Wikipedia as a source

It’s fashionable for teachers to disallow the use of Wikipedia as a reference in essays. The usual claim is that, since anyone can edit Wikipedia, anyone can just post any nonsense that ey feels like posting. Published books, on the other hand, are sacred. Only the most learned members of society can write a book, and such a book will be the result of years of dedicated study from a knowledgeable, erudite, and esteemed person.

Or so many people seem to think. There are valid reasons to use printed references as opposed to internet references. For one thing, knowing how to use a library is an important and valuable skill, and as we progress in our education, we find more and more frequently that there’s a lot of information in printed books that isn’t available online. It’s nice if, when we reach that stage, we’re already competent at using libraries and books. Of similar importance, sitting in front of a screen all day is not terribly conducive to good health; it’s much better for us to take a stroll to the library or bookstore and breathe some fresh air along the way.

But these are rarely the sorts of arguments given for why to prefer printed sources over internet sources. Rather, we’re told to avoid internet sources on the grounds that they tend to contain false statements. Indeed, there are lots of false statements on the internet, and many of them are even on Wikipedia. Still, I don’t see that as a reason to avoid using Wikipedia as a source. What would happen if we treated libraries similarly? It won’t be hard to find a book in a library that contains false statements. Should we use that as evidence that books found in libraries are not trustworthy? Should we reject them as sources too? Of course not; that would be absurd!

Wikipedia operates on the principle that there are a lot more people who want to be helpful than there are people who want to be harmful. That is, while there are a few people who like to cause trouble by writing false things on Wikipedia, there are a lot more people who like to write true things and help to make knowledge more accessible to others. Thus, mistakes tend to be corrected quickly. Not always, of course, but most of the time. Compare this to the situation in books. Most authors want to make true statements in their books, but an occasional falsehood is likely to slip in despite good intentions and careful research. But since a book is static, the errors cannot be corrected until the next printing or possibly even the next edition. In the meantime, the damage has already been done, and people will have read the book and learned false things. And, in certain subjects, what is accepted as truth at one point will later turn out to be wrong and thus will need to be corrected in the literature. It’s hard to do that with books; how do we know what we’re reading is based on the most up-to-date information?

So, at least some of the time, referring to Internet sources is entirely superior to referring to printed literature. This is especially true in the case of Wikipedia, where anyone with access to cutting-edge information is free to update articles to reflect current knowledge. We’re likely to get better information from Wikipedia than from almost anywhere else on subjects that are current topics of investigation.

Naturally, there are some drawbacks to using Wikipedia. On contentious issues, tempers sometimes run high, and people do flame each other. Political articles, in particular, seem to be very popular places for troublemakers to display their immaturity by vandalizing articles. Some of them are not written from the neutral point of view (NPOV) that is expected of Wikipedia articles. (But those articles that aren’t are often tagged as not being NPOV, and contributors are encouraged to fix them.) Then again, we’d have to be pretty naïve to expect political articles to be neutral. We all have our biases, and we write based on those biases. It’s essentially impossible not to. We might expect, however, that an article written by committee, such as a Wikipedia article, has a much better shot at neutrality than, say, a newspaper article, which is entirely based on one person’s point of view. Especially if the committee is well-intentioned; this, sadly, is not always the case, as it’s human nature to present our own views more favorably than those of the opposition.

One might expect that, since it’s a lot of work to publish a book, the quality of research will be higher in a book than in an online article. That’s a reasonable belief, and possibly even true with relatively high frequency. However, when I was an undergrad, I learned in a very practical sense that it is not so hard to get books published. Various people mailed published books to math professors, and some of them were completely absurd. The professors then put these books on the table in the mail room for students to laugh at. If I had taken some of these books seriously, I would have believed that mathematical induction and electrical induction are closely related, and that one could use this connection to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, or some other famous problem. (I don’t remember which problem this particular crank claimed to have solved.) There was a constant influx of books like that one. They didn’t contain many true statements; they certainly didn’t prove what they claimed to prove. Yet, somehow, they were published. Presumably self-published, to be sure, but they look professional until one starts to read them. Admittedly, these were extreme examples, but surely there are myriads (in the literal sense) of published books out there which are of very low quality, whether due to malice, laziness, lack of knowledge, or simply inevitable mistakes on the part of the author.

While not everything said on Wikipedia is true, it still remains a tremendous resource for research. It should, however, be used with care, just like any other source. We should not automatically trust statements found on Wikipedia; rather, we should try to verify them with other sources. This is not specific to Wikipedia, of course. We should always attempt to verify claims by looking in a variety of sources. If we can only find some particular claim in one place, then that claim should be looked upon with suspicion. If a claim can be backed by various other sources, which are not just copying each other, then it should look more credible. We can’t guarantee its veracity in this way: truth is not democratic. But, it’s a good rule of thumb, at the least. A good place to start.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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