An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Friday, December 21, 2012

Dear Wikipedia

This rant was inspired by the "Dear Wikipedia Readers" letter that has appeared the last time I tried to find something on wikipedia. I do fully realize the apparent contradiction in denouncing what I hate about wikipedia after I used it to look something up. Something like wikipedia but has adult supervision would greatly benefit everyone. As it stands now I will use wikipedia to remind myself of the name of a pagan goddess, the year Alaric and his Visigoths sacked Rome or some other such information that I once knew but the names, dates, or other details I have forgotten. I would never use it to learn something I had not already learned from the kinds of sources that wikipedia founders and editors think that wikipedia can or will someday replace. If that does not satisfactorily explain this contradiction - I don't care.

You can find one of the several odious versions of the appeal here. I can not find the text of the one that set me off as it was a pop-up/click away pushed in front of an article.

Dear Wikipedia:

So, you're a small non-profit that runs the #5 site in the world. Just goes to show that some suckers will believe anything. You say it's like a library or a public park? Really? You'd like to think so, wouldn't you? Trouble is, libraries and public parks cost money and require people with expertise to run them. You have attempted to replace traditional academic information sources based on an analogy to a guy who observed that the average guesses as to the weight of a cow at a county faire tended to be really close the the actual weight. Based on this you think that you can "crowd-source" an encyclopedia and have it provide verifiably accurate, reliable and authoritative information? Really?

People have typed in the plot to movies as if they were an accurate description of historical events. Block-headed ideologues have vandalized articles until the locked-down version does not tell the reader much of anything and often leaves out verifiably true information. Scholars who have worked long and hard to earn their Ph.D.s have tried correcting misconceptions but discovered that your "editors" do not understand primary source analysis; therefore, they will let an existing passage in an article "stand" because the author can quote a published secondary source. And while we're on the subject of published sources - if wikipedia is supposed to stand as a reliable, authoritative resource because of that whole average weight of the cow thing, then why do your editors give so much credence to those books and articles the traditional publishing industry generated that Wikipedia is supposed to replace?

Wikipedia editors, let me tell you something. "Traditional" publishing houses earned their reputations for turning out accurate, reliable and authoritative information because people called "copy editors" did something called "actual work." They fact-checked by consulting primary sources, sometimes even physically going to places like archives and public records offices. The writers and authors spent many years earning a degree which meant that they did many hours a day of "actual work" to learn the complexities of a given subject and its development over time as well as a huge boatload of factual information. Such are the innumerable years of difficult and intellectually honest work that other people have done to make the secondary sources Wikipedia relies on and why these sources stand as credible and accurate.

Despite all this scholars find new evidence all the time and add the implications of new evidence to the body of secondary work in their fields. That means that even the best work by the best experts published by the best publishers sometimes goes out of date - the top experts in the field no longer consider it the best explanation for whatever. And sometimes charlatans fool people, even experts, and sometimes sloppy work comes out of "iffy" publishers with lax standards. It takes years of training and hard work to know enough about a subject to be able to sort out the "good" information from the "bad."

Regarding your pompous quote:

 "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

— Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia
We have these hard-working people called "librarians" who earned masters degrees and do the actual work of evaluating information on a daily basis. They work in places called "libraries" where, at least in the U.S. and other free countries, a person already is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. But this comes at a cost; therefore, in most enlightened parts of the work libraries receive public funding. The idea that "access to the sum of human knowledge" can somehow happen "for free" in the sense that no one pays for any of the labor required to produce accurate, reliable sources of information shows a kind of naivete that would look endearing coming from a 10-year-old. Also, before you try to compare wikipedia to a library you might want to consider the work that goes into becoming a librarian and running a library. It's a lot more than checking out books and children's story hour. Librarians and scholars with verifiable credentials from a properly accredited school have the qualifications to evaluate information and its sources.

Someone pounding out misconceptions and/or lies on a keyboard who has never set foot in a grad school does not qualify. Even some well-meaning and sincere people who honestly think the they have accurate, credible information often do not. Reality is not a matter of opinion and if one side of an argument that has only hot air and shouting then you really do not have an "Alternative viewpoint" worth giving space in an information resource. And the term papers you wrote in college are really the training wheels of real, modern, scholarly research. Most importantly,  the analogies you use to make your points or justify the existence of wikipedia prove absolutely nothing. But then you would know that if you ever bothered to read either Bacon or Galileo. But I bet you didn't. That would be too much work.

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