Wikipedia: Only As Full of Shit As You Are, Professor

Creative Commons image by Jan van der Crabben.

One of my favorite science publications, New Scientist, drops the ball in a big way in this article on Wikipedia. I say that because NS gives us an uncharacteristically credulous account of the online user-edited encyclopedia’s attempts to be taken seriously. It opens with a paragraph that reeks of the worst pseudoscientific dramababble:

Wikipedia’s entry on Albert Einstein looks good. Covering each phase of the physicist’s life, from childhood to death, it tells readers about his politics, religion and science. Honours named after him and books and plays about his life are listed. But there is one snag: there is no way to tell whether the information is true.

I can almost smell the Chupacabra’s spoor. In fact, I am so horrified by a so-called science journal asserting that there is “no way” to tell whether information of this sort is true that I just might want to add some spoor of my own, right on top of the latest issue of New Scientist.

The implicit assumption, here and in all discussions of Wikipedia — which nobody bothers to make explicit because everybody knows it — is that if you get your information from a non-Wikipedia source (the Encyclopedia Brittanica, say, or Eric Blair’s immensely illuminating New York Times articles), you don’t need to “tell” if the information is true. It just is, because it comes out of a book or a BBC documentary or a professor’s mouth. In that assumpion, I smell more than just the Chupacabra’s spoor; the idea that books are right by virtue of being books and Wikipedia might be wrong because anyone can edit it — that just may be the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard. In fact, it is a truly dangerous load of crap, because it asserts that the writing of books is different than the act of editing a Wikipedia article; that creating books is some mystical act conducted by holy creatures whose ideas are never spurious, unsupported or just plain crazy. Since when?

Books are wrong all the time, and college professors more than all the time. Articles submitted to peer reviewed journals are also wrong all the time, which is why there is peer review, which (in theory at least) challenges unreferenced statements and questionable conclusions drawn from data that doesn’t seem to support it. It is far from a perfect system, but at least it’s a system.

Most books do not conform to the system of peer review, and mainstream media sure as f!#&&!! doesn’t, I tell ya what. Nor does Wikipedia, as such, but its systems, in which specific statements should be referenced to non-original sources, and lively (sometimes hillariously lively) discussion takes place on the “talk” pages, make it closer to a peer-reviewed publication than anything CNN or Reuters or Fox News could ever be, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that pisses off and scares the living shit out of reporters, professors and other “experts” everywhere. I’ve experienced it firsthand many times: The smallest inaccuracy in a Wikipedia article (or a tertiary post that expresses complete lunacy) can set forth a foaming-at-the-mouth rant from someone who makes her or his living (or pads his or her ego) by being the keeper of sacred knowledge on a given topic.

There is a grain of truth in what the Wikipedia-haters say — but that truth supports, rather than challenges, Wikipedia’s methods.

The Wiki model only provides top-flight information if the reader has the brains to check the references, particularly in the case of controversial or questionable statements. But at colleges and universities across the U.S., students are being told that when writing class papers they are not allowed to use Wikipedia. These commands, like Orwellian poetry, issue from the mouths of the professors who are, or should be, entrusted with teaching these students how to think for themselves and check original sources, which is — or should be — the chaser for every reading of every single Wikipedia article. Wikipedia is far from perfect in its references — let’s face it, Wikipedia’s a clusterfuck — but nonacademic books and mainstream media sources do not reference individual statements at all. Can somebody tell me how that makes them more reliable, or how a properly referenced statement on Wikipedia provides “no way to tell if the information is true”?

The scientific or historical wisdom of a time is not represented by any one source, nor by a limited number of books, journals and learned persons — it’s represented by the totality of those books and people, as checked, each and every time, by references and critical thinking and a willingness to challenge unsupported statements. Wikipedia, New Scientist and the National Review should all be read with one’s mind open. But believing or discounting anything one reads or hears because one is too lazy to check it, whether it’s in a book or a classroom or Joe’s Website About Rhesus Monkeys — that’s pseudointellectualism, the first refuge of scoundrels.


Image via Wikipedia. (You know, it’s probably worth mentioning that use of the Wikipedia logo is not allowed without specific permission. Awesome.)

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29 comments on “Wikipedia: Only As Full of Shit As You Are, Professor
  1. Unfortunately, you do seem to miss the point about the peer review. Whilst referring to scientific documents published in specific magazines, peer review is a necessary public way of ‘arguing’ the points.
    And obviously there is no way for these to be 100% correct. No one is infallible.
    Unfortunately on the internet, peer review doesn’t work as well. It’s the ‘weakest link in the chain’ scenario. It’s all very well if an intelligently written article on a subject is posted, then corrected or added to, but only if by people who have a clue.
    Imagine the stupidest, know-it-all person you know, spouting their opinionated drivel, deciding to edit some entries. That’s where the system falls down.
    With publication in a book, the book itself stands as the record. Which means that it is reviewed before publication, rather than after like in wikiworld.
    Which is why any knowledge gained from wiki should be taken with a pinch of salt.

  2. “Imagine the stupidest, know-it-all person you know, spouting their opinionated drivel, deciding to edit some entries.”
    James, that happens all the time…
    And generally speaking, the article gets corrected. FAST.
    Wikipedia has a system whereby you can be notified when someone alters an article. Not only that, each change has an IP address associated with it… so that not only can you see WHAT was changed, but you can get an idea of WHO. If you see an article on global warming that was most recently edited from an IP address owned by Exxon… it might be worthwhile to wait fifteen minutes and see who else chimes in.
    Yes, you can’t use Wikipedia without checking sources and doing some legwork. If you try to pull the high school trick of copying an article out of the encyclopedia, you’ll get in an entirely different kind of trouble, but you’ll get in trouble nonetheless.
    Wikipedia IS peer-reviewed… they just have a different definition of “peer”.

  3. I’ve made a good number of anonymous changes to Wikipedia, some of which have made differences to Google search results (as Google seem to fall for the fallacy that “If it’s in Wikipedia, there must be something to it”)
    Wikipedia’s problem isn’t about peer review, it’s that it doesn’t have a definition of “peer”. We are all equal peers, according to Wikipedia, or – at best – there’s a 2-tier system, of logged-in vs. anonymous posters.
    Last time I looked at the “Kilobyte” article on Wikipedia, it was hopelessly confused about 1024 bytes vs 1000 bytes.
    Yes, I could go in and fix it, but why should I correct somebody else’s webpage? It’s wrong, and untrustworthy, that is all I need to know.
    If I want to know the latest about David Beckham, I’ll trust Wikipedia to give me close-enough information (not that I actually care anyway). If I want to know about the work of Isaac Newton, I’ll go to a reliable source, thank you very much.
    I’ve got nothing against Wikipedia as such, but there’s no way that I would trust it.

  4. Speaking as an average person, non-academic, living in a very pragmatic world, Wiki is a representation of the collective knowledge that simply scares those who have traditionally been the keepers of said knowledge. Arguing about the mechanics of whether Wiki works is futile, of course it works, the evidence is empirical at worst and proven at best, it contains more real time dynamic depth on a subject than any book or publication can possibly reproduce. The peer review argument (before or after publication) is a bit futile as well, in that the rate at which information and even “knowledge” changes will soon relegate the printed and distributed word to a secondary and expensive medium at best.
    On the pragmatic side, it is *impossible* to validate the source of everything one reads, be it on paper or online. My opinion is that this is true of the academic community as well, as taboo as it may sound. So, we develop sources that we trust and make assumptions about those sources everyday, it is human nature to do so, pragmatic average joe or academic alike. As such, the credibility of *all* information is suspect to the point that one single person (the reader) does or does not personally trust the author.
    So, in a world where most, if not all, information is suspect, and the definitive and up to date source is becoming the collective knowledge, information and opinion of the people, what source is most likely to represent a holistic viewpoint? Are the collective then the peer’s doing the review, and if so, other than on a larger scale, how is that different than the current process of academic peer review? You can argue that review before publication vs after publication is the difference, but the evolution of information is, in itself, information worthy of publishing when one considers the search for holistic and “accurate” information.
    Personally, I would err on the side of the collective. Not because I don’t trust those that are “experts” (despite their often myopic realities) or those that deliver the information (maybe a little distrust here), but more because I think that the difference between truth or lie is very gray in the middle, and a matter of perception, yes, I said it. The collective has, in my opinion, a greater chance of being representative of the holistic (and most accurate) viewpoint vs the scientific and academic community (myopic and close minded) as well as the business, news and printed information sources (biased and reactive).
    Not to say that the holistic viewpoint is right or wrong, it is neither. However, it does present the reader with best chance at the most information to process and make a personal determination as to the facts. Which is truly as good as it will ever get in a world where information is a commodity, is available in massive quantities, and most importantly, available to everyone in the manner which it should be.
    Crazy, I don’t think so…

  5. I’ve heard plenty of complaints about wikipedia before and each time I do, this simple fact pops in to my head.
    The “winners” write the history books.
    Frankly, even though I know that Exxon changed the entry related to their infamous spill in Alaska, I feel as if there are enough eyes on Wikipedia to make it at least as trust worthy as any single encyclopedia.
    No one is going to get it right. The evening news can’t get a story straight when it happened this afternoon. Scientists debate the results of a study after reading the exact same paper. I figure that all fact is going to be tainted by opinion to one degree or another.
    I tell my daughter, don’t believe everything you read. That goes for a blog post, The Wall St. Journal or Colliers Encyclopedia.
    Perhaps I’m over simplifying but I believe in the power of the people to at least get the point across if not every detail in precision.

  6. The difference between gaining information from books and gaining it from a source like the internet is that anyone can write/create a page online about anything they wish, be it true or not.
    A book however, needs a great deal of research and knowledge before it is checked by others in the field who have spent years studying the single subject at hand before any publishing company will even touch it. They risk losing money if it is a poor piece and the contributor risks their reputation.
    What is at risk when editing a page online?

  7. There is nothing at risk per se, however, risk is not the driving factor for correctness on Wikipedia.
    There are many people who will be ‘watchers’ on a specific section of topics as mentioned previously. The people who stay around ‘watching’ the longest are the people who actually care about that topic. Someone who is just being an ass is not going to stay at it for very long.
    Of course that isn’t all that important in the long run. It all comes back to the fact that a Wikipedia article that you can trust is one that cites its sources, and you actually investigate those sources to be sure that you trust them.
    Do you think that a Wikipedia article is started just from some guy trying to remember stuff about the subject? They are researched in depth as well.
    Wikipedia is usually my main source for finding out about a topic because it collects all the information in one place, but still showing where this information came from. Those sources are what you cite, not the Wikipedia article.

  8. My sentiments exactly.
    You all grew up with the lie about Columbus ‘discovering’
    the new world, and accepted it because teacher said so.
    Book said so.
    So it is so.
    But it is not so.
    Any thing you don’t know by empirical evidence, (you were there and saw it) you have to verify.
    If Wiki simply makes us verify long accepted
    ‘facts’ than it does far more than tell us who Albert Einstein was.

  9. I have been researching in the library for about 25 years. I use Wikipedia for my “first stop” for everything. To the people who say “I would never trust it.” I would never trust any source — I have seen grevious insane errors in every form of media. When I spout off myself, I usually do so from having read from as wide a variety of sources as possible, having subjected those sources to careful analysis, and then I spout with an awareness that I MIGHT BE WRONG ANYWAY.
    Articles from the established print encyclopedias are good measures to consensus opinion, but consensus opinion is not always spot on. Just read an old encyclopedia.
    Back when the tables of astronomical data that allowed the prediction of the flooding of the Nile were first outed in ancient Egypt, the priests complained that the end of the social order was at hand.
    Maybe it was.
    And good riddance.

  10. Honestly, The internet was born on the basic need to share knowledge with many people.
    Wikipedia is Nowhere different from a Weblog, Google, an Online News site, or Dare I mention Myspace.
    You can be assured that most information on Wikipedia is true, but Don’t accept it as the greatest source of knowledge.
    Saying that, I wouldn’t accept any news medium either.

  11. i really don’t see why all of the academics hate wikipedia. obviously, there is a lot of information on the internet that is unverified garbage written by unqualified persons (loose change, anyone?). however, wikipedia has been a very reliable source of information for me.
    as a mechanical engineering undergrad, there were A LOT of equations i needed to know, and they were easily found and conveniently organized on wikipedia. what’s more, i never found one incorrect equation, proof, table, etc. ever. furthermore, every single article had several reputable sources listed.
    this may be surprising to some, but it seems to me that most of the people who write articles on wikipedia actually do know what they’re talking about.
    on a side note, though, i’m not sure if i’d trust hot-topic political issues on wikipedia, as politics has a way of turning an otherwise intelligent person into a loud-mouthed idiot. either way, it can’t be any worse than the mainstream media…

  12. I just did some science homework on planets and wrote that, using wikipedia as my source, that Jupiter has 63 moons, when in fact it has 16 known moons. It’s a small mistake in an article and could easily go unchecked. The problem is that only big issues are changed and as wikipedia becomes more and more bloated with information it will become harder and harder to disquingish (oh sh*t I can’t spell that) between truth and lies.

  13. Actually, it is up in the air how many moons Jupiter has, depending on what the meaning of the word is is.
    This 2002 post from says 16 official ones plus around two dozen new ones — total of 40:

    Question: How many moons does Jupiter have?
    Answer: Lately, this question has had a changing answer! For many years, we knew of 16 moons for the largest planet in our solar system. In the last few years, about two dozen new moons have been announced by astronomers. However, being announced does not mean that these become “official” moons of the planet. To be recognized by the scientific community as a new moon involves a process which may take several years – and some announced objects never get recognized at all! Let’s explain.
    This probably more recent — but completely undated — post from says:

    Jupiter has at least 63 known moons. The largest four are called Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. These four moons are called the Galilean satellites because they were first seen in 1610 by the astronomer Galileo Galilei. Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system, with a diameter of 3,260 miles. Io has a lot of active volcanoes and is covered with sulfer. Callisto may have a water ocean beneath its heavily cratered icy, rocky surface. Europa, which is covered by a cracked, icy surface, may also have a liquid water ocean. The other moons are smaller and have irregular shapes. Most of these small moons are thought to be asteroids which were caught by Jupiter’s strong gravity.

    Read the rest of that at:
    Whether you trust Caltech or NASA over Wikipedia is of course up to you, but I think the takeaway is that all three sources disagree, and it becomes evident that scientific knowledge is NOT accurately contained in books. If you went to the library, especially a public library, how likely would you be to find a book on Jupiter’s moons that had been published SINCE 2002? If it was published before that, it would have out of date information. However, finding it on the web, even from or, clearly doesn’t establish authority either way.
    This is a perfect example of how Wikipedia can have erroneous information, but even so it’s vastly more up to date than information you’ll get from most books — but, again, still either erroneous, incomplete, or just open to discussion, controversy or disagreement. Or, in the case of what constitutes a planet or a moon, just incredibly complicated from a technical standpoint.
    Incidentally, this research I did took about 3 minutes, is completely half-assed, and I would not stand by it without lots more research, since everybody seems to be contradicting everybody else on the subject of how many moons Jupiter has.
    There is no simple answer except to research in competing sources and compare what who seems to be saying, and when.

  14. This is only my opinion, but I think the core of this problem is that people are forgetting that Wikipedia is only a single tool. As such, it has it’s own strengths and weakness. It can save time by giving a broad direction for further research and provide sources for all sides of a given argument, but because it is so easily edited only a fool would use it as a be all, end all source. For that reason, I feel it is wise for it to be baned for citation in such things as term papers, etc. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be used to give a person a place to start. Another point I would like to make is that Wikipedia provides another service. It allows collaboration on subjects that don’t warrant such scientific scrutiny.

  15. I used Wikipedia last to look up what Velveeta is. I am satisfied with the result. I also edited the article as it was internlly incorrect. So long as you posess the ability to comprehend what you see rather than merely absorb and repeat it, then any source of information is safe. It is good that we suspect Wikipedia, we should supect everything, a little.

  16. I use Wikipedia all the time, particularly for a big topic I think might get checked for errors. Its quick and easy and saves me walking to the library if I need to know the answer to something immediately. And, of course, lots of academics and well-informed people edit Wikipedia, so it’s not that inaccurate. But lots of people who don’t know what they’re doing edit it, too, and (like the NS article says) you don’t know who last tampered with what you’re reading. It’s OK as a first port of call, as long as you don’t forget to cross-check (which, I suspect, most users don’t bother to do).

  17. The difference between Wikipedia and a book is Wikipedia is like a living organism. Information can be changed, whereas eventually books go out of date. I’d trust getting my information from Wikipedia then a five year old textbook.

  18. As an adult college student, I hear instructors bad-mouthing Wikipedia on a near daily basis to kids who should not have any avenues of information gathering shut off to them. Rather than explain that Wikipedia is a fine starting point, which, like all sources, must be confirmed with additional research, they universally ban its use as a learning tool.
    This reeks of intellectual gate keeping and technophobia. Are academics so insecure that any free source of knowledge is a danger to their livelihood? I have had professors from a wide range of subjects who give inaccurate and fallacious information on a regular basis (Apparently the Salem Witch Trials happened in Oregon and all legends are based in historical fact). Is it really possible that the 25-year-old library books in the college library system bring a greater legitimacy to the study of DNA than an up-to-the-minute article on Wikipedia simply by virtue of having been printed and bound?
    Popular science and history books are not peer-reviewed (despite the claims in these comments otherwise), and bookstore shelves are full of text that present bad science and inaccurate history through multiple printings and years on the best seller lists (Chariots of the Gods, anyone?).
    Simply because it makes us feel smart to hold a pound of wood pulp and ink in our hands doesn’t mean it actually will make us smarter. We all need to be aware of the hubris that makes us value one form of intellectual stimulation over another based solely its more traditional appearance. After all, neither a book or Wikipedia are written in stone.

  19. I can understand the reservations of the academic community for whom being the ‘guardians of knowledge’ are understandably(?) quite defensive about their hard-earned niches. I posit therefore that they should move the battle to the heart of the ‘misinformed masses’ – to Wikipedia itself! I agree with Grim that the true strength of the Wiki comes in recognising it for what it is – a tool – a *free* map that I confess I would loved to have had at my disposal in my long-past undergraduate days. I daresay it might have improved the breadth (if not necessarily depth or accuracy) of my inquiry, as it surely stimulates inquiry in countless students at present.

  20. One small, simple implication that you missed:
    When you assume a book, which is written by only one man, can be empirically correct on all knowledge, and when you assume that Wikipedia, which is written and edited by many, cannot be trusted, is exactly the same as saying that the voice of one man has more importance in our society than the voices of many.

  21. As a Computer Science major in college, I’ve had many arguments on the topic with my father, who is a college English professor. It took a long time, but I finally reached the heart of the matter in his opinion. It isn’t that Wikipedia isn’t reliable (although he did claim that), it’s that it can’t be referenced accurately.
    With a book, if you reference the 2nd edition printed in 1996, you know that anyone can pick up that book and validate your claims. On wikipedia, if you reference a page, it may or may not be the same when someone goes to check it.
    I have trouble finding fault in that argument. However, the vast majority of wikipedia opponents don’t use that argument, but instead resort to claiming that it’s not a valid source because anyone can edit it. If more educators would stop with the bogus “you can’t trust anything on wikipedia” argument and just say that it changes too fast to be able to reference, I don’t think we would have such a divide.

  22. indeed wikipedia is full of shit,there is a lot of articles which is pure propaganda, people seek wikipedia for some trusty informations.even if u try to edit some articles with real information which is a fact it doesn’t work, if doesn’t fit with their policy cause of what ever reason they re-edit it and blacklist you. i never trusted wikipedia and i will never do.

  23. @Little Tart
    “Are academics so insecure that any free source of knowledge is a danger to their livelihood?”
    How insecure would you be if you made your living charging people $20000 — $100000 for something that was available now to everyone for free?
    Over the last 5 years I’ve taken classes in Chemistry, Physics, Art and Literature at the University of Washington — in one upper division chemistry class and one upper division art class I encountered ideas beyond what I could find on the Internet. 90% of the professors working right now should just be fired, and I suspect they know it. You bet they’re scared.
    Books in the library still have the greatest depth of information. When we finally kill the copyright demon and unlock the databases and have a completely free exchange of the worlds total knowledge online it’s going to be a beautiful thing.
    Except for the people who have made their living selling shallow regurgitation of consensus opinion.

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