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Wikipedia’s Problem in a Nutshell

The following is distilled from a recent exchange on the Wikipediocracy Forum:


greybeard wrote:

Never before has the definition of “encyclopedia” included current events, lengthy biographies of recent celebrities, up-to-date statistics about current sporting events, exhaustive descriptions of mass-culture phenomenon, or lengthy expositions on unsettled and/or controversial matters of science, economics, and so on. We have traditionally had other publications — newspapers, almanacs, fan books, sports compendia, scholarly and not-so-scholarly journals, People magazine, etc — for those purposes.

Indeed, the Internet has massively democratized access to information generally, so that I can find the lyrics to virtually any pop song, a review of any movie and play, quality medical information about every disease and treatment, and a myriad of other information online from a variety of reputable (and not reputable) sources. Laymen and amateurs of every stripe can gain access online to information that was formerly the purview of only experts with access to research libraries and the skill to locate such material.

But the converse situation has not (entirely) arisen. The professional diplomat or statesmen does not leap up and say “Israel’s settlement expansion in the East Jerusalem town of Gilo is clearly illegal under section 49 of the UN ruling … I know because Wikipedia says so!” No physicist will say “The presence of helium in cold-fusion reactions showing anomalous heat signatures seems to indicate some kind of reaction … I read that on Wikipedia, so it must be true!” Not at all. Statesmen, scientists, and others continue to (quite properly) use specialist sources and primary materials to form their professional opinions.

So who is it that various zealots (whether on Pokemon, the Middle East conflict, or Cold Fusion) are trying to reach by pushing this stuff into Wikipedia? Answer: the lazy and not-very-smart. They want to reach the 6th-grade term paper writers of the world and their sundry adult counterparts, in hopes that, through repetition and association with dubious authority, the “conventional wisdom” becomes sympathetic to their position, even when it differs from fact and established science, jurisprudence, history, or whatever.

This is why the Encyclopedia Britannica should not and does not contain a lengthy exegesis on the (unproven) theory of cold fusion, even though it does contain a reference to the science history of Pons and Fleischmann. But this is not enough for Wikipedia. It thrives on the idiotic cycle of controversy. It doesn’t want its pages to become mostly-static (and therefore trustworthy) repositories of settled fact, it wants them to be WP:BATTLEGROUNDS, because that is what makes it fun for the game players, and that is what encourages the duped and incorrect conventional wisdom believers to keep signing up (or making socks) and “correcting” things that are already correct.

Wikipedia wants to be “the repository of all human knowledge (and myth, fiction, misinformation, trivia, hoax, public relations, propaganda, faux news, gossip, etc)” because being a reference work is boooooorrrrrriiiiiinnnggg.

In short, Cold Fusion, like the Middle East, Intelligent Design, Cyprus, the faked Moon Landing, Armenia, and a hundred other things are perfect fodder for Wikipedia, because they by definition are unsettled, cause controversy, which creates editors, who fight with each other, giving admins something to do. They are the Non-Player-Characters in the big MMPORG, causing just enough mayhem to keep the players interested.

EricBarbour wrote:
Thank you. Wikipedia is the “TMZ of hard information”. Run by trolls, and hosting lies and truth next to each other.

image licensed under Creative Commons

4 comments to Wikipedia’s Problem in a Nutshell

  • John Lilburne

    We run into trouble when we apply the word ‘article’ to content on wikipedia because we tend to associate ‘article’ with particular forms traditional published content: such as an academic article, an encyclopeadic article, or even a news article. In reality content on wikipedia is more like a blog post, and as authoritative as any random page you might find on blogger, or wordpress.

  • HRIP7

    Right on the mark. It’s why the Wikimedia Foundation counts edits, editors and page views as its metrics of success, rather than measuring the quality of the information provided in Wikipedia, as one would expect a genuine encyclopedia project to do.

    Judging by the Wikimedia Foundation’s management style, I see little evidence that their primary goal is genuinely educational, concerned with providing free high-quality information to the public. Where is the investment in a quality control effort?

    It often seems more like the goal is to have an active website generating a skyrocketing income, now standing at $50 million dollars annually – see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wikimedia_Foundation_financial_development_2003-2012.png – providing a living for a large group of often poorly qualified Wikipedia insiders taking paid jobs in the Foundation (witness the ongoing VisualEditor fiasco). The way the whole thing is managed, it seems to be more interested in serving itself than serving the public.

  • The assertions here about cold fusion are inaccurate.

    Cold fusion is an experimental discovery, not a theory. The author of this message knows nothing about it if he thinks it is a theory.

    There is no theory to explain the phenomenon, but it has been replicated thousands of times in hundreds of major laboratories, often at high signal to noise ratios. For example with 20 to 100 W of heat output and no input, continuously for days or weeks. This is easy to confirm.

    The statement about helium is not quite right. Helium is not only present, it is produced in the same ratio to the heat as it does in plasma fusion. This fact has been published in many mainstream peer-reviewed journal papers. It has been confirmed most notably by researchers at China Lake and the ENEA (the Italian DoE).

    No scientist would cite Wikipedia regarding cold fusion because there are roughly 1,200 mainstream, peer-reviewed journal papers on the topic. I know this because I have copies of these papers, from the library at Los Alamos.

    No cold fusion researcher or author is trying to push any information into Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article is extremely biased against cold fusion. It is written by people who know nothing about the subject. It is not possible to add any facts about the subject because the editors immediately erase them and ban the authors. Cold fusion researchers would prefer to see the Wikipedia article erased.

    I do not know whether this statement about helium is in the Wikipedia article, but if it is, I predict it will soon be erased. When I last checked, all of the assertions in the article were technically incorrect or impossible, such as assertions that recombination might explain the excess heat in closed cells.

    I do not know what Encyclopedia Britannica has to say about cold fusion. Any description of it should be grounded in the mainstream, peer-reviewed journal papers. These papers are overwhelmingly positive, leaving no rational doubt that the effect is real. There is a great deal of opposition to the research. Many people claim the effect is not real, but these critics have not read the literature and they have no basis for their opinion. For example, the editors of the Scientific American often attack the research. They told me they have read no papers about it because “reading papers is not our job.” All of their assertions about the research are incorrect — such as the assertion that it was never replicated or that the results are close to the noise.

    As I noted, this author apparently knows nothing the subject, since he calls it a theory.

    I have uploaded over a thousand technical papers on this subject here:


  • In a nutshell, we all use Wikepedia and are grateful for all the time and work put in by others for our benefit. It is probably the best database yet invented. It must be very hard to guarantee accuracy and impartiality but every effort is doubtless made to achieve these standards. The biggest problem it faces is that rigorous vetting of material can become censorship if the vetters are anonymous and themselves unvetted.