Danny Taggart's Blogarama

A more-or-less daily dose of news, politics, techmology, and any random thoughts that pass through my head.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Wiki-whacker wrong

Robert McHenry, Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, criticizes Wikipedia as a "faith-based encyclopedia".

McHenry's basic argument is that, since anyone can post and edit Wikipedia entries, the content is inherently unreliable and tends toward mediocrity, rather than refinement. He points to an entry on Alexander Hamilton to demonstrate this: Hamilton's birth-year is ambiguous, yet the author doesn't mention it (although, the latest version seems to mention it). Worse yet, various dates in the entry are inconsistent with each other. Serious users, McHenry argues, need their answers to be correct.

There are some problems with McHenry's argument. First of all, the fact that the Alexander Hamilton entry has been updated to reflect the ambiguity in his birthdate illustrates well the idea that entries tend to improve over time. Ironically, McHenry's article may itself have prompted the reevaluation and subsequent editing.

Second, McHenry's assumption throughout the article is that an encyclopedia is for academic researchers who need every detail to be included. However, Wikipedia targets a mass audience, who would benefit from it even if the entries are only 99.9% correct. Someone who wants to do serious research can start at Wikipedia and continue their research with the primary sources listed at the bottom of the entry.

Regarding Wikipedia's organic system vs. the Britannica-style expert system, it is not necessarily true that the content tends toward mediocrity. Short of outright vandalism, which can easily be repaired, editors are not likely to edit content unless they belive they can substantiate new information. In fact, the internal inconsistencies of the Hamilton entry, which McHenry deplores, serve as dialectical fuel for further improvements. If an entry is composed by a single individual and is entirely consistent with itself, small errors may go unnoticed.

It's clear that McHenry harbors a deep suspicion of any information-related enterprise not managed by an "expert" hierarchy (of which he was once a part). He derides the style and content of Wikipedia's entries, but I am not much impressed by the Britannica version. Wikipedia offers a free, easy-to-use, and reliable encyclopedia that meets everyone's needs, except perhaps for a few disgruntled heads of paid-subscription encyclopedias who are losing business.