Thursday, June 23, 2005

why to view Wikipedia with caution

A wiki is a web page that can be edited by many people. Some wikis (I think that's the correct plural) allow anyone off the street to edit; others require passwords and encourage a certain clubbishness. Wikipedia is, in theory, open to anyone who thinks they have the scholarly know-how to produce a decent encyclopedia-style entry on a given topic. Later on, if some reader determines the entry isn't satisfactory, the reader can edit the entry. Wikipedia works on the assumption that successive edits occur on something like the honor system-- i.e., in a spirit of trust and collegiality.

In academe, you've got "peer review," which is generally-- but not always-- a good idea. If your academic peers are truly peers, then you can expect reliably thorough and trustworthy reviews of your work. This is how it usually goes. If, however, you find yourself surrounded by dumb shits in your department, you will feel, as they say in academe, fucked. Perhaps I'm being idealistic, but I tend to think that fuckage in academe isn't an enormous problem (I can hear chortling... shut up). Even if you're ideologically opposed to a particular academic camp, it's unlikely that you, as a professor, will read a paper by the opposition and think to yourself, "What drooling moron wrote this unreadable, inarticulate piece of shit?"*

Wikipedia is a different story. It allows anyone-- not just known experts-- to craft entries. Controversial entries can spawn what have come to be known as "edit(ing) wars," in which information is radically changed to reflect the often aggressive agenda of the most recent editor. The sad side effects of edit wars are (1) they erase history by eliminating previous submissions, and (2) the overall trustworthiness and authoritativeness of Wikipedia articles suffer.

I use Wikipedia as a matter of convenience, but I agree with Dr. Vallicella that the service should be treated with circumspection. It's not something I would cite in a serious research paper, though I'd have little trouble citing it in a blog post.

If you're a Britannica snob, there's another reason to look down on Wikipedia: the Encyclopaedia Britannica would never waste its pages on a disquisition about lightsaber fighting styles**.

*I realize that many professors do, in fact, think this-- and even say it aloud when reading the work of a fellow scholar. But they don't mean it literally: the complainer isn't seriously questioning the writer's IQ. Or so I believe.

**Full disclosure: being only 50% Britannica snob and something of a Star Wars geek, I enjoyed the lightsaber combat entry.


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