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Monday, January 29, 2007

Wikipedia revisited

My students have had a hard time finding any errors in Wikipedia (one of their assignments). Of course there are plenty of errors in it, so why was it so hard to find them? I think the issue is that most high-school students can’t find topics in which they have deep expertise, and it’s difficult to identify what’s wrong with an account of a topic in which you aren’t an expert.

As I’ve indicated earlier, the articles that concern mathematics, computer science, and some other technical domains are remarkably accurate — not that they’re free of errors, but they’re certainly as good as many printed textbooks. I assume that there are two reasons why this observation might in fact be true: contributors are rarely motivated to slant a technical article out of political or emotional bias, and writers are unlikely to spend the time to compose a math article if they don’t know what they’re writing about. So the two major sources of error — bias and ignorance — are greatly reduced in these cases.

Wikipedia has been in the news a lot recently. For instance, Mark Bernstein posts three entries in his blog: What Wikipedia can do well, WikiPolicing, and Wikipedia Biography. Here are a few of his interesting observations:
Where is wikipedia best? The most effective articles share some common properties:
  • Of potential interest to a wide audience
  • Of vital interest to very few
  • Impersonal
A wikipedia article on cycloctatetraene (one of my old friends) is likely to be good. Lots of people might be interested in cyclooctatetraene. Nobody cares terrible about it. Nobody loves or hates it. (I have a sneaking, nostalgic affection for it, but that’s just my and my COT).

A wikipedia article on a controversial, living person is almost bound to be a combat zone.


Wikipedia is terrific for lots of uncontentious corners. As Diane Greco points out, the Vietnam War is still being fought on Wikipedia and that page is unlikely to reach consensus or achieve stability.

But if you want to know when Lord Acton wrote, or check exactly when Galileo died, Wikipedia is remarkable good. That’s not everything, but it's a lot.

Wikipedia has strengths. It’s useful. We shouldn’t expect it to be take on tasks for which it is poorly suited, tasks like contemporary biography. And its internal regulatory systems needs to be repaired, lest it be owned by an anonymous bureaucracy of axe-grinding children. This can all be fixed.
For various reasons, many of them rather obvious, it’s not a good idea to cite a Wikipedia article as an authoritative source in a bibliography for an academic paper. But it can be a great source of basic information, a quick way to acquire initial knowledge that can be confirmed or questioned in later research. Only the lazy would use it as the last word.

Not surprisingly, the Chronicle of Higher Education has its doubts:
Among academics...Wikipedia continues to receive mixed — and often failing — grades. Wikipedia’s supporters often portray the site as a brave new world in which scholars can rub elbows with the general public. But doubters of the approach — and in academe, there are many — say Wikipedia devalues the notion of expertise itself.

Perhaps because of the site’s refusal to give professors or other experts priority — and because of an editing process that can resemble a free-for-all — a clear preponderance of Wikipedia’s contents has been written by people outside academe. In fact, the dearth of scholarly contributions to the site has prompted one prominent former Wikipedian — Larry Sanger, one of the site’s co-founders — to start an alternative online encyclopedia, vetted by experts.
It always makes me nervous when academics consider themselves to be a priesthood that must intercede between hoi polloi and the truth. Maybe that’s one reason why I’m a math teacher: mathematical truth can be discovered by anyone and vetted by anyone, regardless of credentials. Leaving truth to the experts alone can be dangerous. Do read the entire (long) article from the Chronicle of Higher Education which I’ve excerpted above.

Even the establishment New Yorker and the slightly alternative Boston Phoenix get into the act:
...just look at Wikipedia.com, which, with just five employees and an annual operating budget of $750,000, has become the 17th most popular site on the Web, boasting more than a million articles about every subject imaginable, written by hundreds of thousands of people across the globe. Compare that to the Encyclopedia Britannica’s measly 120,000 entries. Since its launch in January 2001, Stacy Schiff writes in a recent New Yorker article (from which those numbers are gleaned), Wikipedia has succeeded in realizing the dream of H.G. Wells, who “prescribed a ‘world brain,’ a collaborative decentralized repository of knowledge that would be subject to continual revision.”

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