Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Problem with Wikipedia

A minor storm has blown up again over Wikipedia. Mark Goodacre defends it. Jim West condemns it. Rick Sumner strikes a strong middle position with perhaps a tilt toward Mark. Loren Rosson appears largely to agree with Mark. Mark has issued a challenge to Jim and Jim has accepts it. While I have considerable sympathy for Jim's position, I do think that with diligent monitoring and updating by real experts Wikipedia entries can and often do match the quality of print encyclopedias and the possible breadth of Wikipedia is much greater. And herein lies the problem. Wikipedia, at its best, is an encyclopedia.

I have always had grave concerns about encyclopedias. In my experience far too many people read an encyclopedia article and think they now know something about the subject they looked up. And if they consulted a good, modern, encyclopedia, on one level they do. But on another level, they only know a summary of the topic and often a high-level summary at that. Encyclopedias tend to encourage superficial knowledge in place of significant knowledge.

When our kids were growing up there was considerable pressure on us to buy an encyclopedia set. The pressure came for our parents, our kids friends' parents, occasionally from our kids and, most perplexing, from our kids teachers. We resisted. While we have accumulated a significant library over the years, we still do not own a general purpose encyclopedia set. We do own many books that contain the primary sources that our kids used in their term papers while other kids paraphrased encyclopedia articles. I always told our kids that if they wanted to know something they should go to the source and only then see what others had to say about it. I remember, years ago, an encyclopedia salesperson coming to our door. He was shocked speechless when I told him that encyclopedias might be OK for adults who wanted superficial knowledge of something that wasn't too important to them, but they were bad for kids. So how did our dogmatic resistance to encyclopedias work our in terms of our kid's educations. Will both of them are now tenured associate professors at research schools. One is in a top ten department. We may have harmed their psyches but it's hard to believe we harmed their education.

So what about the adult use of encyclopedias: I think there are two occasions where they can be useful. First, as I noted above, if one is looking for a brief overview of a subject and nothing more than that, they can be helpful on their own. This is only true if one also knows that one is only getting a brief overview even if the entry is several pages long. Second, if one is interested in a subject and has no idea where to start, an encyclopedia article, if well researched and referenced, can be a place to start. It should never be the place to end. In both cases, take everything you read in encyclopedias (and blogs and most other places) with a grain of salt. If you are really interested in a subject, go to the original sources. Struggle with them. See what a variety of scholars think. Then and only then, develop your own position. Perhaps more realistically, then and only then, express your own position.


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