One of the most remarkable success stories of the internet has been the rise and rise of Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopaedia. For decades, the gold standard for reference books has been the weighty tomes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, with its two-volume index and hundreds of scholarly contributors. Wikipedia threatens the eminence of such works because it is free, universally available and up-to-date. Nowadays articles in Wikipedia are regularly consulted by journalists, students and even academics. The founder of the site, Jimmy Wales, describes it as “an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopaedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language.”

Nothing if ambitious, but Wikipedia’s history justifies it. It began only four years ago in 2001 and has since grown to 2,550,000 articles, including more than 860,000 in the English-language version. About 1500 articles were added every day in October this year. The German, French, Japanese, Polish, Italian, Swedish and Dutch, all have more than 100,000 articles. Enthusiasts are attempting to build up versions in other languages, including Pidgin English, Scots and Esperanto. Good luck to them!  

To have paid experts to write these millions of articles would have been impossible. Wikipedia paid nothing. Instead, in a stunning example of the power of the internet to recruit dedicated manpower, it marshalls thousands of anonymous volunteers, aka “Wikipedians”. Any reader can alter the text of an article or even create a new one, although registered users have more authority and privileges in the editing process. This makes Wikipedia the most visible achievement of the open source software movement. With enough volunteers each bringing his grain of sand, it proves that an industry-competitive product can be created. Wikipedia has done for knowledge what Linux did for operating systems.

But like all software, Wikipedia has vulnerabilities. The value of its information can be corrupted by inaccuracy, bias – or vandalism. This weakness was painfully exposed this month when a former editorial page writer for USA Today discovered that he had been defamed in his Wikipedia biography. To his dismay John Seigenthaler, 78, a former aide to Robert Kennedy and a pall-bearer at his funeral, read that he might have been involved in the assassination of the Kennedy brothers. “I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious ‘biography’ that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia,” he fumed.(1)  

It turned out that the entry had been a prank by a courier manager living near Seigenthaler.(2)  “I didn’t think twice about just leaving it there because I didn’t think anyone would ever take it seriously for more than a few seconds,” the remorseful vandal said.(3)  This and another scandal prompted Wikipedia to tighten up its editing rules this week.

For fans of traditional print-based encyclopaedias with professional editing teams this highly publicised and embarrassing incident confirmed all of their misgivings. Robert McHenry, a former editor of the Britannica, argues that it is “fatally flawed”. Even apart from malicious vandalism, he says, Wikipedia articles inevitably slide into mediocrity because the editors themselves are often ill-informed or cannot express themselves clearly. “The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him,” he wrote last year. (4)

Wikipedians brush off inadequacies of their darling with the argument that the more the entries are used, the more accurate they become. In the language of open source geeks, “Given enough eyeballs, all errors are shallow.” Of course, this happens only if an article is popular enough. In practice Wikipedia is like a Third World road system. You can zoom along sign-posted superhighways, but as soon as you veer off onto country roads, there are potholes and mysterious byways, some of which end in magnificent mansions, while others peter out into gravel lanes and featureless scrub.  

An example, I searched for an entry on James McAuley, a major Australian poet. As fans of Australian poetry (yes, it exists!) know well, McAuley was one of a pair of hoaxers who created a poet named Ern Malley, wrote his poems, and got them published in an avant-garde poetry magazine. It generated the greatest controversy in Australian literary history. Well, Ern — who never existed —has several well-written pages devoted to him, the work of an ardent devotee, no doubt, but McAuley — who did exist — has none.

Not all the science entries are terrific either, although science and technology are supposed to be strong points. Despite the fact that therapeutic cloning has been on the front page of newspapers since the birth of Wikipedia, its entry contains merely 12 brief sentences. And these contain several minor errors — major errors if you feel that therapeutic cloning presents major moral issues.

The depth and accuracy of the articles broadly reflect the interests of people who use the internet. First of all, there are the geeks. The article on Star Trek, for instance, is quite comprehensive and the one on Vulcans is about three times as long as Ern Malley’s. Ern at least wrote some real poems, but Vulcans never existed at all, although it is hard to detect from reading the article. Broadband internet access has a comprehensive and very useful article, as do most internet and computing terms.

And then there are the people who are obsessed by current affairs. The article on Hurricane Katrina is endless, covering nearly every aspect of the disaster. In fact, the more recent the news, the longer and more detailed the article is likely to be. The life and death of Stanley Tookie Williams III, the leader of the Los Angeles Crips gang, is covered at great length, including his execution this week. For journalists, Wikipedia has become an invaluable resource, which may explain the good press it receives.

In fact, the balance of expert opinion is tilting inexorably in favour of Wikipedia. The leading science journal Nature defended it this week as a “free, high-quality global resource”.(5)  It even took the trouble to conduct what it described as “an expert-led investigation” in which reviewers compared 42 science entries in Wikipedia with the corresponding entry in the Britannica. The result was about even: four serious errors in each, although Wikipedia had more smaller errors.(6)  It was a nasty blow to Britannica’s prestige.

Perhaps the dispute is really a matter of perceptions. Wikipedia is being promoted as an encyclopedia. In fact, it is something altogether different. It will never, ever, be a conventional encyclopaedia and it is useless to expect it to rival the thoroughness, accuracy and balance of the Britannica. It is a warehouse of facts, not a school of wisdom.

The Britannica is a characteristic child of the Enlightenment rationalism with its dream of mastering all possible knowledge. Indeed, Alastair MacIntyre, in his luminous study of contemporary moral philosophy, Three Rival Views of Moral Inquiry, used the 19th century Britannica in its ninth edition as the epitome of modern (that is, pre-post-modern) rationalism. It represents the view that a dispassionate, objective, educated intellect can order, dominate and possess all of truth.

Wikipedia is the creation of a post-modern age. It is far more modest in its claims than the Britannica, as befits post-modern scepticism about truth. It depends upon the wisdom of crowds: that truth is an evolving concept defined by the interaction of many minds. The same philosophy underlies the search algorithms of Google and the voting system for “American Idol”. It assumes that a good article is basically a sandcastle of grains of fact heaped higher and higher. So long as the facts can be empirically verified and the castle stays standing, the article is a good one. But Wikipedia has no way of assessing whether the sandcastle is beautiful, or big enough, or too big, or whether it was worth building at all. Wikipedia can aspire to excellence in articles about technology, or current affairs, or biography, but it will almost always  begrossly inadequate when dealing with ideas.

So Wikipedia can never achieve more than a close approximation to truth, especially non-empirical truth – but near enough is good enough for most post-moderns. In fact, this might even help to explain why Wikipedians are so dismissive of  their critics.

Anyhow, there is no turning back. This week Wikipedia – which did not exist five years ago — was the 34th most visited site on the internet. It has enormous deficiencies, but also opportunities. The glaring gaps in its coverage are an opportunity for people to contribute articles with their own values and make them available to all other users of the internet. And by doing so, they can actually improve on the Britannica.

Here’s my favourite example. Wikipedia‘s entry on ethics is superficial, short, unbalanced and unsophisticated. In short, awful. What’s to be done? Well, you can turn to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and there you will read an objective, polished, comprehensive article written by an anonymous contributor. But the Britannica‘s notion of detached objectivity is somewhat deceptive. After all, somebody had to write the entry. In this case, the anonymous contributor turns out to be none other than the notorious Professor Peter Singer, a supporter of infanticide and euthanasia. So maybe the way to fix up the awful Wikipedia article is to persuade your favourite philosopher to turn Wikipedian. That way, a sounder approach to ethics can be read by every single person on the planet.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. Disclosure: an entry for “MercatorNet” on Wikipedia was deleted as “Vanity/advertising” by a Wikipedian overlord named TitoXD.

(1) John Seigenthaler. “A false Wikipedia ‘biography’”. USA Today. Nov 21, 2005.
(2) “Tracking down the Wikipedia prankster”. ZDNet News. Dec 15, 2005.
(3) “Author apologizes for fake Wikipedia biography”. USA Today. Dec 11, 2005.
(4) Robert McHenry. “The Faith-Based Encyclopedia”. TechCentralStation. Nov 15, 2004.
(5) “Wiki’s wild world.” Nature. Dec 15, 2005.
(6) “Internet encyclopaedias go head to head.” Nature. Dec 15, 2005.

Further reading
Bill Thompson. “What is it with Wikipedia?” BBC. Dec 16, 2005
    A good summary of current criticisms of Wikipedia.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.