Thursday, October 19, 2006

What's wrong with Wikipedia?

I've just done a google image search for 'encyclopedia' and stumbled upon this wikipedia entry:

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Why would you ever look up the definition of encyclopedia in an encyclopedia? It is quite obvious you have an utter disdain for rational thought and reasonable objection.

Retrieved from ""

Whether you find a page like that wondefully quirky or irritatingly silly will probably depend on your attitude to the Wikipedia project in toto. Some people love the fluid and occasionally erratic quality of this 'democratic encyclopedia'; others agree with wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, who believes that the site has become intolerably error-prone. Sanger is founding a new online encyclopedia,

Larry Sanger says that vast swaths of the anarchic encyclopaedia he helped create in 2001 are in desperate need of an editor – and that is what he is promising for his new project.

The launch of, which begins testing in the next few days, is the latest chapter in the bitter public feud between Mr Sanger and Jimmy Wales, with whom he conceived Wikipedia in 2001. And it comes as Wikipedia is still reeling from the revelation of embarrassing errors and the activities of malicious hackers.

Mr Sanger has begun signing up academics furious at the mistakes and generalisations they find on Wikipedia's articles on their specialist subjects, and vowed to give these experts a special role to shape articles on

Sanger suggests that specialists who try to contribute their expertise to Wikipedia are being frustrated by over-enthusiastic members of the hoi poloi:

Mr Sanger says Wikipedia itself is "dysfunctional" and he has heard from many academics who have gone out of their way to try to edit entries, "only essentially to be beaten back by the community".

Unlike Wikipedia, Citizendium will insist that members of the public making changes do so using their real names. It will throw out troublemakers and those who do not defer to expert editors.

Not everyone agrees with Sanger's portrait of wikipedia. In a piece for The Independent, Paul Vallely points out that Wikipedia is not doing too badly, considering that it has only one full-time employee:

[Wikipedia] reckons to have 3,800 hardcore users making more than 100 edits a month, another 18,000 who make at least five and countless others dipping in as the mood takes them...Their motto is "out of mediocrity, excellence."

A report by the scientific journal Nature found that on 42 randomly selected science articles Wikipedia came close to Britannica in terms of accuracy. (The average Wikipedia article contained four errors or omissions; the average Britannica article, three).

Despite or because of this, former Britannica editor Robert McHenry has compared using wikipedia to visiting a public lavatory. I've just taken a look at Wikipedia's entry for EP Thompson, and I can't really it square it with McHenry's rhetoric. Though less than a thousand words long, the entry gives an adequate overview of Thompson's complex and interesting life, outlines his contributions to history, literary studies, and left politics, and includes a bibliography and references to some authoritative secondary literature (most of it offline, alas).

There are two minor errors in the entry. The author (or authors) claim that Thompson 'formed the Communist Party Historians Group along with Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, Dona Torr and others' in 1946. In fact, Thompson was never involved in this famous group, though his wife Dorothy Towers was. In the late 1940s and early '50s Thompson considered himself a poet rather than a historian, and participated in the Communist Party's literary organisation, which isn't today remembered with the same reverence as the history group.

Later in the entry we encounter the claim that 'Thompson left Warwick University in protest at the commercialisation of the academy, documented in the book Warwick University Limited (1971)'. The problems at Warwick went a bit beyond the connotations of the word 'commercialisation': at the beginning of the seventies students discovered that university administration had been spying on them, and on left-wing academic staff. Thompson took a full part in the protests against this state of affairs, and put together Warwick University Limited in a week in an effort to expose university administrators. But Thompson didn't quit Warwick over the activities of the administration: he had already decided to leave the academy and pursue a career as a freelance researcher and writer.

Neither of these errors is calamitous, and neither seems to me to be the product of some sort of sinister hidden agenda. It's understandable that someone would conclude that Thompson, the most famous British Marxist historian and a friend of many ex-members of the Communist Party Historians Group, must have been a founder and key member of the group in the '40s. And the belief that Thompson left his job at Warwick as a sort of protest is widespread: I've seen it in many of the obituaries written by friends and colleagues at the end of 1993.

Perhaps, though, it's not fair to test Robert McHenry's remarks by looking at a wiki entry for a relatively obscure subject like EP Thompson. If anyone does a wiki search for 'Israel', or 'Islamofascism', then they are likely to find the going less gentle, as Paul Vallely explains:

[Y]ou will detect the hands of dedicated contributors with idiosyncratic beliefs whose views are there because no one has the time and energy to counteract the bias.

Some pages seem to have been taken over by fanatics and special interest groups (try the Scientology page). When others try to correct their pages the dedicatees "revert" the contributions of new contributors.

Perhaps there's another way of looking at the chaos of disputation that besets parts of Wikipedia, though. There is no such thing, even in the most august encyclopedia, as value-free facts, or a straightforward historical narrative. Every fact is affected by the prism of assumptions we bring to it, and every story we hear is constructed rather than simply 'the way it happened'. Perhaps the more outrageous Wikipedia entries serve the useful purpose of reminding of us these truths, and keeping us on our toes? Perhaps the aim of an encyclopedia, or any textbook for that matter, should be to stimulate discussion, rather than settle it?


Anonymous Taran Rampersad said...

For the record, I was the one who compared rate of information flow to the frequency with which Mr. McHenry flushed his toilet (or, for that matter, dinged Wikipedia).

The article I was responding to, , has no mention of toilets but for some reason brought them to this writer's mind. :-)

7:52 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you learn how to edit - basically hit the edit button - you can have hours of fun correcting minor biographical errors of obscure socialist heroes of your choice.

If you learn how to sign in and write new entries you can even create new entries for obscure socialist heroes of the past who have yet to be recognised - Highly addictive!

6:22 am  

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