Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Wikipedia Mon Amour

The Problem With Wikipedia (xkcd), Randall Munroe

My late uncle Jack Killheffer was science editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica in the 1970s and 1980s. I remember his office in downtown Chicago as a sea of papers. Piles of documents filled most of the floor space. I’ve never been a clean desk person, but his desk was an archeological dig. He was a chain smoker; his ashtray was the size of a small dinner plate and resembled a fireplace that hadn’t been cleaned regularly.

I thought he had the world’s coolest job.

I’ve always liked encyclopedias. Before Uncle Jack joined Britannica, we had an Encyclopedia Americana. I browsed through the volumes randomly throughout my childhood. I seldom forget what I read; I can still trot out all sorts of odd information gleaned randomly from encyclopedias.

The oldest surviving encyclopedia is Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. He hadn’t quite finished proofing it when he died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Given the Greek root of the word (ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία, “general education”), it’s clear his was not the first, and he certainly wasn’t the last. De Nuptiis Mercurii et Philologiae ("The Wedding of Mercury and Philologia"), first of the medieval encyclopedias, came out in either the 4th or 5th centuries.

The Arabic renaissance produced the Encyclopedia of the Bretheren of Purity; the Chinese in the 11th century released the Four Great Books of Song (Book 4, The Prime Tortoise of the Record Bureau, contained 9.4 million Chinese characters in 1,000 volumes).

The invention of printing triggered an explosion, including Chambers' Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728), and the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert (1751). Of the great encyclopedias of the 18th century, the Britannica is the oldest survivor, dating to 1768.

I’m proud to note that the first encyclopedia published in the United States was Dobson’s Encyclopedia (1788-1797), published by Philadelphia printer Thomas Dobson (no relation, alas). It was, for the most part, a rip-off of the 3rd edition of the Britannica, with various adjustments made to correct a British bias. Washington, Jefferson, Burr, and Hamilton all owned copies.

Although encyclopedias have a reputation for being objective, thorough, and reliable, accusations (some solid, some less so) of unfairness and inaccuracy have been leveled at just about all of them at one time or another. That’s unsurprising. In our long discussion of cognitive biases both here and here, we learned that misinformation and misperception were fundamental parts of the human condition.

Uncle Jack told me stories about the sensitive political negotiations that took place in pure science entries. People are passionate about facts and interpretations, and both are subject to argument. When I worked for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM), there were similar issues. The Smithsonian’s official position on the relative achievements of Wilbur and Orville Wright versus Smithsonian secretary and pioneer aviation figure Samuel Pierpont Langley is shaped in part by the terms of a contract between Orville Wright and the Smithsonian that contains the following:
"Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight."
There’s been some minor controversy over the years as to whether NASM is unfairly taking sides, but the curators I knew assured me that as far as they were concerned, the facts of the matter lined up just fine with the language of the contract. The Langley claims should have been repudiated. The Wrights were first to fly.

Working in original-source history helped me develop a sense of how much of what we know is the result of a messy and imperfect process. We muddle our way to knowledge, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We don’t have too many other options. Our knowledge not only isn’t perfect, it can’t be.

For that reason, I’ve often felt that the criticisms leveled against Wikipedia for inaccuracy and bias are excessive — though that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. All encyclopedias are crowdsourced; Wikipedia differs only in that the crowd isn’t paid. Well, not in money, anyway. There are many rewards in writing for an encyclopedia, not least the imprimatur of authenticity and accuracy conveyed by the brand name.

We all know that Wikipedia doesn’t count as a final authority — if you can’t confirm what you say from a more reliable source, no one will take you seriously. But for quick reference, an overview, a list of sources, and some basic preliminary data, it’s unbeatable. I probably use it 8-10 times every single day — four times for this article alone. If my factual need is trivial and extreme accuracy not necessary, that’s enough. When I need more, I dig deeper.

That’s true not only of Wikipedia, of course, but of any other source of information. All data — and even moreso, its interpretation — is suspect. Only by consulting multiple sources and striving for self-awareness of one’s own cognitive biases is it possible to arrive at some reasonable approximation of truth.

Wikipedia culture deservedly throws suspicion on its contributors. A neutral point of view is essential, but Wikipedia frowns most heavily on people receiving money for contributing to Wikipedia articles, ignoring many other sources of bias. There’s a large community of Wikipedia editors-for-hire (I know several of them myself), but the Wikipedia culture forces them to hide their conflicts rather than share them. Wikipedia vigilantes have been known to vandalize pages when a contributor is accused of taking money, but that doesn’t correct the problem, it makes it worse.

Bias is unavoidable, but the best cure for bias is sunlight. Wikipedia is large enough and important enough that it’s legitimate for people to earn money from it. There’s nothing new here; encyclopedia contributors pre-Wikipedia expected remuneration as a matter of course. It takes significant time, effort, and work to write and edit a good article. Volunteerism, as wonderful as it is, can only take you so far.

It’s important for bias and conflict of interest to be revealed, but not to be punished. The process of peer review and vigorous debate should be aimed not at expelling the biased, but rather toward greater accuracy, completeness, and consideration of all points of view.

Wikipedia is running one of its periodic fundraising campaigns now, and in the same way I contribute to public radio, I usually contribute to Wikipedia; I use it enough. I urge you to do the same. At the same time, I tend to think Wikipedia would do well to consider running Google-style ads; when done correctly, they add value to the search rather than corrupt it.

There’s nothing wrong with making money in the encyclopedia business. The most important thing is to get the information right.


  1. I was contributing to Wikipedia for a while. I wrote bios for state-level politicians. however, I would get into these editing wars with people over what they called "point of view". I would write, "voted in favor of raising sales tax by 20%." Then it would be changed to "raising sales tax by one penny", which I think you could effectively argue is factually incorrect. Back and forth. It got old. But I always say that if something is incorrect on Wikipedia, it will be corrected eventually.

  2. Yes, you're right — eventually. But as John Maynard Keynes observed, "In the long run we are all dead."