Quality of Wikipedia

Just a brief housekeeping note.  Many of the links in this blog will point to an associated Wikipedia article.  I, in fact, read and edit those articles, so I won’t make a link to an article that doesn’t make my point.  It is supposed to be the epitome of a democratic encyclopedia, one that anyone can edit.  It is free to read, and it has become the number one hit for almost any key subject, whether popular or obscure.  Other than Obama’s own websites, the Wikipedia article about him is the first google hit.

I have mixed feelings about Wikipedia.  There has been significant criticism of the project, which itself reduces the confidence in its quality and its usefulness.  My concerns about these articles rest in a few key areas:

  • Quality of writing.  Some of the writing is just plain bad. Some of it is a result of poor writing skills from English-speaking and non-English speaking contributors.  But some of it is also from a waffling or trivial writing style.  Worse yet, the prose is often not very engaging.  Sometimes, it’s so difficult to read it, that one is apt to dismiss the article as being useless, even if it has useful knowledge.
  • Neutrality.  Wikipedia has a vaunted policy called the Neutral Point of View, often abbreviated as NPOV.  At its core, it states that an article should be written to represent all significant views that have been published by reliable sources.  Two major problems arise from this policy.  First, since it is very subjective, editors literally beat each other over the head with this policy.  Second, and more importantly, NPOV drives articles to their worst.  Academic articles usually state a point of view.  You cannot read a book about the Holocaust without reading the point of view of the author.  A medical article nearly always presents a point of view, albeit one supported by scientific research.  Worse yet, editors will claim that a neutral article should include fringe theories.  I edit medical and science articles anonymously, and I find myself either editing out strange, unscientific ramblings from these articles.
  • Vandalism.  Because articles are almost always available to be edited by anyone, there is a certain level of vandalism that occurs, everything from “Joe was here” to profanity to much more subtle, insidious vandalism that is difficult to identify.  More often than Wikipedia is willing to admit, this subtle vandalism remains in the article, often leading to inaccurate or incorrect information.  This edit to the article on Martin Luther King, Jr remained for over 4 hours, despite the overt racism written into the article.  There are numerous cases of these type of problems.
  • Lack of expertise.  Because most editors are anonymous (a small subset of editors use their real names), it is nearly impossible to know the quality of edits from specific editors.  I believe that smart people can write about anything.  But, lacking an education in neurophysiology, how do I know if the article on dementia is of high or low quality?  Whenever I read an article, I check the references.  A high number of references means that usually the writing is supported by academic research.  Wikipedia will need to fix this issue.
  • Anti-intellectualism.  As a corollary to the lack of expertise is the pervasive contempt amongst Wikipedia editors against expert editors.  There is a class of editors called “admins” who, more or less, act as the police, judge and jury for the project.  They have the ability to pass summary judgement upon any editor.  As a class, they are a part of the anti-intellectual core of the project.  There are a few admins with expertise on science, historical, medical and other areas, but they generally keep a low profile.

So why do I link to Wikipedia articles?  They may not be the best I can find on the internet, but these articles are, in general, fairly useful and provide an adequate background for a topic.  When I find better sources for particular information, I use it.

I leave my readers with this warning about Wikipedia:  read the articles with a critical eye as you do anything else you read.  The problem is critical reading is not a skill I see very often these days.

Welcome to my world

A Skeptical Raptor’s native environment is the jungles of the internet, where junk science, pseudoscience, myths, logical fallacies, and outright lies survive unchecked. The Raptor has evolved over several million years to hunt down these anti-science prey, scaring them away from the average reader. Remember, a Raptor is missing some table manners, so the prey may not be treated very nicely.

OK, let me set aside the metaphors.  As you can see in my about me page, my background has been in the sciences, medicine and business. But the great thing about a strong science background is it teaches you critical thinking skills and the scientific method.  The scientific method isn’t mixing oxygen and hydrogen to make water, but it is the logical progression from observation to hypothesis to data to analysis to publication to review.  But science is not static, it is self critical, constantly reviewing itself, improving, discarding, or just supporting its theories.  What you’ll find is that the anti-science thinking is not self critical, because it considers improvement some sort of weakness.

I’m going to get this out of the way upfront.  I am a supporter of Big Pharma and the medical products industry in general.  Do I think they do no wrong?  No I don’t, I think that too often decisions are made based on business realities rather than medical ones.  However, despite some of the appeals to conspiracy about which I constantly read, most individuals in the industry are devoted to making human life better.  It is their only goal.  And despite some of the claims of the anti-science crowd, Big Pharma has saved many many many more lives than it has harmed.  Vaccines would be the #1 piece of evidence of that.  Polio, pertussis, measles, rubella, and many other diseases are no longer (well, not until recently, thanks to another anti-science group) a part of our cultural memory because of Big Pharma.

But I’ll talk about these issues over time.  I like writing for humor and critique, not for tremendous scientific analysis worthy of a Nobel Prize.  There are lots of bloggers, all of whom I respect beyond anything, who write about these topics in depth.  I will link to them, in case my skin-deep analysis annoys you.

So here goes.  Let’s see if I can do this.