts subjects on Wiki?


Joel

9:16 AM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Joel,

You make some good points, and you remind me of an omission in my post, which was a link to the Catholic Encyclopedia (now corrected). Which leads me to say that I think the macro-problem with Wikipedia is that it tries to do too much. It's already duplicating, badly, the Catholic Encyclopedia; and as more and more specialty encyclopedias come online (Eudoxus contributes to one in his field), I think Wikipedia's flaws will become more obvious.

And one of those, which I believe is also a symptom of trying to do everything at once in its quest to be a universal source of information, is its lack of accountability. This was brought home recently by the discovery that a religion editor for Wikipedia was a fraud (see http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/index.php?id=1909 ).

Finally, my main concerns is that students are directed to Wikipedia as a primary resource, when in fact it has no accountability, is often incoorect, is biased by its nature in favor of certain kinds of information and against others, and is a terrible example for students of how to write expository prose.

My own middle-schooler uses an old pre-WWII Compton's Encyclopedia as a first resource. Yes, lots of information is out of date; but it was written by experts in their fields, each article by a single qualified person (giving a unified voice and structure rather than the prose mishmash that is Wikipedia), and set me back $10. Starting with it, she knows what kind of resource to follow up with, and so is able to update information as she researches.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Darwin said...

I'll admit to consulting Wikipedia pretty often when I'm on a computer anyway, simply because it's handy (and I don't have a real encyclopedia in my office cube) but it's in many ways a very adult resource because it's a perfect example of something where the quality and slant of material varies widely according to the topic.

Articles on religion are particularly troublesome -- Catholic articles lifted from the Catholic Encyclopedia are at least fairly accurate, there are others that have become veritable battlegrounds between people of rival slants staging edit wars. (The article on "catholic church" is one of these.)

However, it's very good on some highly technical topics, and also for detailed pop-culture information. (I was once wanting to know what The OC was about, and it summarizes every season -- why I wanted to know this there's no good explanation for.)

However, it's a bad first resource for those not yet very critical in their reading because for all their "non-POV" it actually tends very heavily towards slant (or mis-information) of one sort or another, and also relies very much on the limitations of the authors.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Sophia said...

Good article, Opinionated.

You can take heart that I've heard other homeschool moms rant and rave against Wikipedia (not that you're ranting and raving?). At the one-day-a-week school where my older two kids attend, they insist that wiki only be a secondary source if used at all. Oh, and my son's 2nd grade public school teacher even told her class that she does NOT like Wikipedia because it is not a trustworthy source of information.

I have to admit that previously, I have thought that people who expressed dislike for Wikipedia were just kind of being "information snobs".

I mean, sometimes Wikipedia does seem a little flaky to me, but sometimes it does give that little morsel of info that we're looking for. It's not perfect, but it is helpful sometimes.

However, I think you are so right about it giving a wrong emphasis on some topics or what is important about that topic. Yes, that's a great point that kids do pick up on that.

Thanks for your thoughts.

8:46 PM  

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