Wikipedia and the Wisdom of the Masses

WikipediaNot too long ago, I wrote about Jake Locker and the Wisdom of the Masses, which discussed the way in which public perception or “common sense” is based primarily on what so-called “experts” and media say on a particular subject. This particular post will look at what may be the antithesis of that piece – Wikipedia.

I have used Wikipedia for a long time now, primarily when I want to get a quick overview about a topic or find an answer to a random trivia question (like “How many home runs did Sadaharu Oh hit during his career?”). Occasionally (as I did recently), I’ll consult the References and “Further Reading” sections of an article to look for books to read on a topic.

But as a teacher, I often hear from students that they have been told to never use Wikipedia because it is unreliable. Other teachers they have had have told them that, because anyone can edit Wikipedia, it is completely unreliable. Essentially, these teachers have told students to only listen to people that are vetted “experts” on a subject.

Of course, in the Jake Locker article, I argued that the so-called “experts” were just as ignorant as many fans. In addition, their “expert” opinions influenced the masses to believe something that may or may not be true, all without using complete, factual information to support their positions. Interestingly, Wikipedia seems to be the opposite of this phenomenon, as the “wisdom of the masses” turns out to be roughly on par with the wisdom of the experts.

Take this oft-cited report by Nature magazine, which found that Wikipedia is nearly as reliable as the Encyclopedia Brittanica – with approximately 1 more error per article than the published encyclopedia (The main article is behind a pay wall (here’s a summary from CNet News), but their responses to Encyclopedia Brittanica’s objections are worth looking at). Even when there are errors in a Wikipedia entry, they are (more often than not) fixed within a matter of hours.

Another study, published by online journal First Monday, revealed that experts who read Wikipedia articles in their areas of expertise found those articles to be more credible than non-experts. In layman’s terms, if you or I read an article on nuclear fission on Wikipedia, we might treat it with a bit of skepticism (“take it with a grain of salt”). An expert in the field of nuclear physics, however, found that to be a fairly reliable and accurate article.

Of course, Wikipedia is not, nor ever will be, perfect. One of the drawbacks of having an encyclopedia that anyone can edit is that some will add misinformation (whether intentional or not). PBS’ “Learning.Now” blog posted a clear, concise summary of both sides of the Wikipedia debate. It illustrates the potential problems with Wikipedia using the story of John Seigenthaler Sr., whose erroneous Wikipedia article tied him to the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy. But it also highlights the story of some high school journalists who used Wikipedia (and its editing history) to out a convicted sex offender posing as British royalty.

So what should educators do about Wikipedia? Based on what my students have shared with me, many teachers are simply telling students not to use Wikipedia. I will never say this. There is far more quality information on Wikipedia than there is bad information. While Britannica is updated annually, Wikipedia is being edited every second of every day, thus has information on events like the death of Osama bin Laden, which won’t appear in Britannica for several months. Furthermore, students can access Wikipedia for free from anywhere with an internet connection, while it is much more difficult to access an encyclopedia. Then there are additional tools like Simple English Wikipedia, which contains similar content shared in simple language (rather than intellectual vocabulary). This kind of tool is invaluable for students, particularly those just beginning to learn how to do research. With all of these facts (plus the demonstrable accuracy of their articles), I will never tell students not to use the site.

However, I will also never tell them that it they should cite Wikipedia as a source in scholarly writing. Yes, the site is usually accurate. Yes, it has good information more often than not. However, it is not perfect, and it is still a secondary source. And I try to get my students to avoid citing secondary sources, instead helping them search for the primary source of the information. To me, this is one of the great advantages to using Wikipedia – their bountiful citations and connected links. If the information is good, I can typically consult the original source and use that, thus maintaining accuracy and academic integrity.

So here’s what I tell my students – Wikipedia is a great starting point. If you just want quick access to basic information, use Wikipedia. This is why I cite Wikipedia articles in my blog – the articles provide good introductions for people who don’t know about a particular subject. If you are doing research, it is a great way to get a mostly accurate overview of a topic, and an even better tool for finding other sources to aid in research (using the References). But Wikipedia should not be the core of their research, just as the Encyclopedia Brittanica should not comprise all of their research – they should seek out primary sources of information to cite in their work. This is what I try to teach my students.

But that’s just what I do. How do you handle the Wikipedia dilemma?


3 responses to “Wikipedia and the Wisdom of the Masses

  • Leroy Hurt

    Your comment about directing students to primary sources rather than secondary sources like Wikipedia reflects how I use it. I tell students it may be useful in defining criteria and discussion points or it may be useful in helping them get started. However, evidence is more along the lines of original research.

  • Elisabeth

    I’m surprised that many students say they don’t use Wikipedia. From my experience, high school students and even college students will cheat using Wikipedia without a second thought, despite knowing that it is unreliable. I wonder if those kids were lying to you… Of course Wikipedia isn’t perfect; it’s one of the downfalls of growing new media – it’s misuse, imperfection, and drawbacks yet we still continue to foster its progression because we enable it and it enables us. I agree with you not to complete discourage Wikipedia – one, because it does have its use, and two, because telling kids not to use something probably will make things worse. Like with anything that comes from the Internet, knowledge that comes from new media should be taught to be used with a conscious mind.

    • thehurt

      True – many times I have had to discipline a student for copying and pasting directly from Wikipedia (often without even removing the links or changing the background color). There are those students, though, that recognize Wikipedia for what it is – a bounty of knowledge and information that can, at any time, be vandalized (just as a book can). For those students (and for me), Wikipedia becomes an incredibly powerful tool. But only, as you put so eloquently, when used with a conscious mind.

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