I Read It on the Internets … It Must Be True

December 14th, 2005  |  Published in old and busted  |  1 Comment

Nature: Internet encyclopaedias go head to head:

Nature sent 42 pairs of articles from the Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia to subject matter experts asking for review, without the experts knowing which entry was from which encyclopedia.

> The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.

> […]

> Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.

My reactions are sort of limited at this point:

  1. I would have expected Britannica to do better on the basis of having been programmed with its brand from birth … not because I know something special about it or read it regularly and have enough expertise in anything I find in its pages to take issue with its content. That makes the whole study an interesting exercise in stopping and taking the time to drill down on thoughts about other authorities I accept.

  2. I did expect Wikipedia to do worse, but had I thought a little more carefully before reading the article, I might have qualified that based on the types of articles they were reviewing (science), same as I tend to assume their biographies of major super heroes are probably pretty tight.

  3. If I hadn’t once had a boss who got mad because I used a technical manual to prove her wrong and so decided to lock all the manuals up in her office so she could never be proven wrong again, I’d be more disturbed than I was about tales of “revert wars” and other nonsense as described in the link toward the bottom of the article entitled “Challenges of being a Wikipedian” (which isn’t available by direct link …sorry). That seems to be one of those cases of transparent assholism … vs. the sneakier and more covert assholism most of us endure at some point in our day-to-day jobs behind corporate walls.

  4. I bet Wikipedia has a ton more about the infamous Mutant Massacre of 1987 than Britannica.

  5. Passages further down that article where everybody complains about the writing in Wikipedia get as sympathetic a nod from me as that sort of complaint ever does.

Wikipedia articles often read like the patchwork quilt of contributions they are, with chronologies that get all messed up and situations where someone tries to make language sound more neutral and ends up qualifying a sentence into mush. I don’t think, though, that the bad writing has ever kept me from grasping a concept I wanted to learn more about, though sometimes it does make getting to the bottom of an entry a chore.

Other than that? Search me. One to file away, I suppose.

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