Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

Archive for November 2011

How Wikipedia is like modern science

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A lot of teachers aren’t wild about Wikipedia, particularly when students cite it as a source in papers they’re writing for class. I wouldn’t advise a student to use it as a source in a formal paper in a college course, except maybe for an uncontroversial fact like the population of France—and even then you need to be careful to cite a specific dated version of an article, rather than the article in general, which changes over time.

But some teachers don’t even accept Wikipedia as a valid source of background information, because it’s written by whoever wants to contribute to it, rather than by acknowledged experts. What these people don’t get is the power of crowdsourcing, even when it’s as unregulated as Wikipedia is. Yes, Wikipedia contains some mistakes. Hoaxes have been successfully added to Wikipedia, and in some cases have stayed there for years. Anyone can add complete nonsense to a Wikipedia article anytime they like. Yet somehow Wikipedia articles consist almost entirely of correct information. How is that?

What the Wikipedia doubters don’t realize is (1) the number of active, responsibly motivated contributors Wikipedia has, and (2) that people who know what they’re talking about have more staying power than boneheads and vandals. One brilliant feature of Wikipedia is the Watchlist. Dedicated Wikipedians put articles that they’re interested in on their Watchlist. Checking it shows them any changes that have been made recently to any of those articles. Some Wikipedians check their Watchlist several times a day, and so can eliminate newly added bad information soon after it happens.

The article France, for example, was being watched by 846 Wikipedians the last time I checked. The three most recent bad edits had been reverted in just 18, 8, and 7 minutes. And none of those three edits even included outright misinformation—they were merely considered inappropriate (I guess) by the people who reverted them.

Wikipedia is also tended by a wide variety of bots—software tools written by Wikipedians, which automatically make certain kinds of changes to articles. Some of those bots are specialized to find and revert vandalism. Fortunately for us all, Wikipedia vandals aren’t terribly smart. They tend to use certain words (poop is a particular favorite, it seems), they like exclamation marks, they often write in all caps or all lower-case, etc. These habits help the bots root out their bad works. Most such vandalism is reverted by a bot in less than a minute.

I’m a big fan of Wikipedia myself. It’s improved enormously from when it first burst into the public consciousness, and I suspect many of the Wikipedia doubters haven’t noticed how much better it is now, than it was when they formed their opinions of it. Ironically, many teachers will readily allow their students to cite other internet sources, when in many cases a Wikipedia article is the most complete and accurate single internet source for information on a subject.

Most Wikipedia doubters probably also don’t appreciate how similar the seemingly-so-sloppy Wikipedia system is to the modern scientific process. Like Wikipedia, science is an intrinsically social form of knowledge construction. Controversial scientific questions are debated among the members of a scientific community, at meetings and conferences, and in the published scientific literature. Before a question is resolved, there may be several competing hypotheses, each of which has its proponents, each of which is supported by some observations but contradicted by others. As scientists gather more information relevant to a question, members of the community are persuaded to drop one hypothesis and embrace another. A question is considered settled only once the vast majority of scientists in a community have converged on one of the competing hypotheses. When there is near-universal consensus, scientists stop gathering information to investigate that question, and move on to other, still-controversial topics.

Similarly, Wikipedia articles settle into a stable form by consensus. Controversies arise over particular claims in an article, they are hashed out on the article’s talk page, a community consensus is arrived at, and that part of the article stabilizes. If newbies later edit that part without realizing that consensus had been achieved, the old guard typically reverts their changes, pointing to the earlier discussion and the consensus that had been reached. The newbies have a perfect right to re-open the discussion if they’re unconvinced, and sometimes new blood can make new arguments that shift the consensus a bit.

As long as enough people are involved, this process usually produces a thoughtful, responsible article. Often, resolving controversies is just a matter of finding more cautious wording that most everyone can agree on, or presenting both sides of a debatable matter in a fair-minded way. Disagreement may spur the members of opposing camps to read up on the subject more, and to find citations in support of their point of view.

Just as an idea that satisfies the members of a scientific community usually has merit, an article that satisfies the diverse members of a Wikipedia community is usually reasonable and accurate. As a result, when comparisons between Wikipedia and other reference sources find shortcomings in Wikipedia, they are usually errors of omission rather than errors of commission. Many Wikipedia articles are accurate as far as they go, but not as complete in coverage as articles in expert-generated reference sources.

But c’mon—Wikipedia has only been going at it full-bore for a few years now. The system is working, but we still have more work to do. You can help out by joining the community and moving forward with articles on subjects that you care about enough to research and edit. So get going!

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

November 8, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Posted in science

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