|Feature Article - December 2007|
|by Do-While Jones|
Can you believe what you read in Wikipedia about the theory of evolution?
Wikipedia is one of those ideas that looks great on paper, but doesn’t quite work in practice. Wikipedia’s noble goal is to correct a weakness in traditional encyclopedias. Although a traditional encyclopedia has many authors, it reflects the single opinion of the editor/publisher. The editor/publisher chooses who writes the articles, and therefore affects the perspective of the article. The person chosen to write the article might be biased, or uninformed.
Wikipedia is an on-line encyclopedia based on the notion that it takes a village to write an encyclopedia. There is almost certainly someone else in the entire world more qualified to write an article about a subject than the person paid to write an article for a traditional encyclopedia. Therefore, one should be able to tap into the expertise of the entire world, and let the world edit the encyclopedia. Since all the articles are written by the most qualified, most informed person in the world, Wikipedia should be the ultimate source of truth. Furthermore, it should never be obsolete. As soon as new information is discovered, it can be incorporated into Wikipedia.
It is a great idea in theory, but it fails miserably in practice for several reasons.
The first problem with Wikipedia is that it is so transient that it is useless for footnotes. Granted, old fashioned print encyclopedias have their limitations, but at least the 1960 World Book Encyclopedia still says the same thing today as it said in 1960. So, if we claim that evolutionists believed something in 1960, and quote the 1960 World Book as proof, one can go to the Library of Congress and check to see if we quoted it correctly. But if we quote Wikipedia, there is no guarantee that it will still say the same thing by the time you read our newsletter. If we poke holes in a stupid argument on Wikipedia, it may look like we created a foolish straw man just to make fun of it.
So, the first fundamental flaw in Wikipedia is that it lacks permanence. You can’t depend upon it to say the same thing today as it said yesterday.
The second fundamental flaw is that although Wikipedia is theoretically democratic, in practice it is Stalinist. Joseph Stalin said, “The people who cast the votes don't decide an election, the people who count the votes do.” 1 The content of Wikipedia is not determined by the smart people in the world who contribute to it. It is determined by the people who decide what edits are legitimate, and what edits are “vandalism.”
The third fundamental flaw is that you know nothing about the qualifications or possible agenda of the people who wrote the Wikipedia article.
These problems have been recognized by others for a long time. It was more than a year ago that the prestigious journal Science recognized the failure of Wikipedia.
A Wikipedia co-founder-turned-detractor is hoping to build a more academic alternative to the freewheeling, user-written encyclopedia. 2
More recently, New Scientist published a two-page article listing all the reasons one can’t trust the information Wikipedia. Ironically, the title of this article is, “You can put your trust in Wikipedia 2.0.” The subheading of that article tells the real story, however.
Wikipedia wants to be seen as more reliable, but will the changes it is planning deter genuine contributions? 3
New Scientist then describes the problems, the suggested solutions, and the problems with those solutions, proposed for “Wikipedia 2.0”. It really doesn’t take two pages to explain the problem, however. The fundamental problem with Wikipedia is “Damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t.” If you let just anyone edit the articles, there is no guarantee that the person who wrote the article is qualified to write it. You don’t even know who wrote it. (They could have lied about their identity.) If you put any restrictions on who can write the articles, then you have Stalin censoring what people can read.
A lot of what we have just said about Wikipedia could be said about the Internet in general. For example, we just used an Internet source for the Joseph Stalin quote. We have no guarantee that the link will still be valid when you try to follow it. We don’t really know the quote is accurate because said it in Russian. We must trust the unknown translator. Furthermore, we don’t really know he actually said anything of the kind. We did find multiple references to the quote on the web, but it could just be an urban legend. We used the quote because the statement is true, regardless of whether or not Stalin said it. If you don’t believe us, just ask Al Gore!
This is why we rely primarily on peer-reviewed print media (Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) for facts about scientific research, and popular print media (Time, Newsweek, and so on) for descriptions of how that scientific research is portrayed to the general public. You can check the quotes, and you know who wrote it.
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Joseph Stalin, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/josephstal390697.html
2 Science, 27 October 2006, “A Scholarly Wikipedia?”, page 571
3 New Scientist, 27 September 2007, “You can put your trust in Wikipedia 2.0”, pages 28-29