Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Defense of Wikipedia

To truly sabotage knowledge is very difficult. Sure, it can be done. See [Essjay|Colbert] for rather successful examples of Wikipedia vandalism. Acts like this are bound to occur on a site that anyone can revise; the more people that edit articles on Wikipedia, statistically, the more saboteurs there will be. But in any peer reviewed system, someone is eventually going to find something fishy and point it out. This is why Wikipedia is great. The more people that edit articles on Wikipedia, the more reviewers we will have.

And isn’t it reviewers that give scholarship much of its authority? To get an article published in a journal, a gauntlet of reviewers must read and meticulously comment on everything from your improper use of the word “data” in line 43, to broad, overarching structural issues he or she has with your paper. You fiddle and tinker, send it back with comments such as, “Thank you for your remark regarding my use of a comma in line 12. I have made changes accordingly,” and if all goes well, there it is: your article will stand as is for all time. It has passed the peer review. You have passed the peer review.

But Wikipedia doesn’t work like that. Wikipedia is ours. All of ours.

Instead of pleasing 4 reviewers and perhaps your supervisor as well as the journal editor, you must please everyone who reads the article, ever again. If you don’t, the article will have changed so much that you won’t be able to call it your own anymore. But it never really was to begin with. Your name won’t appear on it. You can’t put it on your CV. In fact, you’ll likely never personally benefit from it at all if you write an article for Wikipedia. So why do people perform these selfless acts of writing? Why are there 2, 005, 703 articles in English alone?

Because Wikipedia provides us an opportunity to expand the amount of knowledge available to us all. And we’re curious. So we write.

Sure, saboteurs like Essjay and Stephen Colbert relish in stirring up trouble, but given how many of us out there edit, correct, and write in good faith on the pages of Wikipedia, I know that in the long run the interference of a few will not have a significant impact.

The perfect example of why I know this is true comes from the father of the Encyclopedia: Diderot. In his world’s very first Encyclopédie of 1758, full of thoughtful, well planned articles, he allowed one of his writers to include this defamation of the Jesuits:

Qu'est-ce qu'un jésuite ? est-ce un prêtre séculier ? est-ce un prêtre régulier ? est-ce un laic ? est-ce un religieux ? est-ce un homme de communauté ? est-ce un moine ? c'est quelque chose de tout cela, mais ce n'est point cela…

Soumis au despotisme le plus excessif dans leurs maisons, les Jésuites en sont les fauteurs les plus abjects dans l'état. Ils prêchent aux sujets une obéissance sans réserve pour leurs souverains ; aux rois, l'indépendance des loix & l'obéissance aveugle au pape ; ils accordent au pape l'infaillibilité & la domination universelle, afin que maîtres d'un seul, ils soient maîtres de tous.

[Rough Translation], What is a Jesuit? A Secular priest? An ordained priest? A layman? A man of the Church? A man of the community? A monk? He is all of these, but at the same time, he is none...

Subjected to the most excessive despotism in their houses, Jesuits are the most contemptible agitators in the state. They preach on subjects such as obedience without regard for their sovereigns. Like kings, they are independent from law, and they blindly obey only the Pope, whose infallibility and universal domination they support. In order to be masters of one, they are masters of all.


Hardly NPOV . But it certainly didn’t damn encyclopedias as unreliable drivel. In fact, it didn’t seem to hurt Diderot at all. People still bought his Encyclopédie in large numbers. Most of his readers likely never came across the passage about the Jesuits – after all, who reads an encyclopedia from cover to cover – and those who did find the article either chuckled or were offended, and then they went on with their day. Now, two hundred and fifty years later, most people have no idea Diderot’s Encyclopédie ever made such claims about the Jesuits. Most modern Jesuits likely don’t even know. This is because the mistakes were not copied. In subsequent encyclopedias, the editors decided humanity was better served with a more neutral description of the Jesuits. As a result, the Jesuits recovered from the attempt to misinform the public.

And so did the elephants. The Wikipedia article that Stephen Colbert’s viewers vandalized, falsely claiming that the elephant population had tripled in the past six months, has been peer edited over twenty times in the two months since the incident. As far as I know, no scholarly journals published this unexplained increase in the elephant population. And in five years, no one will even remember that elephants mysteriously and briefly had a massive population increase.

On a long enough time frame, with enough people who believe in the value of an encyclopedia like Wikipedia, the vandals will lose and the majority of the articles will improve their factual content. There isn’t anything wrong with Wikipedia; it’s just a work in progress. And it’s there for all of us. So please, peer review something on Wikipedia that interests you. And don’t be afraid to read it to learn about whatever it is that peaks your curiosity. No matter what that is, be it King George II, house hippos, or chainsaw jeans.


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