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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