Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Can Wikipedia be trusted?

Regular readers of my blog know that I often link to Wikipedia articles. Wikipedia isn't just any encylopedia. Any reader has the ability to edit an existing article or post a new one. Because the entries are not written by scholars and are not vetted by editors, Wikipedia is a constant source of criticism.

Theoretically, falsehoods and other errors will be caught and corrected by Wikipedia readers; in other words, it's self-governing. However, some incorrect information--especially that which cannot be easily unsubstantiated--can remain undetected for some time.

Sunday's New York Times reported the story of John Seigenthaler, Sr., a former editor at the Nashville Tennessean. A Wikipedia entry about Seigenthaler explained that he "was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby." The entry added that "nothing was ever proven."

This erroneous and libelous claim remained undetected for months.

Clearly, Wikipedia can not be trusted completely. So why do I use it as a resource and link to its articles? Because I find its information to be correct the vast majority of the time and because a completely trustworthy resource is nonexistent.

I work as a Social Studies textbook editor at Houghton Mifflin. Two of the resources I regularly use are Encyclopædia Britannica and Encyclopedia Americana, published by Scholastic, Inc. They are considered extremely trustworthy. Still, even they make mistakes.

Encyclopædia Britannica's entry on "Woman suffrage" says
By 1918, however, both major political parties were committed to woman suffrage, and the amendment was carried by the necessary two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate in January 1918 and June 1919, respectively. Vigorous campaigns were then waged to secure ratification of the amendment by two-thirds of the state legislatures, and on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment.
For an amendment to be added to the Constitution, 75% of all states must ratify it. Yet, Encyclopædia Britannica tells us that "campaigns were then waged to secure ratification of the amendment by two-thirds of state legislatures." That is clearly false. They were seeking ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures. If the fact checkers at Encyclopædia Britannica had put a little work into it, they would have realized that 36 divided by 48 (There were 48 states at the time) equals .75.

Over at Encyclopedia Americana, their "Kentucky" entry tells us that

With its divided loyalties, Kentucky chose to remain neutral in the Civil War, hoping to preserve a spirit of conciliation between the opposing sides.

This information is only partially correct. Kentucky opted for neutrality in May 1861, just a month into the Civil War, when the Kentucky House of Representatives and Senate passed resolutions declaring neutrality. However, the legislature reversed itself in September 1861.

In A New History of Kentucky, Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter wrote
On September 11 the House by a 71-26 vote instructed the governor to order the Confederates to withdraw from the state. Then, an a vote of 29-68, it defeated a motion to order both sides to withdraw. The Senate approved the Confederate-only expulsion order, 25-8. (Governor Beriah) Magoffin vetoed it, and the legislature swiftly passed it over his objection. He then issued the order as directed.
So, in other words, don't trust anything completely. Except me, of course.


At 5:17 PM, Blogger jeffro said...

Senor Eisner breaks his silence!!

At 6:46 PM, Blogger Pete said...

Like you said, it's not held to any standard and has not been through the editing/vetting process.

It's one more example of so-called journalism run astray on the web. On one of the main pages of www.blogger.com, it alludes to all this being some sort of "community journalism."

No, it's not.

At 10:29 AM, Blogger Greg Pultorak said...


At 3:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is Nature's coverage:

Internet encyclopaedias go head to head: Jimmy Wales' Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries, a Nature investigation finds.

Excerpt: "The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.

Of course, the subhead could have read: "Wikipedia contains 33% more errors than Britannica, research suggests."

At 3:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damnit. That was me.


At 6:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy monthiversary, "Can Wikipedia be trusted?" entry. You've come a long way. -David

At 9:01 PM, Blogger Pete said...

The natives are growing restless.


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