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Ex-Britannica Editor Reviews Wikipedia 869

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the something-to-think-about dept.
0-9a-f writes "Robert McHenry, one-time Editor in Chief of Encyclopædia Britannica, offers his thoughts on Wikipedia at Tech Central Station. While many Wikipedia zealots might discount his obvious bias outright, his broad argument is difficult to ignore. A million monkeys might eventually write Shakespeare, but how would they recognise it once they had?"
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Ex-Britannica Editor Reviews Wikipedia

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  • by stecoop (759508) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:14AM (#10829478) Journal
    Robert McHenry asked "how would they recognize it once they had (Shakespeare)"

    Simple. For each Shakespeare literature there would be another million monkeys reading and discussing the article. Thus you have a million writing monkeys and you would have maybe a million million reading monkeys; thus, the noise from the million million monkeys during discussion would drive the million monkeys.

    foreach $monkeys(keys {%Shakespeare})
    {
    print "You\'ve got Shakespeare" if %shakespeare{$monkeys} = $It;
    }

    See the infinite monkey rule isn't good to apply as that rule doesn't facilitate feedback from the system.
    • by Savage-Rabbit (308260) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:32AM (#10829702)
      For each Shakespeare literature there would be another million monkeys reading and discussing the article.

      Hmmm... We can rephrase that, can't we?

      For each Slashdot headline there are another million monkeys reading and discussing the article.
    • and you would have maybe a million million reading monkeys;

      Hmm. I think we need quantum monkeys.

    • You don't need to escape "'" inside double quotes with backslashes...Also:

      keys {%Shakespeare}

      won't work. {%Shakespeare} creates a reference to an anonymous hash from whatever was in %Shakespeare. And you can't call keys on a reference. I don't think you want the { ... } around it. Also:

      %shakespeare{$monkeys} = $It;

      Firstly, that's assignment not numerical equality (that's ==). Secondly, you probably want to check for string equality, not numerical equality (use eq). Finally, if you want compare si

  • by Seft (659449) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:15AM (#10829493)
    I've been using Wikipedia almost exclusively as my encyclypedia for over a year now.
    • by lukewarmfusion (726141) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:17AM (#10829520) Homepage Journal
      "encyclypedia"

      This reminds me of Bart's discovery that he was drinking "smilk."

      Good luck with your encyclypedia.
    • Re:My Favourite (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Bricklets (703061) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:22AM (#10829576)
      Let's hope you're not citing it in your research paper.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:09AM (#10830145)
      I grew up with a Funk and Wagnals 'cyclopedia that my mom bought a volume per week at the grocery store. It was OK, but I wouldn't take every word in it as unassailable fact.

      I also wouldn't trust it not to gloss over important aspects of topics and to create the impression that a relatively unimportant aspect of a topic was more important than it really was by going into too much detail over it.

      I could say the same for Wikipedia. Except that I haven't cracked open an encyclopedia in years whereas I use Wikipedia three or four times a week to look up a fact. Most of the time I don't go directly to the site, but search for the topic using google, and then click on the link to a wikipedia article that will show up. I know the link is worth clicking if it comes from wikipedia or one of the advertising supported 'mirrors'. I don't even mind the ads since I mostly browse with lynx anyway.

      But I wouldn't feel super confident that what I read in a wikipedia article was the complete and total truth ( though most of the time it comes close ) until I had at least checked out a few other sources.

      Sometimes, I used to start at the 'top level' of a subject in wikipedia that I wanted to learn about, and then click the links, going into as much depth as I felt like by clicking ever-deeper. The text was structured as an article, and the subjects that were links were in context. I loved this because it made learning about a subject in general easy. Now that wikipedia seems to have reorganised it's top levels by deleting the well written and informative top level articles and replacing them with information-barren alphabetic indexes, that sort of learning is not as easy, though it can still be done once you go a little deeper into the articles.

      In my opinion, the alphabetic indexes should have been added to, wikipedia, but not replaced the top level articles which put the subtopics so nicely in context.

      • I use Wikipedia three or four times a week to look up a fact...But I wouldn't feel super confident that what I read in a wikipedia article was the complete and total truth ( though most of the time it comes close ) until I had at least checked out a few other sources.

        I think, overall, this is McHenry's point - you cannot trust the information in Wikipedia. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of Wikipedia and I have contributed to it and used it, on occasion, to jumpstart my research on a particular topic

  • Evolve, Sir. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mfh (56) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:17AM (#10829522) Journal
    This guy just doesn't understand what Wikipedia means, IMHO. Here is an example:

    FTA:
    To see what Wikipedia is like I chose a single article, the biography of Alexander Hamilton. I chose that topic because I happen to know that there is a problem with his birth date, and how a reference work deals with that problem tells me something about its standards. The problem is this: While the day and month of Hamilton's birth are known, there is some uncertainty as to the year, whether it be 1755 or 1757. Hamilton himself used, and most contemporary biographers prefer, the latter year; a reference work ought at least to note the issue.

    The Wikipedia article on Hamilton (as of November 4, 2004) uses the 1755 date without comment. Unfortunately, a couple of references within the body of the article that mention his age in certain years are clearly derived from a source that used the 1757 date, creating an internal inconsistency that the reader has no means to resolve.


    The author says there are "no means to resolve" but I beg to differ. There is clearly a means to resolve these inconsistencies in that particular article! Edit it!! If he has found something wrong with the article, he should take a few minutes and correct it. Enough of that, and the article will go into dispute and moderators will resolve it. If this author is interested in Alexander Hamilton, he should watch that thread unfold using the Wikipedia tools to stay on top of it, making changes as he goes.

    The nice part about a Wiki is that the changes are tracked, so the wiki on a whole is bigger than the page you are looking at. You can see how articles evolve, and where disputes may find fuel. Furthermore, this kind of thinking requires more depth than the printed page ever could.

    When you are a dinosaur, you ought be extinct or you ought adapt, IMHO. Make way for the Humans! It's apparent to me that this author understands neither the concept nor the spirit of Wiki, and considering he is in the Encyclopedia business -- that is quite troubling, as it is mission critical for any field to understand new technologies as they unfold within that field.
    • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by martingunnarsson (590268) * <martin&snarl-up,com> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:21AM (#10829570) Homepage
      But he also points out that the article was, if not good, better in its first version than now, so the editing obviously work both ways...
    • FTA [...]

      perhaps you meant FTFA?

    • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by cperciva (102828) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:24AM (#10829604) Homepage
      There is clearly a means to resolve these inconsistencies in that particular article! Edit it!!

      Yes, but edit it in which direction? By "... that the reader has no means to resolve", he means that the reader has no way to determine which number is correct -- the article is internally inconsistent, and it doesn't even have the necessary references for a reader to probe further.

      Sure, you can make the article self-consistent easily enough; but most readers would have a 50% chance of making the article consistently wrong, which doesn't help anyone.
      • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by pohl (872) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:47AM (#10829865) Homepage
        In that case the correct edit would be one that acknowledges the uncertainty regarding the year. (That seems obvious to me.)
    • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by daves (23318) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:27AM (#10829634) Journal
      The author says there are "no means to resolve" but I beg to differ. There is clearly a means to resolve these inconsistencies in that particular article! Edit it!!

      He meant that the reader has no way to resolve the information presented to him, and he's right.
      • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:4, Insightful)

        by localman (111171) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:49AM (#10830640) Homepage
        Really? Is the reader in some non-internet connected vacuum? If I came across an inconsistency like that I'd do some searches. Chances are I would find an article somewhere online that dealt with this. In fact, the first result on Google for "Alexander Hamilton Birth" includes the text:

        Interestingly, the exact year of Alexander Hamilton's birth is unknown because historians have found two sets of birth records. One set claims Hamilton was born on January 11, 1755, while the other says he was born in 1757. Hamilton himself maintained that he was born in 1757.

        Issue resolved. I had to step outside the Wikipedia to do so, but that is the nature of our world now, where information exchange is so cheap. Yes, ten years ago single sources needed to be more precise because there was no simple way to cross check things. Now it seems that things can work reasonably well when you've got a lot of independent sources with unknown reliability. And aren't even the best sources really of "unknown reliability" anyways?

        How does the need to go outside it reflect on the Wikipedia? Well, obviously it means that it's not the end-all be-all of information. It is a good start, though. And users should be aware that if they sense something is not quite right then they should look elsewhere, too. This isn't much different than with information from anywhere people always need to do a little thinking if they want The Truth.

        Traditional Encyclopedias are sure to have errors and ommissions as well. Probably far less than the Wikipedia. But they are also more mature, so let's see in another ten years. And they are sure to have more gaps with current information, probably the opposite of the Wikipedia. Depending on what you're doing I think both have their place. For example, I doubt any print encyclopedia has a better network of articles on modern cryptography. Start with a search for "block cipher" for example. I just used this in research for my job last week.

        If the author at least admitted how amazing the Wikipedia is, even given its shortcomings, I'd have more respect. As it is he comes across as a narrow minded old grouch who doesn't like that something useful can be created by a committee that's probably not as well educated as him on average.

        Cheers.
    • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by stinkyfingers (588428) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:27AM (#10829642)
      The author says there are "no means to resolve" but I beg to differ. There is clearly a means to resolve these inconsistencies in that particular article! Edit it!! If he has found something wrong with the article, he should take a few minutes and correct it. Enough of that, and the article will go into dispute and moderators will resolve it. If this author is interested in Alexander Hamilton, he should watch that thread unfold using the Wikipedia tools to stay on top of it, making changes as he goes.

      That begs the question: Does the Wikipedia exist to provide reference information for visitors ... or does it exist simply for people to edit it, giving writers some sort of vague satisfaction that their contribution has been accepted?

      If I need some reliable information about Alexander Hamilton, I hope it's the former.

      The author of the article quotes the apparent goals of the Wikipedia - one of which is to be reliable.
    • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:5, Informative)

      by daivzhavue (176962) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:27AM (#10829644)
      But it has been edited by others:

      The history page for this article reveals a most interesting story. Originally, the 1757 birth date was used. Thus the internal inconsistencies of ages and dates that I saw are artifacts of editing. Originally, the two citations of the year Hamilton resigned from the Cabinet agreed; editing has changed one but not the other. In fact, the earlier versions of the article are better written overall, with fewer murky passages and sophomoric summaries. Contrary to the faith, the article has, in fact, been edited into mediocrity.


      His whole point is that the article started off reasonably good and through haphazard editing sounds like a highschool student wrote it.

      I use wikipedia as well, but just to get a starting point on a subject I know little about.
    • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anoraknid the Sartor (9334) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:27AM (#10829648) Homepage
      ... but if I can see there is an internal contradiction, but don't know how to resolve it - what am I to do? Wait? Look it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica and then add it in to the Wikipedia?

      I can RELY on a real work of reference. Wikipedia is useful, I use it all the time, but I don't treat it like an encyclopedia, more a "hitch hiker's guide to the galaxy". A place to start, but not to trust.

    • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by dash2 (155223) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `senojhguhdivad'> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:27AM (#10829650) Homepage Journal
      Er, no.

      His argument is that the editing process fails to achieve a decent encyclopedia, and the article on Hamilton - which, he claims, has been edited repeatedly and now appears worse off than when it started - is an example of that. And his question is, how do you know when Wikipedia is authoritative? Just telling him to "edit it himself" is missing the point. I don't have the knowledge or time to write my own encyclopedia. At some point, the product has to become useful to the reader, as well as enjoyable for the contributors. Thus, your point that "Wikipedia thinking requires more depth" counts against Wikipedia, not for it.

      Maybe there are valid counterarguments to this guy's point of view - I've used Wikipedia and been, subjectively, satisfied with it - but yours is not one.
    • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Angostura (703910) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:28AM (#10829657)
      The Hamilton article is used as an illustration of the problems he percives - his core argument is contained in this passage:

      To put the Wikipedia method in its simplest terms:

      1. Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can submit an article and it will be published.

      2. Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can edit that article, and the modifications will stand until further modified.

      Then comes the crucial and entirely faith-based step:

      3. Some unspecified quasi-Darwinian process will assure that those writings and editings by contributors of greatest expertise will survive; articles will eventually reach a steady state that corresponds to the highest degree of accuracy.


      Points 1 and are essentially correct. Point 3 is the interesting one. One the face of it he is right again - sure contentious articles will go into dispute, but hum-drum articles on little-known issues? A typo or date inaccuracy could remain there for a very long time.

      Of course similar errors could exist with a conventional encyclopedia - but I would be interested in refutations of his point 3.

      FWIW, I love Wikipedia. It is an amazing resource and deserves to thrive, but if it can e made more robust, while retaining its essential open, collaborative nature, so much the better.
      • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Txiasaeia (581598)
        "Of course similar errors could exist with a conventional encyclopedia - but I would be interested in refutations of his point 3."

        Similar errors *do* occur in conventional encyclopedias - but the difference is that, while the Wikipedia can be updated in a flash, your brand spanking new set of Encyclopedia Brittanica cannot, unless you get next year's edition ($600 US per year).

      • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by tarunthegreat2 (761545) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:26AM (#10830370)
        IMO, the real issue is that we're applying Open-Source principles to something where they won't really work. In his point 3, he mentions the unspecified quasi-darwinnian process that will eventually even out the kinks, and give you a decent article. Now the thing is, in software you have a goal to work towards. Person A writes the code, and forgets to plug a security hole. Persons B-E discover it, and then everybody revises it, but you have a TANGIBLE goal to work towards. When do you feel that a wikipedia article has accurately covered the facts? When it's acceptable "to most people with loud voices and active wikipedia accounts" would be my guess. Yes you get this same problem with regular encyclopedias, but then that's my point. Wikipedia is no better than them, and as has been stated, could possibly be worse. At least with the regular bunch of encyclopedias you have one authority to go to with all your gripes - you don't just scribble on the page, and let another bunch of eyeballs re-write it. I like wikipedia, but is it ever going to be a good reference source? Doubtful. Even 200 years from now. Not all arguements have resolutions. Human beings don't always reach a compromise (except in Star Trek, and Soviet Russia, I suppose). A parent poster said that eventually, the kinks will be ironed out. But I doubt it. I foresee a lot MORE protected pages, as more and more people get net access and feel that a wikipedia article does not coincide with their point of view....Even in a democracy, we elect leaders to represent us. But if every fool had a say in legislation, it'd be a wonder if ANY law was ever passed.
      • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:43AM (#10830579) Homepage
        FWIW, I love Wikipedia. It is an amazing resource and deserves to thrive, but if it can e made more robust, while retaining its essential open, collaborative nature, so much the better.

        What I like about your post is that you acknowledge that there are problems with the way the wikipedia works, and that this does not make it useless. This is important.

        People get so attached to their pet projects sometimes that everything becomes all-or-nothing. If someone critically evaluates one aspect of the project, it's treated as an attack on the whole project-- as a statement that "this project should be trashed"-- and the evaluation is dismissed. This reaction is not productive.

        I think the Wikipedia is a great thing, but I also think that this reveiwer's concerns are valid. For all of what it does well, the Wikipedia still has some weaknesses, which should either be addressed (i.e. fixed), or else we should all recognize and live with a certain amount of uncertainty of the reliability of the information you get.

    • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:3, Insightful)

      by vaporakula (674048)
      I'm not entirely sure you're seeing his point here.

      As an end user, if my aim is to find information about Hamilton I will end up with confusing and internally inconsistent information from the wiki. I have no means of resolving these inconsistencies using solely the wiki because I am not a subject matter expert.

      The point is that there is no means of verifying the veracity of the information being presented in the wiki. You can't trust what you're reading.

      Yes, he could use the wiki, change the entry, add
    • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by kfg (145172) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:31AM (#10829696)
      The problem does not arise when you look up things you know about. It arises when you look up things you don't know about, which is the raison d'etre of an encyclopedia.

      Yes, he's in the encylopedia business, but then the Britannica is well noted for knowing its business. Wikis still have some trouble along that score, they haven't entirely figured out what encyclopedia means.

      KFG
    • Re:Evolve, Sir. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by -cman- (94138) <cman@cm[ ]cx ['an.' in gap]> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:02AM (#10830053) Homepage

      I think that the poster has an undue faith in the philosophy of the Wikipeadea as opposed to its reality. An interesting but fraught analogy would be Marx's ideas about Socialism versus the real-world implementation of them. Such noble purposes ruined by mere human frailty.

      McHenry's point is that despite the excellent ideals behind Wikipedia, which would seem self-evidently true to those of us inclined to believe "in faith" the potentiality of community-based-development, the reality is that in the area of research and writing an encyclopedea (as opposed to software) that:

      1. Many people are essentially lazy. Many might come upon an article that is incomplete or poorly written but for many reasons will not take the time to correct it even if they are qualified to do so.
      2. Many people are essentially arrogant. Many might come upon an article that is incomplete or poorly written and will take the time to correct it even if they are notqualified to do so either in subject knowledge or language use.
      3. Many people are essentially stupid. Many might come upon an article that is incomplete or poorly written and not know the difference.
      4. Some people (especially adolecents) are cruel and destructive and will muck up perfectly good articles just because they can.
      Thus, the maintainers (bureaucrats?) are at a bit of a disadvantage as they have a constantly moving target.

      A modest proposal then. Why not have a "perfect" flag for articles? This flag would indicate that in the opinion of a certain number of maintainers (or heaven forbit, subject matter experts) the article in question is a close to perfect as possible. The article would then be locked for editing and it would require a special appeal to the bureaucrats to reopen it to change it; for the addition of newly brought to light information, for example.

      In this way the bureaucrats can concentrate on the areas that need continuing work without having to continuously go over settled articles. But the community can still bubble up new information and content for existing articles, but in a more controlled manner. Just a thought. I'm certain I'm not the first to bring it up as it seems perfectly obvious.

      Oh, and lastly the poster needs to get over the whole "the Internet will save us/print people are dinos who don't get it" attitude. McHenry made a living managing the process of updating an encyclopedia. Just because he did it in a for-profit environment in a medium where cost made revisions an annual event, does not mean he doesn't have insight into the area of maintaining an open encyclopedia in digital form. Don't kill the messenger.

    • by mumblestheclown (569987) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @12:20PM (#10831050)
      You missed the whole point of his article, didn't you? In fact, you are the very embodiment of the problem that he paints - you go on proclaiming in revolutionary tones "woe to dinosaurs" without actually addressing his fundamental objection:

      In brief, at the end of the day after 100+ edits, the Alexander Hamilton piece is NOT a rich tapestry of nuance and expertise. It's a high-school quality wallpaper job.

      The author has proposed mechanism as to why such articles are, in effect, wallpaper jobs and does, in my opinion, a good bit to evidence the "emperor has no clothes" nature of those such as yourself who have a faith-based view of collaboration - the well meaning, but certainly not proven and possibly quite wrong idea that groups of humans "quasi Darwinially" converge upon optimal solutions.

      The probem may not be that the author doesn't understand the spirit of Wiki - it may be that he understands it too well.

      / full disclosure: I have contributed articles to Wiki, though I am under no illusions as to its potential and, frankly, share the author's views. When I do serious work, I don't use Wiki as a reference.

  • Credibility (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:18AM (#10829532)
    As an educator, Wikipedia needs to have impeccable credentials and support from leading educational institutions before I would recommend it to our teachers and students.
    • Re:Credibility (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Vollernurd (232458) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:29AM (#10829670)
      Understandable. For anyone to be examined on knowledge the source should be verified as "correct", at least in terms of what can be tested (like school tests).

      However, the process of learning should be a continuous one. There's not much point in treating Wikipedia, or any encyclopoedia, as the final word in knowledge. One could refer someone to Wikipedia and say to them that they could take that as a starting point, then branch outwards and find out more about it.

      Being able to take multiple sources, evaluate them all, then form your own opinions is more valuable than just reading something in one place once. That's only my opinion though, and it is always horses for courses.
    • Re:Credibility (Score:3, Interesting)

      by rknop (240417)
      I would rather think that track record would be more important.

      After all, for a long time (and even still), one argument against Linux is that it isn't backed by leading institutions with impeccable credtials; it's written by the groundlines. (This is why you still see people confusing "Red Hat" with "Linux", since they don't understand that something succesful couldn't come from something that's not monolithic.)

      Yet, despite not having the credentials, it's still become popular. Why? Because it works.
  • Bias?! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Average_Joe_Sixpack (534373) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:18AM (#10829533)
    While many Wikipedia zealots might discount his obvious bias outright

    Wikipedia is the most biased "reference" source out there. The Karl Rove ariticle basically made him out to be a reincarnated Goebbels. The problem of course is any editor with an agenda can ruin an article.
    • Re:Bias?! (Score:5, Funny)

      by NardofDoom (821951) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:39AM (#10829793)
      The Karl Rove ariticle basically made him out to be a reincarnated Goebbels.

      Yeah, Goebbels was more hands on.

    • Re:Bias?! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by An Onerous Coward (222037) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @12:37PM (#10831275) Homepage
      Okay, I'm looking at the Karl Rove [wikipedia.org] article. Few of the facts presented put him in a good light, but which ones are actually incorrect? What accomplishments has the article failed to mention that might take the edge off his reputation as an aggressive political campaigner and right Machiavellian bastard?

      The simple truth is, when all the facts are presented about the life of a given person, the balance may be justifiably tip in one direction. It would be too much to ask that an article on Hitler be more balanced by making a big deal of the fact that he liked classical music, was a strict vegetarian, and was very kind to Eva.

      Rove is no Hitler. But the push-polling he devised in South Carolina to discredit John McCain says everything about the man's character, and none of it good. Insofar as the bias in the Wikipedia article represents the fact that Rove has done a number of underhanded things in his life, that bias should stand.
  • by rsidd (6328) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:20AM (#10829551)
    He seems to expect a brilliant, concise, epigrammatic piece of writing; most users want facts and don't care about the occasional clumsy sentence.

    As for the facts, I've seen howlers in many mainstream encyclopedias. In the cases I know something about, I find wikipedia's standards quite good, and when there's an error I can at least go in there and correct it.

    It's true I crosscheck anything I find there but I do that with other sources too. Never rely on a single source.

    • by rishistar (662278) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:29AM (#10829663) Homepage
      From an academic point of view I can quote say Encyclopadia Brittanica article on the charango from the 1995 edition.

      Is it possible for me to date my wikipedia references in the same way? Particularly when the articles *are* likely to change often, and the review process before publication ('changes are visible immediately' comes up when I have a go at editing) is just not there.

      For finding out about stuff wikipedia is fine - but I would prefer to quote something which has been published and can be got at 10 years later for review.

  • MMmonkeys (Score:4, Funny)

    by Quixote (154172) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:22AM (#10829583) Homepage Journal
    A million monkeys might eventually write Shakespeare, but how would they recognise it once they had?

    So true! Thats like saying a million monkeys might write a great open-source operating system, but how would they recognise it once they had?

    ermm.. wait...

  • by Planesdragon (210349) <slashdot&castlesteelstone,us> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:24AM (#10829598) Homepage Journal
    Wikipedia's process for moving from an idea to a collection of badly edited articles to a real encyclopedia is, at the risk of soundling like someone from the 90s, exactly the same as the process by which any community learns.

    On an infinite timeline, Wikipedia is going to beat the snot out of anyone else--in about 200 years, it will have incorporated everything written before the 21st century into itself.

    To speed it along on a realistic pace, the only things that can be done are either contributions or, *gasp*, donations specifically earmarked to hire fact-checkers and editors.

    • by Voytek (15888) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:29AM (#10829669) Journal
      And yet, as pointed out in the article, the trend is not toward improvement - it's toward mediocrity.
  • by rknop (240417) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:25AM (#10829611) Homepage
    That it's implausible to suppose that a large community of contributors might eventually write an operating system that could challenge Windows in the market.

    Of course, the comparison isn't completely accurate, since Linux and *BSD do have "gatekeepers", people like Linus and lieutenants, who at least in theory are vetting everything that makes it into the main kernel.

    Nonetheless, it's not a million monkeys writing Wikipedia. Many are monkeys, but there are also lots of intelligent peope out there.

    It's also naive to suppose that every "traditional" encyclopedia article has been completely free of error. (Just as naive as the assertion that Microsoft's quality control makes Windows free of security holes.)

    Sure, Wikipedia isn't perfect. Sure, it's very easy to see how bad information can get in there (not even creep in, but stroll in through the front door and sit down). But if enough people are buying into it, it's also easy to see how the process can work. So far, by and large, it seems that it is working, even if not perfectly.

    Given that (at least until various regulatory agencies and large intellectual property firms manage to codify their horror) the Internet allows everybody to be a "content producer", not just those who control the huge resources of a publishing company, it's only natural that there should be a sort of encyclopedia that allows each to contribute his own expertise without going through the priesthood of a encyclopedia editorial board. Will it make traditional encyclopedias obselete? Certiainly not, at least in the short term! But nor do the differences mean that something like Wikipedia shouldn't exist and that people searching for information should eschew it in favor of traditionally published encyclopedias.

    The future (longer term) of encyclopedias will almost certainly look much more like Wikipedia than traditional encyclopedias. Perhaps they will have a "small" set of gatekeepers (a la Linux), but they are almost certainly going to be ready and willing to accept voluntary contributions and edits from all and sundry, just from the very raw point of view of efficiency and harnessing as diverse expertise as possible.

    -Rob
    • by Angostura (703910) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:36AM (#10829756)
      The Linux comparison is completely bogus, in my opinion. Not only are there gatekeepers - as you point out, but the quality of the finished code is instantly measurable by the end user, with no expert knowledge. Does it boot? does it work? does it crash when I click this?

      Unfortunately, an encyclopedia's failure mechanism is much more insidious and hard to detect.
    • by jpflip (670957)
      Several posters want to say that the success of Linux validates the approach of Wikipedia. I see three major differences:

      (1) Who does the writing?
      Linux is made by a bunch of programmers (often programming experts) who have pooled their skill to produce a product. Experts are doing work in their field of expertise.

      Wikipedia is the general public getting together to write specialized encyclopedia articles. Non-experts are contributing to various articles in their spare time. The thing that makes Wikiped
  • by beavis88 (25983) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:25AM (#10829614)
    "...the process allows Wikipedia to approach the truth asymptotically..."

    This is perhaps the most compelling point made in the article, to me. Of course, the cynic's read into that statement is that Wikipedia will never get to the truth (see Asymptote [wikipedia.org]). In some ways though, that's really a pretty undeniable truth about the Wikipedia system -- even if it is True today, some jackass can come in and make it Not True tomorrow. Even if it's Not True for only five minutes, if someone looks at it during that time and assumes it to be correct, the wiki has failed in some sense.

    Don't get me wrong, I really love Wikipedia, but I think some of the points raised a very much deserving of further discussion -- if you can make a crofty old coot like this guy happy, it's probably going to be a pretty damn good [encylo|wiki]pedia.
    • by gosand (234100) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:55AM (#10829969)
      This is perhaps the most compelling point made in the article, to me. Of course, the cynic's read into that statement is that Wikipedia will never get to the truth (see Asymptote [wikipedia.org]).


      Now how in the hell am I supposed to trust this definition of Asymptote?

    • In some ways though, that's really a pretty undeniable truth about the Wikipedia system -- even if it is True today, some jackass can come in and make it Not True tomorrow.

      This is true, and it's the greatest weakness of Wikipedia. I wonder if there might not be a technological means of fixing it, or at least of reducing the damage.

      Currently, anyone can make any arbitrary changes to an article, up to and including replacing the whole thing with something completely bogus. This makes a lot of sense whe

    • by Per Abrahamsen (1397) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @01:40PM (#10832159) Homepage
      Maybe it is my background in natural science speaking, but I don't see Truth as something you reach. It is something you, at best, approach. Science (real science) has of a lot of models. None of these models are the Truth. All we know is that they have made good predictions in the past. And we constantly refine and replace our models, so they can make better and better predictions. Science is not the product (the models), it is the process (how we improve them). Some of us like to believe this means our models approach the Truth, but that is an article of faith as the Britannica author point out .

      Wikipedia, when it is at its best, is similar. It will never reach the Truth, however, as people contribute to it, it will hopefully approach it. Information that is not useful (because it conflicts too grossly with other "models of the Truth" out there) will be removed, and information that is useful (help the users) will be added.

      The Britannica author comes from another tradition. A tradition where Truth is based on authority rather than consensus. The ultimate Truth is God, and is expressed through the hierarchy of the Church down to the common churchgoer. Lately, the Church has been supplemented by Science. This gives the common layman view of Science as a Truth, competing or supplementing the Church. Scientists, of course, know that is not so, but the whole dissemination system (schools) has not been updated yet. It uses the old Church based mechanisms. When scientists teach, they try to teach pupils to think. They don't just pass knowledge given from above.

      Much of the Britannica authors ruminations about the degeneration of modern society stems from the same source. Focus is shifting towards the process, and old barriers are removed. Teaching methods is (slowly) catching up. The world is changing, and the best you can teach your pupils is how to adapt to the change. He does not understand that. What was once the Truth, will always be the Truth. That is the nature of Truth. He complains that Wikipedia does not consider the reader, only the authors. This is because the Wikipedians don't use the same model of the world he does. There are no separation between authors and readers, both are users and contributors to the system. The Truth may stay the same, but how we see it will change. It has always changed, but it changes faster now. Being able to change with it is a competitive advantage.

  • by EvanKai (218260) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:25AM (#10829620) Homepage

    The monkeys can measure Wikipedia's success by how often it's cited in academic papers and used in classrooms. This is an indirect system of peer review by millions of content experts on the specific topics they are researching.

    It's similar to Big Media and fact checking. If your CBS and throw out questionable evidence, there is an army of people with the time, motivation, and voice to prove you wrong.

    I don't care if the editor is at CBS or Britannica, holding up to peer review is a more reliable test.
  • by liminality (695708) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:26AM (#10829625)
    The word "bias" gets tossed around a little too much in American discourse these days. How, pray tell, might we honestly construe this man as biased?
    It isn't "biased" to be educated or to have the experience necessary to provide a thoughtful and determinative analysis.

    Indeed, this man's entire lifetime has been dedicated to editing a series of books whose entire modus operendi is to present information factually and to be explicitly aware of their own limitations. An encyclopaedia is by defination a reference work, a limited collection of reliable information that leads you to further study. That is the opposite of "biased", which is to present self-serving conclusions based on a self-serving assemblage of information.

    One thing many Western societies lack right now (but, I would offer, America in particular), is widely accepted basis for producing legitimate knowledge. There are serious concerns with the Wikipedia as a source of authoritative information that exacerbate this problem, not address it.

    I welcome this man's comments rather than condemn them.
    • It is not possible for a person to be unbiased in anything. Even if I ask you to simply recite some simple uncontested facts, the facts you chose to recite will indicate a bias. If you recite physical constants I will get a different understanding of you than if you recite historical dates.

      So, given that the author is proven to be biased, in what way is he biased? The bulk of his article is fairly neutral by my biases but I don't think many people of any background would find the following paragraphs t

  • by JanneM (7445) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:29AM (#10829667) Homepage
    I don't really get why some people get so upset over WIkipedia, and wants to defend ordinary encyclopedias as "more authoritative".

    When it really matters, Wikipedia is of course not a primary source to go to. But then, neither are ordinary encyclopedias. When it _really_ matters, you go to the original research papers, subject-specific anthologies and conference proceedings. You will likely never see Encyclopedia Britannica referred to as an authority for an FDA application, for example, or for an envrionmental consequence analysis for some proposed industrial development.

    What encyclopedias are good for, on the other hand, is to give a quick tour of and route into an area the reader isn't already familiar with. And since any deeper delving into the subject will require referencing a lot of other sources in any case, any smaller biases or omissions in this "portal text" isn't going to matter.

  • Out of date? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by earthforce_1 (454968) <earthforce_1@yaho o . com> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:34AM (#10829735) Journal
    I still remember the encyclopedia salesman that would set up in the mall. Heck, we even have a couple of very nice encyclopeidas in the house.

    The problem is that information becomes dated very fast. Encyclopedias are useless for researching anything technology related, except as a historical snapshot. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, new countries were springing into existance faster than the maps could be printed. Revolutions happen, presidents change and information that was once 100% correct becomes stale or downright wrong as new things are discovered. (How much more have we learned about Mars in the past year?) Despite the problems, online encyclopedias are still the way to go, and I would value Wikipedia as a reference far more than the beautiful leather bound dead tree editions.

    My parents have a 1930's vintage encyclopedia set that they picked up in a garage sale once. It is quite facinating to go through and read a snapshot of what was known and believed to be true at the time.

    • Re:Out of date? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by chill (34294) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @12:27PM (#10831153) Journal
      What is wrong with http://www.eb.com/ ? The original argument wasn't about paper vs online, but rather the validity of the method used and the accuracy of the information in a community developed source.

      Which would you rather trust? Peer reviewed articles written by verified, accredited experts in the subject matter; or articles where a high-school freshman's edits are as valid as those of a Ph.D. w/20 years experience in the field?

      EVENTUALLY the freshman's will be reviewed and accepted/rejected based on merit. What happens during those times where the article is read BEFORE such a process? What if it was reviewed by everyone in that freshman's entire high school? WOW, 2,500 article reviews and no edits! Sorry, I'd still place the 1 review by the Ph.D. with the experience over all 2,501 of the others.

      The idea of digital encyclopedias is one that is due, for the reasons you mention. However, I can't envision how to honestly trust the veracity and validity of information in something like Wikipedia.

      All opinions are NOT equal, and a system that gives idiots the same level of credence as experts isn't one that can be trusted.

      -Charles
  • by Drog (114101) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:35AM (#10829743) Homepage
    I thought the author's statement about how the article had been "edited into mediocrity", contrary to the faith that the articles should improve with each editing, was very interesting. It reminds me of what the late physicist Richard Feynman said in one of his biographical books. He had been asked to review a high school science textbook, along with many engineers at some company. He gave it a scathing review, but was then told (rather haughtily) that all those other engineers had like it just fine. His reaction to this, in the book, was to say that sure, he is not the most intelligent person in the entire world. But is he more intelligent than the average intelligence of a hundred people? Certainly!

    In other words, a hundred ill-informed opinions are still worse than one well-informed one. And simply having more people contributing to a piece of work does not necessarily make it better.

    • One of Feynman's discoveries, when he was investigating the California textbook situation, was that the "experts" were not reading the books given them to review.

      Myself, I never saw a textbook that didn't have glaring errors of fact in it until I reached college age.

      Feynman believed textbook review was corrupt and driven by publishers not by educators. He presented pretty good evidence to support his argument, too.
  • The Oort Cloud Test (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Average_Joe_Sixpack (534373) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:39AM (#10829790)
    I will say one thing Wiki excels at over traditional resources is Science and Technology. For example: The Oort cloud, which is a theoretical source of comets, is often gospel in many lower level science and encyclopedia text books.

    Britannica Article [britannica.com]

    Wiki Article [wikipedia.org]

    As you can see there is a major difference in the way the theory is presented. Britannica as science fact and Wiki as theory.
  • by Shimmer (3036) <brianberns@gmail.com> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:52AM (#10829928) Homepage Journal
    Democracy is a wonderful system, and widely applicable. However, when it comes to gathering and presenting ideas (including facts, which are the most basic kind of idea), democracy is probably a poor model. People who care about ideas are looking for the best ones (the most powerful, the clearest, etc.), not the most popular ones.

    I would put more credence in the Wikipedia if it followed the kind of peer review model used in scientfic journals. Nothing is published unless it meets a high standard set by experts in the field. This approach has made science remarkably successful over the last few centuries, and I think it would probably work well for encyclopedias too.
  • by G4from128k (686170) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:57AM (#10830004)
    Both 'pedias can suffer from bias and distortions that are based on the opinions and prevailing cultures of the authors. Wiki follows the whims and fads of the editing/contributing public and Britannica follows the whims of the academic elite. On the one hand, if enough an idea is "popular" and repeated enough, it becomes truth in a Wiki, regardless of the evidence to the contrary and regardless of the pedigree of that assessment. On the other hand, Britannica's funneling process means that the opinions of gatekeepers trump any dissent.

    Neither approach is right or wrong. The Wiki approach provides too much power to mediocrity. The Britannica approach provides too much power to an academic elite.
  • by saforrest (184929) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @10:58AM (#10830011) Homepage Journal
    One of the most annoying things I find about Slashdot is the immediate reflexive response to regard an article as either 'for' or 'against' issue X. As soon as I saw that an old Brittanica writer had commented on Wikipedia I could guess the shape of the Slashdot debate, without even knowing what the Brittanica fellow had said.

    I have read his comments, and as a not insignificant Wikipedia contributor, I have to say they're correct: he gets it. He does not regard Wikipedia as a useless adventure, but he does not trust (have ) that the collaborative process will necessarily produce excellent-quality articles.

    I have to say I agree. I admire the idea that quality is a sought-after goal, but such efforts as the Collaboration of the Week succeed only because Wikipedians focus their attentions on a given article closely for a short period of time.

    I have seen too many articles that are confusing and disorganized at a meta-level. A simple factual error invites itself to be corrected, and therefore will be corrected, but restructuring a whole article when you know someone may come along and violate your scheme tomorrow is a discouraging thing.

    As well, too many articles on controversial subjects end up being a confusing mismash of argument against or for the point in question. This is particularly the case for recent controversial political figures. I'm happy all the information is there, but I will not believe that the collaborative process will naturally produce an article that covers the issue fairly.

    I view the Wikipedia as analogous to a probabalistic algorithm in computer science (e.g. a probabalistic primality testing algorithm). Such an algorithm is true most of the time, and can be a hell of a lot faster than the always-true deterministic algorithm.

    Those who criticize the algorithm's potential for falseness miss the fact that its nondeterminism gives it great power, but its proponents should never forget that it is not deterministic.
    • by KurtP (64223) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @01:16PM (#10831769)
      I'd have to disagree. The author didn't get it. He might have, he had all of the facts in front of him, and indeed mentions some of them in the article. Yet he fails to draw the correct conclusion.

      1. The author chose an article from the Wikipedia.
      2. The author notes an internal inconsistency
      3. The author checks through the edits, which are visible to the public.
      4. The author now knows that some controversy exists about the dates, and can do further research to resolve it.

      Do you see? Unlike a Brittanica article, the author can see who's been editing it. More importantly, he is given a cross reference of the other edits and changes that user has made, and can judge for himself how credible this person is, and whether they have a clear agenda or bias. At the very least, the reader has no false sense of authority.

      There's little faith involved here, instead there's a system for judging credibility and an audit trail. These sorts of systems have worked well in academic settings for a very long time, and indeed are a key part of the internal quality control checks for dictionaries and encyclopedias.

      His closing comment, that one cannot tell who has used the facilities beforehand, shows that in fact the author does not get it at all. Precisely the contrary, Wikipedia's strength comes from the fact that one can find out not only who has used the facilities before you, but what they did there. He saw this, yet did not understand its value.

      A wonderfully constructed argument, based in incomplete facts, is not a compelling argument. One could wish that a Brittanica veteran had taken the time to do a bit more research on his topic before committing it to writing. Deliciously ironic, don't you think? A sense of false authority is the most dangerous thing an encyclopedia can give, and Wikipedia manages to avoid that almost completely. Yet here we have an authoritative figure making a very basic mistake in research.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:01AM (#10830052)
    I am a research scientist and the material that can be found on wikipedia's website in the subjects of phyics and mathematics is vastly superior to anything the commercial encyclopedias have published. They seem to focus on creating material for high-school students, but their texts are largely useless for higher level physics and mathematics. They just don't have enough detail. This is where Wikipedia excels. Although Wikipedia's converage of physics and mathematics is often written in terms not familiar to a layman, there is often some part of the article that makes it understandable to those who are not involved in the fields of physics and mathematics.

    Thumbs up to the guys at Wikipedia and to those who have contributed articles on mathematics and physics.
  • so fix it (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Trailer Trash (60756) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:02AM (#10830055) Homepage

    To see what Wikipedia is like I chose a single article, the biography of Alexander Hamilton. I chose that topic because I happen to know that there is a problem with his birth date, and how a reference work deals with that problem tells me something about its standards. The problem is this: While the day and month of Hamilton's birth are known, there is some uncertainty as to the year, whether it be 1755 or 1757. Hamilton himself used, and most contemporary biographers prefer, the latter year; a reference work ought at least to note the issue.

    The Wikipedia article on Hamilton (as of November 4, 2004) uses the 1755 date without comment.

    So click the edit button and fix it. I run across little stuff like that ofen in wikipedia, and I simply fix it. That's the idea.

    This isn't a drawback of wikipedia, you're just not putting 2 and 2 together...

  • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:14AM (#10830222) Homepage Journal

    When you write an essay, you write a thesis paragraph, then you have paragraphs based on topic sentences which are in turn based on the thesis, and then you have a summary paragraph. You can usually gauge the bullshit level of a paper by flipping to the end and reading the summary paragraph. Allow me:

    The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.

    Actually, he does know who has used the facilities before him. He also knows what they wrote, and when. Looking at the page of recent changes (for example, for the encyclopedia britannica [wikipedia.org] entry) tells you what has changed in this article and linked articles and when it happened. You know exactly who pissed where.

    Since the summary of the article is based on a fallacy I suggest ignoring the whole thing, and tackling the problems in wikipedia without his advice. But, that's just my advice :) The whole think is snarky, with sentences like "creating an internal inconsistency that the reader has no means to resolve." Guess what? You can't trust a print encyclopedia either. If an encyclopedia is your only reference on a subject you don't have enough references. No means to resolve? Try your local library. If you don't have a local library, you might be very happy to have access to Wikipedia. If you do, then you can do your own checking, and use Wikipedia as a means to find out what to research.

    I especially like (for a very sarcastic value of like) the following:

    Some unspecified quasi-Darwinian process will assure that those writings and editings by contributors of greatest expertise will survive; articles will eventually reach a steady state that corresponds to the highest degree of accuracy.

    What. An. Ass. Luckily I have no journalistic reputation to maintain so I can say that. The fact is that the data is not lost, if someone mangles an entry in the Wikipedia it can be restored, and at some point I fully expect some of the articles to end up locked down and only editable by a select few or through a moderation process. The fact that Wikipedia isn't there yet is just a sign that there's more quasi-Darwinian process before it.

    The fact is that the internet terrifies people whose livelihood depends on traditional publishing methods. It's a lot easier to sell a bunch of paper encyclopedias to smeone than a CDROM or access to a website because the consumer gets something tangible to display the value of the object. This article is simply a reflection of those fears. Nothing to see here, move along.

  • by Fantastic Lad (198284) on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:25AM (#10830366)
    It's something else.

    It's a sifting of global consciousness on a certain level.

    What does the average computer user think about, 'X'? You can get a pretty good idea with Wikkipedia. Then, because it's the internet and EVERYBODY should by now recognize that when doing research on the web, one needs to read a bunch of different websites on the same data they're exploring, research the owners of the website to see what their inborn bias is and what other things they have done, and then do a bunch of creative cross-referencing work. For some subjects, it provides and excellent starting point, but in the end, further research should always include more and wider explorations. The same must be said of any body of reference material, including Britannica.

    And, of course, if you need the orthodox viewpoint written from Official Culture, spun to the tune of "Nothing to see here, citizen", then by all means, look up Britannica. (I particularly liked the difference between the two definitions for the word "Orthodox"; Note particularly, the first sentence on each; Wikki gives us an actual definition, whereas Britannica starts out by immediately telling us that Orthodox means, "True". The irony is downright chewable.)

    "Orthodox"
    Wikki [wikipedia.org]

    Britiannica [britannica.com]


    "Chemtrail"
    Wikki [wikipedia.org]

    Britanica [britannica.com]

    -FL
  • by N3wsByt3 (758224) <Newsbyte@fre e n e t h e l p.org> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @11:53AM (#10830696) Homepage Journal
    When I read the /. comments of the article, I thought it was going to be a higly biased piece of crap, a bit like SCO trying to claim they are the poor victims of the bad OSS-crowd.

    To my surprise (ok, maybe I shouldn't have been, after all this time slashdorring ;-) the comments itself are idiotic: the article in question is very good, clear, and contains a high degree of logic and rationale. While my first thought was a bit 'how dares he attack one of the great accomplishments of the Net', I must say he makes very, very convincing arguments. Infact, after reflection, I think he's basically right.

    I too always thought that more eyes would mean better results, because...well, because we had the example of other (FL)OSS projects, like Linux. So how comes it isn't working (not very good at least) with the wikipedia? I think because firstly, to create, maintain and edit linuxcode, one has to know it in the first place. To some pretty high degree, people who are capable of coding are already experts to some level. In linux develoment, you can't just hop in, you have to prove that you at least have knowledge of the subject (which is derived from the assessment of the code given).

    Furthermore, they have a product that has to work, and work better. You can actually look if it still works (better), something that can't be done in the wikipedia. I mean, make a totally crappy code, and the program won't work (or much worse); a clear indication something is wrong and that the new code is not right. Make a totally crappy page and you don't really have any objective measurement to see if it's better or worse, in an objective way. Sure, maybe experts would notice, but let's face it, even experts disagree often, and, more importantly as I (and the author of the article) said; a wikipedia isn't governed by experts. Even when an occasional expert may correct it, it's likely that some time later, a mediocre would-be ninkenpoop would edit it back in mediocrity.

    I think the author made a very good point, and one that the current wikipediasystem will be unable to correct. The population, also in intelligence and intellect and even mere fact-knowing follows the curve of Gauss; meaning, that the majority of the populace are situated in the middle. The best example to demonstrate is that of IQ: the percentile of 80 to 120 (where 100 is the median) encompasses the vast majority, whereas the more smart and the more stupid make out an increasing litlle part.

    Thus, it is easy to see that, if the populace is divided along the Gausscurve, people that are only moderatly knowledgable make out the vast majority, and since the wikipedia is open for all to edit, the bulk of the editors/users/etc. are going to be mediocre (as in: diverging to the median). So, even if a good article of an expert is going to be made, after a while, it will not become exellent, but will become more mediocre, just as the author says.

    He does forget to mention, though, that the opposite is also through: the really bad articles will move towards the median too, so those WILL improve (but only to a certain extent). In the end, the whole wikipedia will, seen as a whole, wobble around mediocrity; not really bad, but not really good neither. I think this is, though a theory, probably an essential one. It's is impossible to break that trend, unless one has 1)a way to objectively see if an article is better, 2)there is a way of giving a higher degree of (strict) editing to the experts, which can be done on beforehand (by actually contacting experts), or by having a controlling function that lets editing be depended on the worth -determined by peers - of the articles.

    Point 1 is going to be very difficult, because I don't see any way in which to objectively view which page is the better one, exept maybe by actually refering to real encyclopedia's (and thus, indirectly from experts). The difficulties with pages of knowledge and facts is that they can't be shown to be true (or better) or not, con
  • Ahhh, Wikipedia... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Relic of the Future (118669) <<gro.skaerflatigid> <ta> <selad>> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @12:01PM (#10830784)
    Where sitcom and anime fans alike can post in excruciating detail the events of every episode of their favorite shows... for the... uhh... benefit of human knowledge?

    Where new graduates, overstuffed with their new expertise, can cloud any subject with enough unexplained jargon and unimportant minutia to make even a simple subject appear beyond the ken of those beneath them.

    Where even a simple subject is turned into a catalog of unwritten entries by some well-meaning font of trivia, such that it burries the actual article.

    Don't get me wrong, I love the project, I've contributed in the past; but anyone who says there aren't any problems, or that all the problems will eventually be fixed by "the community" needs to step back and get some perspective.

  • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot@hacki s h . o rg> on Tuesday November 16, 2004 @03:50PM (#10834112)
    While I don't disagree with all the points in this article, and thing the "trending towards mediocrity" issue is one that needs to be addressed (if you read the mailing list archives, it in fact has come up numerous times), Britannica is hardly a repository of flawless truth either.

    For some examples from the other side, see:
    Errors in Britannica which have been corrected in Wikipedia [wikimedia.org]

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