Why Wikipedia is mad at me (and why I deserve it)

October 26, 2009

So, for those of you who read my previous post on my wikipedia experiment, you may notice that int he comments, many wiki-folks were none too pleased about my “experiment.” The common strand in their thoughts was that what I was doing was not as innocuous as I had thought, but was doing damage to their project, and was undermining what they try to do over there.

In hindsight, it was irresponsible. I came to the project with a couple of assumptions (both conscious and subconscious):

1. Since wikipedia belongs to the people, I can do what I want with it

2. What I did had no long lasting harm to anyone

3. Since I was doing it with the intention of gaining data and quantifying information and whatnot, it was ok. You can do anything in the almighty name of SCIENCE!

In the end, I don’t know if all of these are legit. First off, you can’t just mess around with someone’s project and think that it is OK. It does not matter how I view the legitimacy of the information on Wikipedia. It does not matter what I think about their work. It matters that they are trying to put something together and I was tinkering with it for my own curiosity. That is no good.

On top of the fact that I, in practice, do use wikipedia as an authoritative source. And, to be honest, you do too. Maybe not for papers, maybe not for scholarly works, but if you want to know a bit of trivia about anything, and you find it on wikipeida, you believe it. When I ask when Martin Luther was born, and the first entry on google is the wikipedia page, I doubt that very many people at all say to themselves: “I can’t check wikipedia, it is not a credible source.”

So, all in all, my idea was ill advised, and I am going to desist from adding false information to wikipedia in order to test the wiki-editor response time. ย I did not mean harm, but harm was done. And so….

Sorry wikipedia. I won’t do it again.

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11 Responses to “Why Wikipedia is mad at me (and why I deserve it)”


  1. […] Why Wikipedia is mad at me (and why I deserve it) […]

  2. Tyler Says:

    I think its somewhat hilarious that your post was used as an example of people harming Wikipedia, drawing the ire of many “wikipedians.” I thought the mental gymnastics comment was funny too.

    While I see their point, I also disagree. What harm are they referring to? The potential harm I see is some kid looking for info on Zwingly and unfortunately happening on your edit, quoting it before it was changed back, and then receiving a bad grade for wrong information thus further proving many teachers’ bias against Wikipedia as a credible source. But honestly, how likely is that? How long did you have the change up there?

    You were actually participating in the same kind of “knowledge expansion” that the wikipedians are. They’d like to add new knowledge about Zwingly or other topics to their wiki, and you were interested in testing an assumption to add new knowledge to your blog. Big difference?

    So you interfered with their project, but no damage was done and no extra work required on their part because you changed it back. Their postings and moanings took more time away from their wiki endeavor than your edit. Knowing you, you probably could add to the article on Zwingly and be a great wikipedian.

    That being said, I do agree that it calls your salvation into question.

    p.s. Wikipedians, please do not take this the wrong way and post my comments on your communal board for examples of commentors who are against your right to wiki.

  3. Cassian Says:

    I agree with Tyler. I certainly think changing a line on Wikipedia is less destructive than say, graffiting a picture of Buzz Lightyear decapitating zombies while punching Mickey Mouse in the face – on my neighbor’s garage (or Andrew’s church).

    I will say that I think Andrew (unintentionally) demonstrated what I take to be Wikipedia’s fatal flaw: You cannot trust intelligent, educated, and generally well intentioned people to act in good character, especially when they are anonymous.

    I worked for a large realty firm a couple years ago. On a particularly slow day, I made some constructive edits to Wikipedia. I noticed that the IP address of the firm had multiple citations of vandalism. This firm, comprised only of people who were over 45 and active realtors, contained someone who was vandalizing Wikipedia.

    The purpose is not to excuse Andrew from his most grievous fault, for which mockery is well deserved. The point is that, unfortunately, people cannot be trusted to act well. This is further exacerbated by the fact that there is a relatively small number of people with the knowledge of a given topic (say Zwingli) who can discern what is correct and a relatively large number of people who act poorly.

    Finally, this may show how jaded I am, but I put little stock (or work) into communal efforts with such a great possibility of “vandalism”. Sharing communal information may work well in my neighborhood, parish, or even my whole town. On a small scale, the “Wiki Mentality” works. But by opening it so widely, the possibility for misinformation is so great as to make it almost useless.

    I say that having used Wikipedia as my sole source of information for passing a college history class a couple years back. I received an A, which was more indicative of how poor the class was, not how accurate Wikipedia was.

    • Tyler Says:

      I tend to disagree. I think Wikipedia proves that there is greater potential for this large group to do good rather than bad. The constructive work on Wikipedia far outweighs the incidents of destruction, as innocent as Andrew’s or far worse.

      There are over 18 million pages of content on wikipedia right now and over 10 million registered users. These 10 million users are able to not only maintain 18 million pages of content, but continually add more –sometimes at the rate of 30 million words a month– all the while protecting the vast majority of information from vandals such as Andrew.

      All of this has made wikipedia the most up to date, extensive, and reliable encyclopedia in the history of the world. Yes, Zwingli might get a bad rap for a war he wasn’t alive for in the perspective of the poor soul who happened upon that sentence in the 10 hour window it was up, but that’s a pretty small instance of misinformation in 18 million pages, don’t you think?

      Lastly, I would like to apologize for misspelling Zwingli’s name, which has added another instance of misinformation pertaining to this man who neither asked for it nor deserved the vandalism.

      • Cassian Says:

        Presumably as an encyclopedia, Wikipedia is only as valuable as it is credible. If I grab an Encyclopedia Britannica, my possibility of being misled is extremely low.

        Yet, on Wikipedia, I really cannot trust that the information is correct, or even in the ballpark. Its easy to see the obviously wrong entries: Zwingli led Michael Jackson to the Church of Scientology.

        But the problem with the so-called “Sneaky Vandalism” is that its so difficult to spot. Thus, much of the vandalism could go unnoticed.

        Unlike other encyclopedias, there is no guarantee of any review of the content, so that an error like Andrew’s *could* stay much longer than 10 hours.

        Any given page could contain many factual errors. For Example, the last sentence of the article on Thomas Aquinas under Theology reads (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquinas#Theology)

        “The ultimate goals of theology, in Aquinasโ€™ mind, are to use reason to grasp the truth about God and to experience salvation through that truth.”

        This statement is so absurdly false its hilarious and can be easily shown to be false from: Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, 6, 5, 1: reply. While not vandalism, it is completely false. Yet there is a dearth of Wikipedia Aquinas scholars. As such, I cannot trust Wikipedia, especially on issues where I don’t already know something about the topic.

        And this is not to speak at all of issues of blatant omissions(transubstantiation is completely missing from the article on Aquinas) rampant in Wikipedia.

        Thus, I see Wikipedia as almost useless.

  4. Bill Carlisle Says:

    Andrew, my friend, I think a bigger issue is at heart here than simply messing with someone’s project. Because we are not omniscient, we must rely on others who claim knowledge in a subject matter to give us information which we do not heretofore have. When our sources turn out to not only be false, but deliberately so, that destroys the credibility of the source because it is shown to be untrustworthy.

    Wikipedia is a collectivization of not a small amount of human knowledge, and all made possible by the near-ubiquitous interconnection of the Internet.

    Now here’s the heart of the issue: potentially what you did was bear false witness about someone to a great many people. Now the extent of the harm to that person’s character may not be great, but it is still a false witness.

    We must never do what is sin in God’s eyes in the name of science or any other cause. It is why we have ethical standards for medical experimentation with humans. Now granted, that is a much greater evil to harm our fellowman physically, but the same principle applies to why we ought never to add false information to something like Wikipedia, knowing full well that the information we give is false.

    That, I think, is the real issue. The others are ancillary in my opinion.

    • JR Cillian Says:

      BEAR FALSE WITNESS?!? Are you freaking kidding me?!? Misinformation is misinformation…it’s mistaken information. There’s nothing here that’s malicious or harmful or anything other than an interesting experiment to see how long a factoid goes from false to true…or if it ever does. That’s all…good god…people…

      Bear false witness…honestly!

  5. Some wikipediaguy Says:

    To Andrew, obviously I can’t speak for the wikipedia community, and some of the others who left comments certainly seemed quite a bit more upset then I was. But as far as I’m concerned, apology accepted – there should always be forgiveness for a repenting sinner ๐Ÿ˜‰ And of course, your “sin” wasn’t a very big one, and the chance that some kid fails an exam (do kids even learn about Zwingli in school these days?) based on those 12 hours of misinformation is really zero. So no real harm done, and unlike many others who edit Wikipedia (be it with good or bad intentions) you actually learned something from it ๐Ÿ™‚

    Tyler has already replied to Cassian, but I’ll second him: Wikipedia as a social experiment proves that you *can* (more often than not) trust intelligent, educated, and generally well intentioned people to act in good character, *even* when they are anonymous. You can even trust not so educated (and thus not so “intelligent” according to those rather inaccurate standards by which we tend to measure intelligence by) to act in good character, and some people who came to wikipedia with not so good intentions to “see the light” and actually mend their ways and start contributing positively – to the best of their abilities.

    All the best,

  6. Tyler Says:

    Where does Britannica’s credibility come from? Credibility is a nice safety net though ๐Ÿ˜‰

    They do studies on this kind of thing and the amount of errors between the two is statistically insignificant. You stick with Britannica and I’ll use the freely available, more extensive and current Wikipedia.

  7. Cassian Says:

    @ Tyler:
    The whole Wikipedia as credible as Britannica was debunked: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/03/23/britannica_wikipedia_nature_study/

    From Wikipedia’s own credibility page(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Credibility)
    “No encyclopedia quotes these opinions or references unless they were documented with proofs and then the encyclopedia requires a minimum of one other verifiable supporting source for that documentation. Wikipedia, by its openness to editing by anyone, in fact needs to set a higher standard if it wants credibility.”

    Wikipedia understands it doesn’t have credibility. I don’t think that’s the issue. The question is: how important is credibility. To me, it is very important, in fact I would say it is the most important.
    Now Andrew contends (at least he did on the phone today) that credibility is not preeminent. But when it comes to Encyclopedias, I need something with more credibility.

    Britannica’s credibility comes from the fact that it only prints what it has references for. It has proof checkers and editors and is by its nature static. It cannot be manipulated by any company or organization out to influence its record. There are no Andrews to derail its accuracy.

    I think that spending 5 minutes on a given page (like my Aquinas example) shows precisely this problem.

    (by the way, your second paragraph was truly Wikipedia worthy: “they” do studies of “this kind of thing.”)

    @Bill Carlisle:
    I am immensely uninterested in getting into a debate about this, so I will almost certainly regret my decision to mention this.

    Andrew did not bear false witness because he lacked the intention to do so. He certainly had the knowledge that what he was writing was false, but he, in his strange way, lacked the intentionality to bear false witness.

    While what he did was objectively wrong (and calls into question whether he is a member of the elect) he is not culpable for it.

    • Tyler Says:

      I agree on the bearing false witness thing.

      “Those kind of things” was a bit tongue in cheek, glad that you could appreciate that. I figured you could find something about it, but arguing that 132 is so much better than 163 or whatever it was misses the fact that Britannica still had a lot of errors. Also interesting you mention it can’t be manipulated by a company out to influence its record, which I’m sure is not what Britannica was out to do when they attacked the validity of a study that painted them in a bad light. Your possibility of being misled is extremely low with Britannica, but percentage wise due to number of articles its probably less with wikipedia.

      Encylopedias are not infallible, not wikipedia, not Britannica. They’re starting points for information. If you’re writing a paper and only quoting encyclopedias you’re in trouble whether no matter which one you’re using. So I’ll go with the most extensive, continuously updated, free encyclopedia and you can pay for access to a limited but slightly more exact one. Check out Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody for more if you’re interested.

      Wikipedia even has an article dedicated to the errors in Britannica, now that’s something you’ll never find credible information on in your encyclopedia ๐Ÿ™‚

      Btw, where are all the wikipedians now?


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