Tag Archives: wisdom

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?

Jake Locker and the Wisdom of the Masses

Jake LockerFor 5 years now, I’ve had the privilege of watching Jake Locker develop as a quarterback at the University of Washington. I have seen every game he’s played in as a collegiate athlete, and I’ve seen the impact he’s made off the field, as well. Last week, “Montlake Jake’s” college career reached its end when he was drafted 8th overall to the Tennessee Titans. As a Husky fan and an admirer of Locker’s, I couldn’t be happier for him.

That Jake was the first Husky QB ever drafted in the 1st round, however, is not what I’m thinking about right now. Rather, I am reflecting on the entire draft process, specifically from a media perspective. Beginning last year, the draft hype around Jake has been fascinating. First, Mel Kiper said it was “etched in stone” that Jake would be the first pick in the draft. From there, other “experts” and talking heads all hopped on the bandwagon.

Of course, they all forgot that Jake played for a team that was still only a year removed from the worst season in Pac-1o history. So when the Huskies, and consequently Jake, struggled, the “experts” suddenly agreed that Locker was overrated and had made a bad decision. All along, Locker insisted that he had no regrets, and continued telling the “experts” that, all the way to San Diego and a Holiday Bowl victory. Did Jake suddenly get worse? No – the perception of him changed based on his circumstances.

As the season ended and Locker became a pro prospect (again), there was much discussion about him. As some said, he is a polarizing player. On the one hand, nobody doubts his character, work ethic, or even his athletic ability. Coaches, players, fans, and “experts” alike agreed that he had all the physical tools (arm strength, size, etc.) for the NFL, and all agreed his character was above reproach. However, the “experts” had problems with Locker’s numbers – specifically, with his 53% career completion percentage. There was much bandying about Jake’s accuracy in college, with one side of the debate focusing on him and the other side focusing primarily on his team (offensive line and receivers).

What became fascinating for me during this debate was not the argument itself, but the way these opposing sides adopted certain “facts” about his accuracy that may or may not have been true. For example, one comment I heard often from the pro-Locker “experts” is that his receivers dropped an unusually high number of passes, leading to the lower completion percentage. Unfortunately, that is not a statistic that is publicly kept, so we have no way of knowing if it was true or not. Nevertheless, it quickly became a common theme in the discussion, both among fans and among talking heads.

Similarly, on the other side, there were a number of anti-Locker talking heads who adopted several “facts” of their own. For example, some pointed to the Nebraska game, saying that this was the “only pro-style defense Locker played against” and pointed to Locker’s poor statistics in those games. Of course, they neither define “pro-style defense” or explain how, say, USC is not a “pro-style” defense. In fact, Nebraska’s “Peso” defense may be less of a “pro-style” defense than most Pac-10 teams. Nevertheless, the critique became commonplace – both the “experts” and fans began spouting the same criticism of Locker without delving into further explanation.

Sadly, nobody – from scouts to coaches to players to fans to talking heads – ever put all the pieces of analysis together. As a result, there are a number of questions about Jake that never were really answered – What actually caused the 53% completion percentage? What kind of incompletions did he throw? Did his receivers drop an inordinate number of passes? Did he have less time in the pocket than other prospects because of a faulty offensive line? How many passes did he throw away compared to other QB’s? What specifically is wrong with his “footwork” (which is always the default problem when people can’t pinpoint a quarterback’s specific mechanical flaw)?

Since NFL scouts don’t really speak publicly, the answers, arguments, and “evidence” in response to these questions all begin with the so-called “experts” that make a living analyzing the NFL draft. Before Mel Kiper made his “etched in stone” comment, Locker was barely mentioned as a draft prospect. Afterwards, it is restated ad nauseum as the gospel according to Mel. The same story appears with Jake’s completion percentage, the dropped passes, and the defenses he faced. These become common wisdom only when a proclaimed expert declares them to be the case.

Of course, the NFL draft is not the only place where this sort of thing happens. Many teachers can probably point to a few examples in the last few months of the media demonizing educators and teachers’ unions and how their communities have adopted the same arguments. Did the teachers change? No – the perception of them did. The same salaries that were considered “noble” for teachers to make given the work they do suddenly became “selfish” because some talking heads said it was. But I digress.

See, it’s very easy for the “experts” to be critical (I’m looking at you, Todd McShay and Arne Duncan). They can form any opinion they choose and if they’re wrong, oh well. I hesitate to adopt the views of anyone in that situation. The people I want to hear from are the ones whose livelihoods are affected by the decisions they make. I want to hear from the scouts that evaluate players for a living – the guys who get fired if they badly predict a players’ future. They have a lot more invested in being right than the talking heads.  I want to hear from the teachers, who work day in and day out with the students and know those students’ learning habits better than their families do, whose butts are on the line when test scores are lower than expected for some reason. What do they think is going on? I want to know what really happened – the intricate web of causes behind the low test scores or the accuracy numbers. I’m tired of the critics offering up the easy answers.

At the end of the story, Jake Locker was still drafted 8th overall by the Titans. In spite of his supposed accuracy issues, and likely because of his character and work ethic, he has achieved his lifelong dream of being an NFL player. Whether the talking heads and “experts” agreed with the pick or not, scouts said that Locker was a franchise quarterback. And fans in Seattle (myself included) hope those scouts are right.

Guilt By Omission

Let no one when young delay to study philosophy, nor when he is old, grow weary of his study. For no one can come too early or too late to secure the health of his soul. And the man who says that the age for philosophy has either not yet come or has gone by is like the man who says that the age for happiness is not yet come to him…

– Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus

 As I mentioned in the last post, I’m reading a really cool book called Little Big Minds, which talks about doing philosophy with children. The chapter I just finished was especially good because it was on happiness – a subject I’ve written about before. One of the philosophers the author cites is Epicurus, an Athenian thinker. The above quote by him sums up one of my strong feelings about K-12 education right now – where’s the philosophy?

  I would (and did, in fact, in my Master’s thesis) argue that philosophy is one of the most important subjects students can study, yet is glaringly absent from schools. While we demand that students be great thinkers and intelligent citizens, we omit the field of study that would most profoundly affect those changes. In a sense, we in the education system, are largely culpable for students’ lack of thinking and empathy skills because we are omitting the subject that teaches them.

  Moreover, Epicurus argues that philosophizing – “doing” philosophy – is the key to a happy life. Many others, including Plato and Cicero, would concur (I have quotes to back that up if you like). Of course, that’s just my own trivial opinion.

Why Read?

A question I am about to wrestle with in class:

Why the heck do we read?

While we all know it’s important to be able to comprehend the symbols we call letters, why should we read outside of school?  What is it accomplishing for us to read all of these old, archaic books by people who have been dead for centuries?  Are there good reasons for continuing to read Dracula and Jane Eyre, or are we just afraid to start reading newer, more ‘exciting’ books?

 While I am certainly looking for more answers (thus, asking for your feedback, whoever you may be), I quote renowned literary critic, Harold Bloom:

“The deepest motive for reading has to be the quest for wisdom” (Where Shall Wisdom Be Found).

To encounter and engage new ideas, and to let one’s own ideas be challenged and revised – in other words, to be affected intellecutally and emotionally – this is why we read.