Warning: Sermon Ahead
|Posted: 31 August 2009 at 9:32pm | IP Logged | 7
Disclosure: I am a university professor who loves Wikipedia
Now, on with the show.
First, I want to repeat (and expand on) a point that a couple of folks have already made. Namely, that Wikipedia is valuable precisely BECAUSE we know that it can be biased/inaccurate/etc.
This is (for instance) in contrast to how many of us regard academic scholarship. We may think it is boring (and, oh god, it is often so very, very boring!). But if pressed, most of us would probably also admit that we usually regard scholars to be as reliable a source of information as we are likely to find. After all, they've put in YEARS to become experts in their fields, right? They're not just a bunch of uncontrollable internet vandals and lunatics!
However, as I made my way through grad school I was surprised to learn just how common it was for academic work to be flat-out wrong, even work by world-renowned scholars. And a good deal of this work--unlike Wikipedia--can go unquestioned for many years.
For anyone who is interested, in my field (religion), there are two really interesting books that explore examples of this phenomenon. One is Drudgery Divine, by Jonathan Z. Smith; the other is Storytracking, by Sam Gill. I won't bore you (any further!) with the details, but essentially each author demonstrates, with scrupulous attention to primary sources, that academics in certain areas of religion and anthropology have been perpetuating misinformation for decades.
I seriously doubt that a mistake on Wikipedia would last that long.
Which brings me to my other point, namely that Wikipedia is, in general, as accurate as just about any other "authoritative" source. This, at least, is my personal experience, as well as the experience of many of my colleagues. It was also apparently demonstrated in a 2005 comparison between Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica involving science entries:http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/online-encycl opedias-put-to-the-test/2005/12/14/1134500913345.html
Yes, you can find mistakes in Wikipedia. And yes, this should keep us on our toes. But more often than not, Wikipedia is actually correct -- and in any case you will find important mistakes in just about any work you delve deeply into.
So: not only does Wikipedia's nature inherently invite us to question the information it presents (hence the existence of this entire discussion thread!), but this information is in any case about as reliable as any we're going to find. All of which makes it, in my view, a MUCH better place to turn to for information than any other single source I have yet uncovered.
Plus it is possible now to see the history of each entry, what changes were made and by which user, as well as debates (=multiple viewpoints!) concerning contentious topics. How is this not fabulous?
And finally: instead of telling our students NOT to use a source like Wikipedia, doesn't it make better sense to show them HOW to use it? Teach them about bias, about human error, about validating sources, etc., etc., etc. For the foreseeable future, sites like this are going to be the way that most people search for information. Why not train our students how to do so responsibly?
Thus endeth the sermon.