February 2010

How Can You Trust Wikipedia?

A few days ago my son and I had a discussion about his paper and if it was OK to reference Wikipedia. I think he was learning about French Revolution. Some of his teachers believe that since Wikipedia is not an officially refereed site, citing it (or using it officially) would be inappropriate… and both he and I strongly disagree with it.

This brings me back to my own childhood in the Soviet Union (USSR). There, we had very limited access to information (plus it was during the 70s and 80s – no internet access). In addition, the information we did have access to was often incorrect and misleading, especially when it dealt with history or with other politically loaded topics. However, I remember having lots of books at home. I think my love for reading and books certainly came from my parents’ and grandparents’ respect for books and I am grateful for that. Actually, in the Soviet Union people read much more I think than here (if you define reading as reading classics versus reading txt mssgs). So we had a Great Soviet Encyclopedia at home. I do not remember how large it was (50+ volumes) and if we had all the volumes and what the edition was, but I remember the volumes being very-very heavy. They were printed on high quality paper, but if I remember correctly, there were only black and white photos in them. So the reason I mention it is that the Encyclopedia was EDITED AND REFEREED and lots of respected people took part in writing it, yet IT WAS NOT OPEN TO ALL PEOPLE with the knowledge on the topic to contribute. We knew that some of the information there was missing or misleading. This all happened because the people who had the power to contribute had to be approved by the government and they often (99% of the time) were one sided and biased. Thus the Great Soviet Encyclopedia was a very-very closed and politically loaded source. Now compare it to Wikipedia. In my view, Wikipedia is a much more powerful and trustworthy source. Since people actively participate in writing it and people with different perspectives can contribute, you can see a much better picture of the phenomenon that ever before. I believe it makes the quality of the source higher than the quality of traditional encyclopedia. Now people often ask “HOW CAN YOU TRUST WIKIPEDIA”? And my answer is “I CAN TRUST IT NO LESS THAN I TRUST ANY OTHER SOURCE”. So if somebody publishes a book, I should trust it, just because it is published? Or if a paper is published in a reputable science journal, should not I be skeptical? So what I am trying to say is that in the age of technology we have amazing unprecedented access to information, yet not all of it is 100% true and it has never been 100% true in the past. So we have to be critical of what we read online or in print. In my humble opinion, a source like Wikipedia, is much more trustworthy than many other traditional printed sources. Making an encyclopedia open for contribution was a great idea of Larry Sagner  and Jimmy Wales.

OK, if you do want to know what the Great Soviet Encyclopedia was, then feel free to check Wikipedia (of course only if you trust that source).

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