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Wikipedia: as accurate as Britannica?

By Andreas Kolbe

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A factoid regularly cited in the press to this day is that a 2005 study by Nature found Wikipedia to be almost as reliable as Britannica. While the study’s (if that is the right word – it wasn’t a peer-reviewed study, but a news story) methodology and conclusions were disputed by Britannica, the result of the Nature comparison has become part of received knowledge for much of the media. As the saying goes, a lie told often enough becomes the truth.

A meme is born

The problems really began as soon as the Nature piece was published. Many news outlets failed to mention that in its survey, Nature looked at hard science topics only – subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and paleontology – despite the fact that Nature clearly said so, in the very first line of its piece. The following headline and lead from c|net will serve as an example:

Study: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica.

Wikipedia is about as good a source of accurate information as Britannica, the venerable standard-bearer of facts about the world around us, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature.

Few observers were astute enough to note, as The Register’s Andrew Orlowski did, that restricting the comparison to hard science articles was what “gave the free-for-all web site a fighting chance – as it excluded the rambling garbage and self-indulgence that constitute much of the wannabe encyclopedia’s social science and culture entries”. Another notable exception was Bill Thompson, writing for the BBC, who noted Wikipedia’s problems in “contentious areas such as politics, religion or biography”, and how easily Wikipedia can “be undermined through malice

…continue reading Wikipedia: as accurate as Britannica?

Wikipedia: re-writing history

15253561470_d6e5af7e0c_oBy Andreas Kolbe

For more than six years, Wikipedia named an innocent man, Joe Streater, as a key culprit in the 1978–79 Boston College basketball point shaving scandal. Thanks to the detective work of Ben Koo at sports blog Awful Announcing, the world now knows (again!) that Joe Streater had no involvement in the affair. He couldn’t have, because he didn’t even play for the team in the 1978–79 season.

Entering the Wikipedia wormhole

In his article, Guilt by Wikipedia: How Joe Streater Became Falsely Attached To The Boston College Point Shaving Scandal, Ben Koo describes how he fell “down this wormhole” that ended at an anonymous Wikipedia edit made over six years ago.

It began like this: Koo had reviewed a 30 for 30 documentary on the Boston College point shaving scandal for Awful Announcing. In this review, he remarked on the curious fact that one of the four players eventually tied to the scandal wasn’t mentioned in the film at all.

This prompted a puzzled email inquiry from a former Boston College player who’d been involved in the affair: Which player did Koo mean? Koo replied that he had found it curious that Joe Streater hadn’t been mentioned in the documentary, given that all the articles he had read as part of his background research had named Streater as one of the sportsmen involved. The reply he got from the former Boston player astonished him:

“Joe Streater wasn’t even on the team that infamous year as he had left school the year before.”

At first, Koo was incredulous. How could this be? Streater was mentioned in Wikipedia and so many other articles on the web. But

…continue reading Wikipedia: re-writing history

Elementary Mathematics on Wikipedia

By Adrian Riskin Department of Mathematics Whittier College Whittier, CA 90608 ariskin@whittier.edu

Ask any college professor about the accuracy of Wikipedia and they will tell you … well, if they’re a mathematician they may actually tell you that it’s quite accurate. I often recommend that my students look up definitions in Wikipedia and I know that many of my colleagues do as well. In fact I look up definitions on Wikipedia myself. If you want to know, e.g., what a Halin graph is, you could do much worse than the linked article. Yes, it’s semi-literate at best, but it’s informative and not wrong. Furthermore, my colleagues in the humanities and the social sciences are so dead set against Wikipedia that I find myself unable to resist teasing them by remarking on how useful I find it in my professional work.

But you know, I’ve also edited Wikipedia, although very rarely mathematics articles, and found the experience to be toxic and soul-killing and the (non-mathematical) articles mostly worse than useless, even the ones I’ve written myself. I unthinkingly assumed that the difference in quality between the technical mathematical articles and, say, the BLP and POV battlegrounds so familiar to Wikipediocracy readers was due to the calm, logical, sociable nature of mathematicians. But recently it occurred to me that (a) I don’t really read the mathematics articles carefully, but rather just skim through them until I find the bit I need, and (b) I never look at the articles on very basic subjects in mathematics, many of which are among the 500 most frequently viewed articles.

I’m too lazy to pick a technical article on an advanced subject in mathematics and read it carefully, but I did take a look at some of the articles on more basic subjects and

…continue reading Elementary Mathematics on Wikipedia