He's an idiot

>> Saturday, December 08, 2007

Yesterday, the BBC reported that Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, told a conference that a teacher who forbids the use of Wikipedia is a "bad educator." He also compared Wikipedia to rock and roll. No, really. Here's what he said:

"You can ban kids from listening to rock 'n' roll music, but they're going to anyway," he added. "It's the same with information, and it's a bad educator that bans their students from reading Wikipedia."

The BBC doesn't say whether the obvious follow-up questions were asked: "So, Mr. Wales, how does it smell up there inside your own ass, and how do you read what's on a computer screen in there?"

I'm assuming that when Wales says "read Wikipedia" he means "use Wikipedia in schoolwork," since he apparently did go on to admit that Wikipedia might not be suitable for college students. (No! Really?)

This is a typical Wikipedia problem. It's not that they're a terrible source, or nearly as inaccurate as you might think, given that any moron or anyone with a vested interest can edit the site. They're much more accurate than one would think. No, the problem is that the asstards who run, maintain, and supervise Wikipedia don't understand how academia and scholarship work.

When I was a kid, long ago, it wasn't unusual for teachers to ban all encyclopedias when doing an assignment. You might be allowed to use an encyclopedia as a starting point for your own work, but you weren't going to be allowed to cite it at all. It didn't matter how accurate the encyclopedia was--that's not the issue. The issue was (and is) that encyclopedias are secondary sources, and part of what an educator should be doing when assigning a paper is teaching kids how to find and use primary sources.

And that issue aside, Wikipedia is worse than many encyclopedias in at least one respect: many (tho' certainly not all) encyclopedias are going to have articles written by leading experts in the field and subjected (at least in theory) to some kind of editorial review before being published. A Wikipedia article might be written by an expert, but you'll likely never know given that Wikipedia allows anonymous publishing and editing. A Wikipedia article won't necessarily be subject to any kind of formal review by recognized experts. And where the encyclopedia entry might well incorporate the expertise of a leading expert in a field, Wikipedia is phobic to anything they consider "original research"--a leading expert may not be able to cite his own work in a Wikipedia article even if his work is the definitive work in the field. Wikipedia isn't a secondary source, it's a tertiary source. And that's not what a student ought to be relying on for a paper, no matter how he cites it.

There is one regard in which I think Wikipedia is an admirable pedagogical tool, but I really don't think it's what Wales has in mind: I think Wikipedia could be very effectively mined by teachers for cautionary examples. Why are primary sources important? How many logical or rhetorical errors are in a particular article? What would you want to know about an anonymous author of a controversial article before you accepted the article's claims as true? If I were a teacher, I can very easily imagine giving students an assignment of selecting a Wikipedia article, finding five things wrong with it, and writing a short paper explaining their findings.

But I sure as hell wouldn't allow students to use Wikipedia for a research paper any more than I'd allow them to use World Book or Britannica. And the fact that Wales doesn't understand why a teacher would do that is the reason Wikipedia will always be crap, no matter how faithfully its editors regurgitate other people's work onto the internet.


MWT Saturday, December 8, 2007 at 3:50:00 PM EST  

"Original research" doesn't mean what you seem to think it means. What it means is that people are not allowed to use Wikipedia as the very first place that new information appears. What it means is that Wikipedia should not be written as if it were a primary resource. A researcher is perfectly able to cite his/her own papers that have been previously published in another journal elsewhere - the key is only that others must be able to find it elsewhere.

The people who most abuse "original research" are the ones who are just completely making stuff up. Namely, bored teens who think something they've thought up is cool and that the rest of the world should think so too.

Eric Saturday, December 8, 2007 at 7:16:00 PM EST  

Thank you for dropping by. A few points:

First, if you look at some of the discussion pages, there are plenty of Wikipedians who appear to think "original research" is exactly what I suggest they think it means--note that what I said was:

"...Wikipedia is phobic to anything they consider "original research"..." (emphasis added)

Second, you're confusing abuse of the site with abuse of the policy. Abusers of the site--e.g. the bored teens you mention--might violate the policy. But some of the discussions you see about "WP:REF" and "WP:OR" (et al.) indicate that there are a number of users who are more concerned about the technical details of whether a policy was "followed" than they do about whether the information is, in fact, accurate.

This gets back to the problem with Wales and others not understanding how scholarship works. Wikipedia's policies about being able to find information elsewhere superficially make sense--the policies are an attempt to keep people from simply making things up. The problem is that whether or not someone "made something up" is a separate issue from whether or not what was made up is true. In other words, an original statement or insight may be correct.

(An example of how absurd this can be: if an article-worthy person's age is widely misreported, and the person takes the time to edit his entry to show the true age, cited sources take precedence over the individual's personal knowledge of his date of birth. Truth is less important than maintaining pseudo-scholarly pretenses, at least according to some Wikipedians.)

Wikipedia doesn't want original insights--fair enough: allowing original insights means introducing some form of peer review and acknowledging that some people know more about a subject than others, two things Wales and others are loathe to do. But you can't disavow key aspects of scholarship and then pretend you're a legitimate scholarly source.

Wales wants it both ways: he wants Wikipedia to be treated as a reputable source but doesn't want to follow the established rules for reputable sources. Meanwhile, a number of Wikipedians are more concerned with policy than they are accuracy.

All of which may be beside the point of my piece, which actually was actually that Wikipedia should be treated like other encyclopedias as far as students are concerned: when I was a wee tot in the Paper Age, you got an "F" for copying out of World Book and Britannica, too.

MWT Saturday, December 8, 2007 at 9:16:00 PM EST  

Yeah, unfortunately, 90% of everything - even Wikipedia editors - is crap. There are lots of people who are too lazy to do their own research and their own thinking, hence why there have to be all those written policies in the first place; people incapable of independent thought need them as a crutch. Fortunately, many fewer of the admins are crummy (at least of the ones I've ever interacted with). Also, the policies actually work and do what they're supposed to sometimes. ;)

And when I say "make things up" I mean that in the sense of pulling stuff completely out of thin air. Here's an example I was involved with, where the Original Research policy was applied correctly.

By the same token, I've also had to rescue non-cited perfectly acceptable facts from being deleted; what a lot of people seem to miss is that you do have to justify what you do (calmly and rationally) if you want it to stick.

I guess the other thing I take issue with is the way a lot of people want to see Wikipedia as a single monolith who all think the same. It's not like that at all. What Wikipedians do does not necessarily reflect what Wales thinks, or even really wants, and vice versa. (Not that I have any idea what Wales wants; I've never talked to the guy personally and my little view of the corner I edit has nothing to do with him...)

Eric Saturday, December 8, 2007 at 10:09:00 PM EST  

I can understand the frustration with people seeing Wikipedia as a monolith--of course it isn't, and there are at least thousands of thoughtful, intelligent editors (I'd like to count myself, the few times I've edited an entry); that having been said, it's always possible for a small group of "true believers" to take over a large body to its detriment, usually for the most noble of stated reasons. If history is a guide, it may even be easier for a large and disparate group to be dominated by a small internal cadre of such folks.

Some frustration on my part stems from the fact that Wikipedia can be very, very good at the things it's suited for. As a huge, general compendium of knowledge (much of it irrelevant), it's wonderful. (And don't take the "irrelevant" tag as an insult--I know my fair share of irrelevant things, such as the number of rings Sauron gave to the dwarves or the meaning of "silflay hraka, u embleer hrair".)

In fact, the most wonderful thing about Wikipedia is that it could be described as a brilliant attempt at a "repository of all knowledge and wisdom, [although] it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate...."

Where I also get frustrated--and this may be the sad byproduct of taking my history B.A. and law degree too seriously--is when some (by no means all) Wikipedians put on an academic mantle that I'm not sure they understand or merit. Your situation with "The Lonely Goatherd" is an example, as John Scalzi's run-ins have been (the situation with Fred Saberhagen's passing away being a specially annoying example of an editor valuing form over substance).

(At least the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy never pretended to be more than a shameless attempt by a bunch of alcoholics to expense account exotic vacations!)

I agree with you that the rules serve as a crutch: I suppose my (naive? unattainable?) preference would be that the crutch be set aside in favor of some attempt to educate contributors as to the whys and hows of scholarship and critical thinking.

Instead, I sometimes discover Wikipedia editors sounding like the head bureaucrat from Futurama who said that being technically correct is the best kind of correct.

MWT Saturday, December 8, 2007 at 11:59:00 PM EST  

Scalzi's error in the Saberhagen debacle was that he forgot about following his own comment policy, which says:

"I hope (and expect, actually) that everyone here treats each other decently. The Internet is famous for having people turn into dickheads because they don't have to worry about having the other person in front of them; I would like to avoid this whenever possible. It's possible to have intense and even heated discussions without commenters devolving into personal attacks. It helps to imagine that the person you're talking to is standing in front of you, is built like a linebacker, and has both a short temper and excellent legal representation."

It works a lot better if you assume that the person you're disagreeing with is reasonably intelligent and reasonably reasonable, and proceed accordingly. Even if you're privately thinking that it's some total retard, IN PUBLIC you have to treat them like their concerns are valid. Patience also goes a long way.

Once Scalzi derailed it into personal attacks, which happened on the very first thing he said in the Talk page, it went rapidly downhill. I wouldn't say that the other guy was in the right with how he approached things, but his concern was certainly valid. And seriously, it's an encyclopedia and not a news source; the info didn't need to go in instantly.

As you might've picked up, I strongly disagree with Scalzi's conduct in that whole thing. It was very embarrassing to watch.

And yeah, it would be great if we didn't have to have policy crutches, and everyone put in the work and effort of real thought. However, as I said, 90% of editors are crummy and/or lazy... Fortunately, there are still 10% who aren't and as a whole they do tend to rise to the top (by becoming admins).

Eric Sunday, December 9, 2007 at 2:52:00 AM EST  

Allegations that the admins banned 1,000 homes in a neighborhood because a single person criticized Wikipedia on his own website or that they maintain a secret mailing list to ban "troublesome" users don't exactly fill one with glowing confidence in the Wikipedia admins.

Whether Scalzi handled the Saberhagen mess calmly--I think we can agree he may have lost his cool and tact, he does that sometimes--the thing that bothered me most about it was that he was fundamentally right. That is, he had very reliable knowledge that a man had passed away, but another Wikipedia editor was more interested in process than reality. You're right, Wikipedia isn't a news source; on the other hand, an online encyclopedia arguably should be expected to be more up-to-date than a print equivalent. And, in any case, there wasn't really any good reason for process to trump reality--a citation isn't an end in and of itself, rather it's a means for peers to weigh and verify a claim.

It's not logical that an erroneous cited claim should carry more weight than an accurate claim without citations, but that would seem to be the logical end of Wikipedia policies, and I've seen Wikipedia regulars argue that that's how it ought to be. Law shouldn't make an ass of itself.

I'd also have to say that while I think Sturgeon's Law is a good guideline, applying it to Wikipedia doesn't bode well for the site. One might wish that 100% of Wikipedia aimed for being in the top 10% of encyclopedias. Meanwhile, an admission that 90% of Wikipedia is a joke effectively rebuts Wales' claim that teachers ought to be encouraging its use. (Assuming, arguendo a place for encyclopedias in students' research.)

MWT Sunday, December 9, 2007 at 11:26:00 PM EST  

All I can say to the first paragraph is that scandals and abuses of power are always going to make the headlines, while people doing things right on an everyday basis will go completely unnoticed.

As to the second: people outside of SF Fandom don't know Scalzi from Adam. And they shouldn't be expected to. In addition, I saw the "proof" that Scalzi offered at the beginning, and to say it was "inadequate" would be an understatement. He basically pointed to the SFWA home page and expected people to find a specific forum post from there. (Meanwhile, yes, the other guy was pointing to a vague nest of Wikipedia regulations and expecting people to find a specific guideline. I'm not saying that just because I think Scalzi was in the wrong, that that means I'm also saying the other guy was in the right. My view is that everybody involved was in the wrong.) Why should any random crackpot insisting that he's important be given the benefit of the doubt?

The above is also not to say that I think Scalzi is a random crackpot - much of the time. I read Whatever because the vast majority of the time, he's very rational and the stuff he says is articulate and well-reasoned. BUT. That one time, in the Saberhagen case, he was not.

Also: the original guy who objected was perfectly fine with backing off as soon as good, credible cites finally surfaced. It took a while for them to surface because someone had to write them (elsewhere, as the primary resources that Wikipedia would then cite as the secondary/tertiary). But once they did, he stopped objecting. To me that was one of the few parts of the process that went right.

And finally: I wouldn't say that 90% of Wikipedia is crap. I was applying the rule to the editors, not the finished products (articles). It might also be good to keep in mind another axiom about laws and sausages.

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