The Samovar

Public knowledge
December 8, 2007, 2:56 am
Filed under: Academia, Anarchism, Internet, Manifesto | Tags: , , , , , ,

Wikipedia has a very bad reputation for accuracy, and recently it’s been getting a bit of a trashing for its internal politics. Despite this, millions of people continue to use it, and I think it’s easy to see why.

Despite its problems, Wikipedia is a better resource for the public dissemination of knowledge than almost anything else out there. It can be misused by blindly relying on what is included there, but this isn’t a reason to attack Wikipedia. You just have to approach it with the right attitude: a Wikipedia article is a starting point for further research, not an end point. It’s a means for discovering new information as much as a repository of information. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this. Discovering that certain knowledge exists is itself a very difficult and important thing to do.

Wikipedia articles are like a quick and dirty map of a knowledge space. They give you a rough idea of what something is about, even if the details may be wrong, and they suggest where you could go to find out more. As a sample, I picked the Wikipedia entry on dynamical systems more or less at random. As well as a decent length article, it has a bibliography of 17 books, including 13 serious academic books at varying levels and 4 popular mathematics books, and 22 internet links, including complete books available online, tutorials and the web pages of relevant research groups.

The nature of knowledge is that it is constantly expanding, and at the moment it is doing so at an incredible rate. Traditional repositories of knowledge like textbooks and encyclopaedias find it difficult to keep up, and are often years if not decades out of date. Wikipedia may be less authoritative than these, but it is often only days after a new discovery is made that a detailed write up is available on wikipedia with links to the original research paper for those who need more accurate information. Textbooks and printed encyclopaedias cannot compete with this.

It is interesting that much of the criticism of Wikipedia comes from those with a vested interest in doing so. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has criticised Wikipedia, and it’s obvious enough why they would do so because they’re in direct competition. But Wikipedia also gets a very bad treatment from the press, by people who are not directly in competition with it. The coverage from The Register (article linked to above) is a case in point. Their stories about Wikipedia are hostile almost to the point of absurdity.

So why is this? My feeling is that it’s because the model of public knowledge espoused by Wikipedia is a direct challenge to the elitist model of knowledge of journalists, and the reason they attack it so strongly is the same as the reason they attack blogs so strongly. Their whole reason for existence is based on the idea that they are providing something through their expertise and knowledge that cannot be obtained elsewhere (for free). If people could just directly access knowledge without going through them, why would be bother doing so? They feel their existence is threatened.

And they are right to feel that way. Wikipedia articles on new scientific discoveries are often much better researched than the write ups in newspapers, and Wikipedia authors often seem to have a better understanding of the discovery in question than the science writers in the newspaper. This shouldn’t be surprising: a newspaper typically only has one or two science writers (and they’re often failed scientists or those with only an undergraduate degree in science), whereas a Wikipedia article could be directly written by someone in that field or even by the original authors themselves. A newspaper article will never cite it’s sources because there isn’t enough space, but most Wikipedia articles do so (and those that don’t are conspicuously flagged).

Similarly, blogs often provide a much broader and more interesting range of political analysis than you find in a newspaper. One of the criticisms that traditional media such as newspapers level at blogs is that they don’t do investigative journalism, but in fact the heavy competition and diminishing revenues of traditional media mean that they are doing less investigative journalism than ever. When the US invaded Iraq, the traditional media were telling us how great everything was because their information was all coming through the filter of the military forces. On the other hand, Iraqi blogs gave a much broader picture.

Getting back to Wikipedia, the journalists and others would be right to criticise Wikipedia if the point of it was to provide an authoritative reference point for factual information. But this really shouldn’t be the point, and the criticism is fundamentally based on an inaccurate picture of the nature of knowledge. Truly authoritative knowledge is very rare. Anyone relying on a single source, however authoritative that source is, is making a serious error. Wikipedia shouldn’t be relied on in this way, but neither should an Encyclopaedia Brittanica entry or even a scientific textbook (and certainly not a newspaper article!). The critics cannot understand this point, or cannot concede it, because their view of themselves is that they are this sort of authority, and so they cannot comprehend the suggestion that this sort of authority is not needed.

So in defending Wikipedia from its critics, I am not – as they might imagine – denying the need for expertise, but attacking the false and elitist nature of expertise that they represent, and defending a view of knowledge that is inherently diverse.

As a postscript, a very interesting project is Scholarpedia. It is inspired by Wikipedia, but has a different balance of openness and expertise by essentially restricting editing rights to academics, with the level of control increasing with scientific status. As the front page of Scholarpedia states, “The approach of Scholarpedia does not compete with, but rather complements that of Wikipedia” (my emphasis). Scholarpedia is a recognition that both expertise and the dynamic, open approach of Wikipedia are important. At the moment, Scholarpedia is restricted to articles about theoretical and computational neuroscience, some mathematical fields, and astrophysics, but it will grow.


It’s best to view wikipedia as a sophisticated sort of chat-room. Articles that are somewhat esoteric will if nothing else generally be accurate (it would comparable to asking an educated friend what they know about a thing), but more popular articles will usually have a bias (or several sometimes inconsistent biases in different places). To give an examples, for a while the McDonald’s page looked basically like a corporate handout, with multiple sections about McDonald’s ‘charity work’ and ‘response to criticisms’ (though it now appears to have swung in the other direction). Likewise, quite a few scholarly articles — that are accurate, so far as I can tell — have the sort of air of pretension about them that makes you think whoever wrote them had just learned about the subject but is trying to make you think otherwise. Some time ago the wikipedia article on Das Kapital summarized the ‘fetishism of commodities’ with something to the effect that it “is an advanced metaphysical theory, influenced deeply by the work of Hegel, and therefore resistant to summarization.” Quite a few biology articles are like this as well (‘Heterozygosity’ is a simple concept that can be explained to 13 year olds, but the wikipedia page for it would frighten anyone coming across it for the first time). Some mathematics articles used to be the same way or worse, but I can’t find any at the moment, so maybe the problem’s been recognized.

At any rate, wikipedia is still quite decent as a first source. I’ve looked at Scholarpedia, and wasn’t very impressed. There wasn’t a great deal of content, but if it were to grow larger it would have somewhat of an elitist effect. It advertises very loudly who has written an article, and I don’t know of any other encyclopedia that does that. It feels like an academic roll-call journal, and has the effect of making knowledge seem important by virtue of who is pursuing it, rather than its inherent interest (or lack thereof). The exciting element of wikipedia was that it did exactly the opposite. Scholarpedia is still in its infancy though; maybe this is a premature to judge its character.

Comment by Brad

Wonderfully argued.

I remember a longhorn from the Britannica comparing Wikipedia to a public lavatory and asking us to express no surprise as what the previous user has left it. This is a part of a larger Wikihate psyche that’s growing.

Yes, you’ve hammered on the right nail: This is about the free dissemination of knowledge.

Most of everything that is got on the net for free is spam, if you exclude blogs and Indy sites. The best thing about Wikipedia is its user-friendliness, and as a starting point for something,without excessive scholarly mediation(or useless verbiage, that makes some haters so angry). At times, Wiki does get whacky, I admit, but its positive contributions are more than enough to outbalance that.

Is knowledge free or necessarily tied to posh universities and credit card frauds on sites that ask $3000(more than double of the average yearly income in places like India)for a crap article on something or someone?

That’s the basic premise.

I don’t know about conditions in America, for journalists in India, are quoting from Wikipedia like crazy. There was a libel litigation in Delhi in recent times that was dismissed coz the journalist successfully defended himself by saying: “It cannot be libel, for I found it on Wikipedia.” 🙂

Comment by radicalhypocrite

Hey Brad, nice to hear from you. How are things?

I think your criticisms of Wikipedia are good ones, but I’m not sure they affect my main point that Wikipedia does represent a new form of useful knowledge that in many ways goes beyond what has gone before.

It’s true that the political stuff is much less good than the scientific and mathematical stuff, but it’s still far from useless. I just looked up the highly contentious issue of the number of casualties of the Iraq war, and was incredibly impressed by the wiki article on the subject, which detailed the estimates, criticisms, etc., and included over 100 references to look things up in more detail. And the article on commodity fetishm seemed decent although not great (I didn’t look in much detail). It’s not surprising that the first drafts of articles that appear on wikipedia are likely to be less good than the later versions, because they’re probably written by an enthusiast for wikipedia rather than an enthusiast for the subject. Still – we shouldn’t do these people down too much, they helped start wikipedia off, even if they did only write about things they’d just learnt about. It’s the nature of the thing that it’s not reliable information – that was one of my points. Also, I agree that wikipedia articles on scientific subjects are often much more difficult than they need to be. They’re written very drily.

Scholarpedia has a long way to go, but I don’t think it’s too elitist. I imagine they are making a point of the names of the authors because they don’t want to be confused with wikipedia. I like and want these diverse sorts of information. I want to have textbooks which are written years later and are very carefully researched, I want more up to date articles in Scholarpedia written by experts in the field, and I want the anarchic articles of Wikipedia that are ultra-up-to-date but quite possibly inaccurate. The more ways there are to access knowledge the better, as long as we don’t make the mistake of relying too much on any one of them.

Hi radicalhypocrite! Thanks for your comment. I agree with you about free knowledge, although I must say I do feel a little uneasy about journalists quoting from Wikipedia. The problem is that if it becomes widespread, it opens a very easy to exploit channel to manipulate information. The problem is not really that journalists are using Wikipedia, but that they are not checking the information they get from it. That’s bad journalism (and diminishing profit margins and higher pressures on the media means we will be seeing more and more of this sort of inaccuracy as time goes on).

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

I agree with your main points; I probably use wikipedia to find information more often than anything else. But I think it’s important not to confuse it for a traditional encyclopedia that someone has vested a lot of energy and reputation in. That’s all.

As for me, things are good. I’m just finishing my applications to grad school (and _very_ glad to be nearly done). I didn’t apply to Cambridge, incidentally. Just applying would’ve been quite a lot of work, and I think part III would’ve been too stressful for my tastes.

Comment by Brad

Do people use traditional encyclopaedias any more? I know that for my part, I would never use one, because (a) I could start on wiki, (b) If I want more I can follow the wiki links, (c) If I want real in-depth stuff I could just go to the library and get a basic textbook on whatever subject I wanted, (d) I don’t have an encyclopaedia and they’re not cheap, and (e) if it was a fast-moving subject I wouldn’t trust the encyclopaedia to be up to date. Of course, if I did have one, I’d probably use it as a first port of call, but I don’t think I’d treat it much differently from wikipedia, and I’d still want to check other sources for more up to date information.

Glad things are well with you – writing applications is really tedious and it’s such a relief to finish them. Where do you think you might go?

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

I applied to Stanford, Princeton, UCLA and a few others. I don’t know how fickle admissions committees are though. The absolute best place for me, in terms of research at the moment, would’ve probably been Tel Aviv, but I don’t know that I’d want to live in Israel (not for political reason so much as social).

Comment by Brad

…so that doesn’t sound as anti-semitic as I think it might, I mean that when I was in Budapest I had difficulty meeting Hungarians, and so mainly spent my time around other Americans in the program; but I don’t think there would be any Americans at Tel Aviv.

Comment by Brad

Well those sound like good places anyway, but if you really wanted to try for Tel Aviv, it might not be as bad as you think. Almost everyone speaks English there for a start. Good luck with them! 🙂

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

Itellipedia will interest you. (google it)

Comment by Anonymous

But spell it right. INtellipedia.

Comment by Anonymous

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: