Saturday, 17 December 2005

A false Wikipedia 'biography' - follow up

The publishing of a false biography and the subsequent media reporting brings wikipedia to the focus again. Here are some views which touched me.

1. Jimmy Wales, wikipedia founder's response. [as cited by apophenia]

Imagine that we are designing a restaurant. This restuarant will serve steak. Because we are going to be serving steak, we will have steak knives for the customers. Because the customers will have steak knives, they might stab each other. Therefore, we conclude, we need to put each table into separate metal cages, to prevent the possibility of people stabbing each other.

What would such an approach do to our civil society? What does it do to human kindness, benevolence, and a positive sense of community?

When we reject this design for restaurants, and then when, inevitably, someone does get stabbed in a restaurant (it does happen), do we write long editorials to the papers complaining that "The steakhouse is inviting it by not only allowing irresponsible vandals to stab anyone they please, but by also providing the weapons"?

No, instead we acknowledge that the verb "to allow" does not apply in such a situation. A restaurant is not _allowing_ something just because they haven't taken measures to _forcibly prevent it_ a priori. It is surely against the rules of the restaurant, and of course against the laws of society. Just. Like. Libel. If someone starts doing bad things in a restuarant, they are forcibly kicked out and, if it's particularly bad, the law can be called. Just. Like. Wikipedia.

I do not accept the spin that Wikipedia "allows anyone to write anything" just because we do not metaphysically prevent it by putting authors in cages.

2. A recent press release by Nature's investigation of the accuracy of Britannica and wikipedia on scientific entries:
suggests that Britannica's advantage may not be great, at least when it comes to science entries. In the study, entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature's news team.

Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.

3. Someone post a question "Accuracy reliability of entries Britanica (or comparable sources) vs wikipedia" with a $60 price tag in The current answer leads me to Edward Felten's conclusion.
Overall verdict: Wikipedia’s advantage is in having more, longer, and more current entries. If it weren’t for the Microsoft-case entry, Wikipedia would have been the winner hands down. Britannica’s advantage is in having lower variance in the quality of its entries.

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