On the (Un)reliability of Wikipedia

Thread Starter

Ya’akov

Joined Jan 27, 2019
8,975
In a different thread, the contextually off-topic subject of Wikipedia’s reliability—or lack thereof—was raised.

Discussing it further there would have been inappropriate hence this thread. The claim was made that Wikipedia is inherently and absolutely unreliable on the basis that “anyone can write an article and they do”. This was assumed to be proof that “Wikipedia is not a good source”.

As a naïve claim, it seems fairly powerful. If you didn’t know anything about Wikipedia and it was described to you, including the fact that it allows “anyone” to write or edit articles, in the absence of other information you might be incredulous that is capable of being a “good source”.

But personal incredulity is not a good way to decide factual things, and the lack of additional information certainly leads to skepticism about the value of Wikipedia. Skepticism is a good thing, a tool to dig out truth. Questioning the received wisdom and default assumptions of the crowd is how progress is made. So, let’s question it.

Is it true that “anyone can edit an article”? Yes, it is. But it is also true that the edit can be to distort or correct information in the article. It is both the source of falsehood and truth so in itself it doesn’t prove or even suggest anything. It is simply part of a process that needs to be understood to be properly evaluated.

It turns out there have been a number of studies on the reliability of Wikipedia. One area where Wikipedia does exceptionally well is in self-repair. When a person adds invented facts or purposefully incorrect information into a Wikipedia article, it is called “vandalism”. The studies found that vandalism was very quickly spotted and repaired, sometimes in minutes and unless it slips by the correctors, within 48 hours.

Yes, sometimes vandalism escapes detection and can cause problems as the “facts” introduced are repeated, even in newspapers and scientific papers. But there are two things about these cases:

1. The content is generally trivial amounting to personal jokes or unimportant details (e.g. a fake nickname for an animal).
2. The people citing these things had in front of them the opportunity to evaluate the veracity of the information they chose to use.

This sort of “unreliability” largely comes down to lazy research. Wikipedia articles are, by policy, supposed to be a summation of primary sources. Original work, including novel synthesis not otherwise citable in a primary source are not keeping with that policy. This is why the phrase “[citation needed]” came into popular culture. It is a way that non experts can help insure that purported experts are held to account.

Any fact in a Wikipedia article that has the [citation needed] annotation should be considered unreliable until a citation is made. And, this is the point about lazy research. If you cite a Wikipedia as, or just assume it is, a primary source you are using Wikipedia “off label”. And in this case that off label use is not likely to be therapeutic.

Wikipedia’s bibliographies are where the real information is. If you need to know more depth, or want to be sure something is authoritative, then checking the primary sources is the way to do it. You don’t have to take the content of faith or imagine Wikipedia, corporately, is an “authority”.

Another problem with a blanket condemnation of Wikipedia’s reliability is the great variability in quality of articles depending on subject matter. Wikipedia’s technical content is generally excellent and very reliable because of the number and nature of the people involved in the technical areas, misinformation is very rapidly distilled out of most technical articles. In addition a lot of the content is from very well informed experts who want the correct information available.

So, comparing articles on Calculus to articles on the lives of Leibniz and Newton doesn’t work. They are incommensurate. The Calculus articles are either mathematically correct or not (with few exceptions), and the humanities articles are largely opinion about how to interpret history and human factors.

I could go on, but I won’t. I will finish by saying the Wikipedia is a really fantastic way to get started researching a topic. It will give you some background, and in many cases enough detail that you don’t need to go further. But, it is only as reliable as you are. If the subject matter is important and at all controversial, if it can’t be tested by using it, then you must perform due diligence and check that there is a citation to back it up, and then follow that link to the information. If not, don’t consider it more than “something you heard” about the topic.
 

LvW

Joined Jun 13, 2013
1,749
I completely agree with the above contribution.
In this context, a similar advice came into my mind:
You never should blindly trust the results of a circuit simulation.
It is always necessary to convince himself if the results are realistic and logical.
Example: A small signal ac analysis of a circuit that is unstable under real conditions results in a magnitude response which looks as expected.
And the program did not make any error. It is the user who should not misinterpret the results (he must know that a TRAN analysis is necessary to reveal instabilities)
 

drjohsmith

Joined Dec 13, 2021
850
Wikipedia is un reliable
in the same way any reference is
the advantage of wiki , is its open,
so there is easy and frequent discussion / scrutiny on its data
as opposed to other sources that either have no critique, or slow critique
 

MrChips

Joined Oct 2, 2009
30,517
I have two personal experiences with Wikipedia that I wish to contribute to this discussion.

The first one is about the Tasaday people in the Mindanao rainforest in the Philippines.
My children came home from school with a geography text book published by Oxford University Press. In contained a side story of the Tasaday people who had made no contact with the rest of the world. This was a very fascinating story that I felt compelled to read more about it on Wikipedia. It turned out according the the Wikipedia entry that this was not just a hoax but a double hoax perpetrated as a result of battles between logging industry and environmentalists.

The second story was when I was introducing the concept of Delta Modulation to students.
I was able to direct them to the Wikipedia entry with confidence as to its reliability because I myself had reviewed and edited the entry.

The bottom line is I believe that Wikipedia articles are constantly under scrutiny and being reviewed and edited by peer groups.
 

LowQCab

Joined Nov 6, 2012
3,956
Certain subjects, and/or, publicly held "viewpoints" on certain subjects,
can potentially cost individuals, or Corporations, Billions of Dollars in revenue.

By the same token, Political-Power or influence,
may also be deemed to be influenced by "Public-Opinion",
some of which may be generated by the content found on Wikipedia,
as there are definitely many people who do not engage in any further investigation,
and believe that there must always be continuous "correction" on Wikipedia, so it is therefore "true".

Do You know for an absolute fact that Wikipedia can NOT be
paid to electronically "ignore" any new changes/corrections to certain subjects ?

This is especially troublesome considering the probability that around half, or more, of the
population is actively looking for "additional verification" of a piece of information
that they believe they "already know", or that they "heard somewhere".

Corporate-Officers and Politicians have ZERO conscience.
Anything they think they can get away with goes.
And, they have serious Money at their disposal to get what they want.
If they think it may be profitable, they will buy into it.
If they think something is costing them profits, they will attempt to crush it.

Think like a Corporate-Executive when evaluating information that could possibly be of interest to them.

If you're reasonably sure no Corporation or Politician has any interest in the subject matter,
You should still get multiple viewpoints to make an initial evaluation with,
and then prove it to your own personal satisfaction.
Otherwise, You may inadvertently spread misinformation, wrong information,
or possibly even outright lies which are detrimental to others.

Perfect example ....... Carbon-Dioxide is dangerous !!! "Well Everybody Knows That !!! "
In high local concentrations "maybe",
but it disperses into the Atmosphere at an extremely fast rate,
and then it makes more green plants and trees grow,
then the plants and trees produce more Oxygen to balance everything out perfectly,
just as Nature intended.

So, why would anyone make such a statement ?
Politicians hope to put additional Taxes on everything that produces any measurable Carbon-Dioxide.
A "Carbon-Tax".
This is already being gradually implemented.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_tax
.
.
.
 

MrSalts

Joined Apr 2, 2020
2,767
I just believe everything I read from any source and sources that I don't recognize I believe even more strongly because I have never witnessed them print anything that was incorrect or never seen them print a retraction so they must be better than the big media websites that print retractions/corrections/clarifications. Companies so weak as to print retractions, corrections or clarifications are not worth reading or watching. In any case, life is less stressful if you just believe it all.
 

drjohsmith

Joined Dec 13, 2021
850
re the comment
"
Perfect example ....... Carbon-Dioxide is dangerous !!! "Well Everybody Knows That !!! "
In high local concentrations "maybe",
but it disperses into the Atmosphere at an extremely fast rate,
and then it makes more green plants and trees grow,
then the plants and trees produce more Oxygen to balance everything out perfectly,
just as Nature intended
. "

If this was on wiki, it could be moderated / questioned / counter view put,
this can be moderated by scientists,
and may be ask question / test the statement by asking
"what is happening to C02 levels in the world",

where as on here,
such a statement is lost,
and might just cause a flame war,

Yes Wiki is wrong on some things
but
so are other comparable references, such as Britannica ,

Yes wiki might have a bias
but
so are other sources which have more closed financial sources,
 

MrSalts

Joined Apr 2, 2020
2,767
No other source comes close in
- the breadth of author knowledge (and number of authors),
- the number of reviewers (volunteer editors)
- software to monitor changes (there are bots that undo changes to popular/comprehensive articles if references are not given to verify/justify the update.
- number of articles and detail of articles.
- the willingness to share an article that is partially done (barely started) as a "stub" and offer anyone access to contribute to make it more complete (articles in Wikipedia are never "done".
- funded well enough to not have ads and able to resist outside influences (e,g, advertisers). Any so-called agenda behind Wikipedia is the agenda of people who decide they want to monitor certain content for edits. There is just too much content to monitor every topic for an "agenda".
- I would hope that everyone who speaks positively of Wikipedia or benefits from using Wikipedia or if employees use Wikipedia - I hope they donate to Wikipedia.
It is the best place to start to teach yourself something about anything - even if it is used to find one first reference.
 

LowQCab

Joined Nov 6, 2012
3,956
I would like to add that my comments are not about Wikipedia exclusively,
and I'm not singling-out and "bashing" Wikipedia.

Wikipedia can be an extremely valuable and convenient source of information,
and I actually use it on occasion.

I simply find astounding some of the things that people will blindly accept as fact,
without doing any serious research, and
Wikipedia provides many excellent examples of this phenomenon, and
virtually everyone is at least familiar with it.

There are certainly other worthy examples.
.
.
.
 

k1ng 1337

Joined Sep 11, 2020
915
People say the world is getting worse and I absolutely disagree. Resources such as Wikipedia are testament to things slowly getting better. Free of charge, you can educate yourself on literally any topic to at least the introductory level which is a very underrated advancement to the human race in general. I believe making data accessible and modifiable by all slowly roots out dogma and censorship of thought and idea. I am agnostic and vegan and so finding unbiased information regarding my lifestyle choices is really quite difficult. A resource such as Wikipedia that grants editing to all shows that anyone can voice their opinion provided it is credible and no one group can silence a minority without jumping through significant hoops themselves. Wikipedia is a double edged sword that by design forces us to constantly perform checks on each other and update our states of mind so that ignorance may be avoided. Policing unreliable articles is a small price to pay for what is a massive benefit to all.
 
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