Friday, May 05, 2006

Against Wikipedias (For Scholarship)

Wikipedias are so much the rage that students are citing them in a philosophy papers. This occasioned a mini-sermon from me in one of my classes. The key excerpt was, “Never, ever, ever cite a Wikipedia in a philosophy paper.” Wikis (as they are abbreviated; our culture abbreviates everything) are unedited and unauthorized internet articles in which anyone can contribute, delete, or alter previous material. They are unregulated and ever-changing amalgamations, contingent configurations. Some of them—as least some of the time—may be well written and knowledgeable; but they lack any editorial protocol to insure decent material that conforms to standards. Thus, they are worthless as sources that one would cite in a paper are article of a scholarly nature.

However, one could use a Wiki as a way to link to more solid information. For example, a Wiki article on “epiphenomenalism” (a topic often discussion on television) might have a link to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a reputable on-line source. Or it might make reference to—dare I say it?—books and journal articles. Moreover, one could use a Wiki to get basic information on a kind of music—say progressive, instrumental rock—where scholarly standards are essentially irrelevant. One could glean the names of a few groups and further investigate. But this is not the stuff of a footnote.

The upshot is that democracy is not good across the board. Scholarship requires hierarchy: experts need to have editorial control. Yes, experts may be wrong (consider 95% of biologists who think Darwinism is well-established evidentially) and may even exclude legitimate ideas (consider the guild of biologists that excludes intelligent design a priori because it violates their philosophical naturalism). Nevertheless, moderated intellectual venues are necessary for intellectual pursuits. Wikis, whatever their worth, are not welcome in this realm.


Ted M. Gossard said...

I heard on NPR one time, i think, that when they compared Wikipedia with the Encyclopedia Brittanica on science, that substantially, the accuracy was the same (EB had a slight edge).

I do think your point, Dr. Groothuis, is well taken. It is kind of maddening to me, to realize that there is no editorial control over any editing that may go on.

Kenny Pearce said...

A nitpicky note: actually, wiki isn't an abbreviation. Wiki is a generic term for software that allows a web-site to be edited by just anyone (or by a large number of people - some wikis require people to register as members before editing, and may restrict membership). Wikipedia is so called because it is a wiki encyclopedia. (As also wikimedia has now created several other such sites, including Wiktionary, a wiki dictionary). There were wikis out on the internet long before there was Wikipedia. Wikipedia is just the first one to go "main stream."

Jeff Burton said...

At the moment, your criticism is apt and accurate. However, the protocols and processes surrounding the wikipedia phenomenon are evolving rapidly. The whole thing is a few short years old. We just don't know what it will become. It could become a much more editorially rigorous platform, or it could whither like its predecessor Nupedia (which did have a peer review process). Right now, I think it is a great resource, if used correctly, and has great potential.

Tim said...

Ted's comment brought me a smile this morning. I'm not at all sure I'd trust NPR on a science issue. It would be interesting to know how they went about checking on points of disagreement between the two.

For the fun of it, I looked up the Wikipedia articles for two things that lie within my area of specialization to see how they held up. The article on foundationalism was obviously written by someone who is not a professional epistemologist. Although the article contains some truths, as a whole it is not a reliable source of information about the subject. It really needs to be completely rewritten.

The article on Galileo also falls far short of scholarly standards. The article classifies Galileo as a "physicist, astronomer, and philosopher," but the last term applies only in its oldest sense and is apt to mislead. We are told that Galileo is "closely associated with the scientific revolution," which is a very odd way to refer to one of the principal architects of that revolution.

I'm not hunting for soft targets here. This is all in the first sentence.

The second paragraph perpetuates the "warfare" model of science and religion, a muddled relic of 18th century historiography that better contemporary historians of science have left behind. The description of Bellarmine's letter is wildly misleading. One would never guess from the Wikipedia description that Galileo had requested that Bellarmine write it or that it was a key piece of evidence on Galileo's behalf when Galileo was called before the Inquisition after the publication of the Dialogue in 1632. There is virtually no description of the trial or of the motives Pope Urban VIII had for intervening personally. We are not told that several members of the board of inquisition, including the Pope's nephew, refused to sign the condemnation.

No Galileo scholar of any stature would cite Koestler's The Sleepwalkers as an authoritative source on the life and work of Galileo.

The article correctly notes that the story of Galileo's dropping two weights from the Tower of Pisa is a myth. But it fails to note that Simon Stevin performed a similar experiment in Galileo's lifetime. The reference to Philoponus is misleading: it is nearly certain that Philoponus did perform the experiment. (See the discussion by Cohen in The Birth of a New Physics.)

The picture of the "lamp of Galileo" in the cathedral at Pisa is lovely, but the author obviously doesn't know that this chandelier was installed five years after Galileo discovered the isochronism of the pendulum.

I could go on, but I'll stop there. I think Doug is on safe ground.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Tim, you supererogatory commentator, you! Now get back to those scholarly sources. I'm too sensitive to do what you did with Wiki entries on "Pascal" or "John Coltrane."

On other matters, "Wiki" is, obviously, an abbreviation of Wikipedia, even if Wiki is a full and stand-alone word.

Bryan L. Fordham said...

As mentioend before, they're not "wikipedias." They're wikis. "Wiki wiki" means quick or fast. The first was called the wiki wiki web. Wikipedia takes its name from wiki, not the other way around.

Keith said...


I think you missed the (latter)point of Dr. G's previous post.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Whatever the history of wiki, wiki is still an abbreviation of wikipedia.

R. Mansfield said...

I agree completely that the Wikipedia should not be a source in not only a philosophy paper, but ANY paper.

And I would say that in regard to ANY encyclopedia.

That doesn't mean that I don't like the Wikipedia. I have a link to it in my web browser's toolbar and I use it regularly. I also have the electronic version of the Encyclopedia Britannica on my Powerbook and I use it all the time.

But the purpose of encyclopedias of any kind should be the starting place for research, not an end unto themselves--at least if a student is past eighth grade.

Craig Fletcher said...

Recently I was talking about evolution/naturalism and ID/theism with a guy who continually used the Wikipedia as his primary source for information. I read a couple of his cited "articles", and was surprised at some of the content. Having limited exposure to wiki-world, I became curious so I went onto and looked into it.

Regarding it's sources, it says the following "The content of Wikipedia is free, written collaboratively by people from all around the world. This website is a wiki, which means that anyone with access to an Internet-connected computer can edit, correct, or improve information throughout the encyclopedia, simply by clicking the edit this page link".

So due to the nature of the wikipedia as more of an "idea sharing forum" (sure, it's subjectively cross-checked too)I suggested that the guy stop using the wikipedia as his primary source for justifying truth claims. Well, he didn't like that at all. He went on to explain that you "can't sustain false information on the wikipedia site because others will find your errors and correct them". The counterarguments were so abundant I didn't even know where to begin!

Dr. G, as an aside, how about you post a new blog to provoke discussions about Intelligent Design again sometime soon? I wanted to respond to your comments about it, but the subject of this blog is the world of wiki so I'll stay put for now.

Kenny Pearce said...

No, wiki is NOT an abbreviation of Wikipedia, rather, Wikipedia is a combination of the words 'wiki' and 'encyclopedia' as I have said. See the wikipedia article on the word 'wiki.' If wikipedia isn't trustworthy in general, it ought at least to be trustworthy as to its own history! Not that this point particularly matters...

As to the NPR report mentioned, NPR was almost certainly reporting findings by Nature. Nature undertook a scientific study of the accuracy of wikipedia versus Brittanica. They concluded that Brittanica science articles contained an average 3 errors per article, and wikipedia an average 4. They compared 42 science articles. It should also be noted that while wikipedia had slightly more errors per article, it had fewer errors per kilobyte of data. I covered this on my blog when it first came out here. (On a side note, I wouldn't be surprised if the philosophy articles were less accurate than the science articles. I've seen misleading things in philosophy articles there before.)

Of course none of this changes the simple fact that wikipedia is not an acceptable source to site in an academic paper of any sort. Rather, it is, as r. mansfield said, a source of quick information when one is too lazy to do real research. But for that purpose, it is as good a source of information as just about anything else on the internet; for certain subjects, it is actually better than Brittanica!

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

"See the wikipedia article on the word 'wiki.' If wikipedia isn't trustworthy in general, it ought at least to be trustworthy as to its own history! Not that this point particularly matters..."

There is no reason to think it would be trustworthy on this, since this Wiki article would be an unedited amalgation as well. There is no reason to think an inmate at an insane asylum could give a good history or definition of "insane asylum"--or even a good abbreviation...

Ed Darrell said...

Would you care to compare Wikipedia with this blog on science? I think I'll take Wikipedia -- which, incidentally, does have editing and standards.

If this blog is inaccurate in its reporting about the procedures Wikipedia uses, what does that say?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Ed: I'm not aware of editing and standards on Wikis. If there are any, they are minimal and not close to what a journal can do.

Comparing this blog with a Wiki is to compare incomensurable objects. There is no comparison, because they have very little in common. I exert minimal control over the responses. My own posts sometimes come from things published elsewhere. I usually note when this is so. Other posts are more on the level of reporting of events I take to be interesting. Nobody can alter what I write or what anyone else writes, unlike a Wiki.

So, I dont' get your point, which is supposed to an insult of some kind (as usual).

John Stockwell said...

The whole point of Wikipedia is that if
you see something that needs to be fixed, then you can fix it yourself. (Indeed, some would argue that if you use any open source resource, you are bound by a social contract to provide bug reports/fixes/extensions.)

Simply whining about it doesn't do
anybody any good. Obviously, Wikipedia or something like it is here to stay, so we should make the best of it.

Just like any other encyclopedia, it is not guaranteed to be a scholarly source. I would have to say, though, that many math and science items that I have looked at are quite good.

Indeed, no encyclopedia should ever be viewed as a scholarly source, even the printed ones. At best such popularized sources should be a gateway to further knowlege.

Keith said...

The whole point of Wikipedia is that if you see something that needs to be fixed, then you can fix it yourself.

Isn't that just one of the issues at hand, though? "You (whoever that may be)" may or may not know what you're talking about! There are many who fancy themselves "experts" in a given field, when in reality they are not. Nevertheless, they are free to alter Wikipedia's material! The point, as has been stated, is that any (purportedly intellectual or reliable) information source ought to be subject to some hierarchy of experts who can prevent such contamination. Nobody complains of Wikipedia's "popularized" nature; the problem is with its largely unreliable nature (viz., Tim's comment).

Also, many things (even besides Wikipedia) are here to stay, and I submit that the best way to "make the best of" them is to simply ignore them.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

"Obviously, Wikipedia or something like it is here to stay, so we should make the best of it."

This sentiment crytalizes the antithesis of my philosophy of technology. This is just capitulation to popularity. I refuse it! McLuhan called it "sleepwalking." I may be here to stay, but that doesn't mean I have to "make the best of it." I may simply ignore it, critique it, or use it wisely and circumspectly.
I will not be baptized into it.

Prof. David Opderbeck said...

I have to disagree with you yet again on an issue relating to a new technology medium. I've cited Wikipedia in my scholarly work on patent law, open source production, and biotechnology, which has been published in journals at Harvard among other places. It can be a very useful source of basic information. Very often, the entries are thorough and of high quality. That certainly has been the case in my area of scholarship.

This is because of the nature of open source production. Unlike a reference printed by a publishing house, a Wikipedia entry is subject to review by millions of editors distributed throughout the globe. This kind of distributed production is often quite successful, as evidenced by the open source software movement. Indeed, it can produce better products than traditional heirarchichal production, where only a small number of gatekeepers decide what the public gets to see or use, and where revisions cannot be made quickly or easily.

Is every Wikipedia entry well-balanced and completely accurate? Of course not. Can distributed production be abused? Yes. But it's a reference work, not the Bible. And we could say that about any book, paper, or other work we might want to cite as a scholarly source. Test sources, read widely, and dig deep. But don't discount a source merely becuase it's produced and distributed via peer production rather than by a corporate publishing house.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

If I tried to cite a Wiki in a philosophy journal article, I'd be laughed off the face of the earth--and rightly so.

Prof. David Opderbeck said...

If I tried to cite a Wiki in a philosophy journal article, I'd be laughed off the face of the earth--and rightly so.

Is this a little disciplinary snootiness? The article in which I cited to Wikipedia was published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology (, the leading journal in my field. The HJOLT has adopted a formal format for Wiki citation.

Here is a list of published articles, including many published in leading peer-reviewed journals in the sciences, literature, social sciences, and law, that have included Wiki cites:

Maybe academic philosphy needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

The other disciplines can go to Wiki blazes if they want to, but philosophy has some higher standards.

Ed Darrell said...

My point is that Wikipedia has standards, editors, and is tightening up on accuracy -- and I find it more accurate than this blog, as one example, on science issues.

You can learn more here:

I regret that you find my posts, brief as they are, as insults. Challenging, perhaps -- but challenges are to be risen to, not regarded as insults. I'm a lawyer and journalist by professions, and so not used to dealing with what appears to be the soft assertions of philosophy. Frankly, I think philosophy can often be improved by such encounters with reality. Regret you regard them as bruising.

Tim said...


This just seems off the point. Nobody would be allowed to cite a blog entry as an authoritative source in a decent philosophy journal, either.

If what I found in the articles on "Foundationalism" and "Galielo" is broadly representative of its treatment of philosophy and of the history of science, Wikipedia has a long way to go on accuracy. Nothing that I've read about the system currently in place gives me reason for optimism about its future.

If it's true that they're "tightening up" on accuracy by means of instituting some additional standards or greater editorial control, that's well and good. We'll have to wait and see what comes of it.

Ed Darrell said...

Experts in history chip in to Wikipedia:

Of course, it's a blog making the claim.

The Aardvark said...

Late to the party, alas. Bless you for your Wiki-entry. My personal experience with Wikipedia has been that it is often driven by a PC and zero-tolerance mentality. My small experience is here:


I hope that I am not breaking protocol including the blog citations.

Thank you, again.