There's no Wikipedia entry for 'moral responsibility' | The Register

There's no Wikipedia entry for 'moral responsibility' | The Register
The first, and the most immediately absurd of these two defenses, is that since nothing at all can be trusted, er, "definitively", then Wikipedia can't be trusted either. This is curious, to say the least, as it points everyone's expectations firmly downwards.

If you recall the utopian rhetoric that accompanied the advent of the public "internet" ten years ago, we were promised that unlimited access to the world's greatest "knowledge" was just around the corner. This hasn't happened, for reasons cited above, but now the public is now being exhorted to assume the posture of a citizen in an air raid, where every moving object might be a dangerous missile.

Everything you read is suspect! You'd better duck!

Only a paranoiac, or a mad person, can sustain this level of defensiveness for any length of time however, and to hear a putative "encyclopedia" making such a statement is odd, to say the least.

Wikipedia has been on my mind a lot lately amid all the inaccurate and sensationalist reporting done about it over the last couple of weeks. This article is one of the more virulent attacks on it - here is my response emailed to the author.

Dear Andrew,

I profoundly disagree with your analysis of Wikipedia. As an academic, who has contributed to several entries I can attest that the vast majority of professional entries are of high informational quality. Out of the million or so entries it would be easy to find probably hundreds if not thousands of inaccuracies but any serious user can easily triangulate and later correct such information. If you are looking for serious information on the Czech language or music theory, you will probably not be disappointed. Even the biographical information is not nearly as problematic or inaccurate as the recent furore seems to imply. Most of the vandalism is clearly either of malicious or comedic nature and is typically easy to identify and subsequently correct. Also, not every gripe by a living person with an entry on Wikipedia is justified - subjects of biographical information are notoriously unreliable - and if it is the recourse is simple.

There is a serious paradox in most of the criticisms of wikipedia. The use of individual cases to metonymically define the entire enterprise is an indicator of a lack of intellectual credibility at least equal to that of which Wikipedia itself is accused. This results in both errors of emphasis (such as your article) or fact (for instance, the printed reporting of most of the published media).

For instance, you claim that defining quality as "general good value" as it odds with all other definitions is completely unsubstantiated and false. There is a venerable tradition in philosophical pragmatism that holds views very similar to this. Furthermore, the entry for 'quality' is much more complex and accurate. You also irresponsibly excerpt out of a relatively comprehensive entry on 'responsibility' and completely ignore the related entries on moral and social responsibilities. Such eggregious use of sources would cause you to fail a research degree at any reputable institution. But even your gratuitous dismissal and ridicule of the out-of-context quote are an sign of your ignorance of the academic discipline to which this seems to refer - Critical Discourse Analysis would make exactly the same analysis and be by and large accurate.

You dismiss calls for caution over the accurace and credibility of any sources, yet your article serves as a prime example of a need for precisely this kind of vigilance. There are many examples of falsified research results in refereed publications (and many encyclopedia entries are often created by authors with a stake in the state of their disciplines and are limited by the logistical and publishing deadlines). Some estimate that for medical papers about 3% of reported research is fake, I doubt that Wikipedia suffers from much higher percentages overall, particularly in the non-partisan and non-contencious issues.

Calls for 'greater accountability' behind Wikipedia threaten the availability of this great democratic resource for the general public around the world purely by concerns on behalf of those with very limited special interests (reputations tarnished based purely on an entry in Wikipedia are an illusion no matter how grandious claims are made for the project as a whole). This is akin to the great damage the copyright lobby is inflicting on the availability of out-of-print information on behalf of a relatively small number of authors. Ultimately, Wikipedia as a whole is accountable to the community of its users and authors. The recourse available to those who consider themselves to be defamed by an entry may seem insufficient in the context of the traditional print and broadcast media, however, in the case of Wikipedia, it is completely proportionate to the amount of real damage done.

I got a response from Andrew who accused me (with perhaps some justification) of simply reiterating the argument but did not address any of my specific points. Well, it turns out that at least one of them (my guess about the accuracy of Wikipedia's information) wasn't that far off.

Aljazeera.Net - Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica
In a comparison of 42 articles from the two sources, covering a broad swath of the scientific spectrum, the respected journal Nature found little disparity in accuracy. Experts who reviewed the articles found that the average scientific entry in Wikipedia contained four errors or omissions, while Britannica had three.

Such errors appear to be the exception rather than the rule, Nature said. Of eight "serious errors" the reviewers found - including misinterpretations of important concepts - four came from each source, the journal reported. [Links to more stories here. The original Nature story is here.

Of course, this is based on a rather small sample and does not highlight some important differences between the two (such as inaccuracy by omission) but I'm pretty sure it would hold up over a bigger 'random' sample as well. My private informal survey of several experts in the humanities (as well as my personal experience) suggests that the finding will be valid for other disciplines.

The problem with critics of Wikipedia (apart from cherrypicking their evidence in a paradoxically irrigorous manner) is that they misunderstand not so much Wikipedia (although most reporting was embarrassibly inaccurate from New York Times to some IT publications) but the 'paper' based world. For instance, the gripe about Wikipedia entries being propagated around the internet (in forks and caches) in which case the incorrect or defamatory information is still available somewhere. This is no different from a printed encyclopedia. When a substantive error is discovered (and there are probably about the same amount in both Wiki and Encyclo - pedia) it can be corrected for the next edition (many years into the future with more extensive printed materials) but many libraries will never order that edition so the error will live for decades in some places with no recourse to another perspective. On Wikipedia, on the other hand, the error is usually corrected instantly (often by its discoverer) and the propagation of that correction will take much less time (no more than a year or two in the most extreme of cases). It may still be found in caches and out-of-the-way places further into the future (and this of course hasn't been tested yet) but we can still find loads of books in the libraries by Aristotle claiming that frogs are born out of mud or learned treatises on ether. Even incorrect information has value.

The question of citations from Wikipedia has also been brought up. Wales (Wikipedia's founder) has this to say:

Wikipedia: "A Work in Progress"
Do you think students and researchers should cite Wikipedia?
No, I don't think people should cite it, and I don't think people should cite Britannica, either -- the error rate there isn't very good. People shouldn't be citing encyclopedias in the first place. Wikipedia and other encyclopedias should be solid enough to give good, solid background information to inform your studies for a deeper level. And really, it's more reliable to read Wikipedia for background than to read random Web pages on the Internet.

The point is very clear. Encyclopedia's are rarely to be cited as secondary sources (i.e. those describing other information.) They should be used as a gateway to primary sources of information. However, encyclopedia entries (including those in Wikipedia) can be cited as primary sources. E.g. when they present a particular point of view or a typical error. In published encyclopedias, some entries are produced by well-known authors and thinkers (e.g. the entry on structuralism written by Mukařovský in a Czech encyclopedia) and as such they can be referred to as presenting a particular perspective. However, any information, such as other authors' work, always have to be cited (and usually are) directly. Actually, as a primary source, Wikipedia can be much more useful than a printed encyclopedia, because the changes to and discussions around an entry are readily available.

The readers' discussion underneath the Businessweeek interview the above quote was taken from is very informative and covers some of the main points with good counterpoints (a very impressive debate). Here's one contribution that is illustrative of another misunderstanding:

Before you use Wikipedia, answer the following question. If you were a well-informed scholarly expert on a topic, would you waste your time writing articles for a poorly conceived Web site? I would hope not. Anyone expert enough to be trusted is writing for academic journals and other professional publications.

The answer is yes. I consider myself an expert on Czech as a foreign language and cognitive linguistics (having taught and published in both areas) and I've contributed to entries on both subjects. In both cases, they were fairly minor corrections but I'm aware of others who have done the same. I have always done this anonymously, partly because authorship wasn't important to me and partly for the convenience.