Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Newsflash - Wikipedia isn't perfect!

Jef suggested we add the Perfect Solution fallacy to our list a while ago, but it wasn't until watching TV on Sunday morning that I came across a nice example of it. Sunday (an Australian public affairs TV program) ran a story: Wikipedia — right or wrong? Here's the synopsis:

School students love it, but increasingly their teachers don’t want them to go near it. It's Wikipedia — the massively popular, free Internet research tool. And it's growing like crazy. Since it first appeared five years ago, it's amassed 1.7 million entries in English alone. Its founder is an American called Jimmy Wales. Once a future and options trader, he’d previously run a website which sold erotic material. He operates Wikipedia as a “not for profit” site, along democratic lines. He’s fond of saying, “its the encyclopaedia anyone can edit”, written not by experts-necessarily but ordinary people. Its critics, like the former editor in chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica, say it's like asking questions of a bloke you meet in the pub. He might be a nuclear physicist, or he might be a fruit cake. A series of embarrassing errors on the site in recent weeks-and-years has prompted debate about whether you can trust Wikipedia. Well, Jimmy Wales is coming to Australia later this month. Sunday spoke to him from Tokyo earlier in the week.

Among reporter Ellen Fanning's points was the heavy implication that as Wikipedia often has mistakes, the entire enterprise is flawed, and should therefore be ignored by intelligent people (presumably such as herself). (She didn't directly make this argument herself, she did the old:"Critics say that...". For once I'd like to see someone respond by saying: "What critics? Who said that?")

In the title of the story, we have a False Dichotomy. However, it's the argument within the story that I'll focus on - the Perfect Solution fallacy. The critics of Wikipedia are right, it does contain many errors, some of them glaring. (Conveniently, there was an error in the entry on Ellen Fanning at the time of her interview with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. It said she was the sister of musician Bernard Fanning... I wouldn't know anything about altering a Wikipedia entry to prove a point. Though to give her the benefit of the doubt, the error was added 21st October last year.) That doesn't stop it from being a very useful resource. It just means that one should not use it as a primary resource. This is what I say to my students:

Can you trust Wikipedia for research? Not really - though it's not particularly worse than the Encyclopedia Britannica for getting its facts right - they're both pretty appalling. See this. It is, however, a good starting point for research - in particular external links.

Pretty sensible and obvious advice I would think. (Make sure you click on the "see this" link above and you'll see the errors that creep into even such estimable publications as Britannica.) Wikipedia isn't perfect, and it doesn't claim to be. Attacking Wikipedia was a bit lame of Ellen. Her next story should be called: Reporters desperately trying to create controversy where there isn't one - Right or Wrong?