Truths, half-truths and Wikipedia
Journalists play with loose facts
By Tom Melly
Published Thursday 15th March 2007 18:31 GMT
Comment Wikipedia comes in for a fair amount of criticism these days from El Reg and other publications, but I can't help wondering if we're missing the real point regarding its status as an encyclopedia. Most of the arguments hinge on its accuracy, or lack of it. But if our criteria for an encyclopedia is a guarantee of 100 per cent accuracy, then there are no encyclopaedias now, and there never have been. So is Wikipedia an encylopedia, and, if not, can it ever be one? Reluctantly, I think the answer is a resounding 'no', and here's why.
This is a tale of personal experience, so a bit of background is needed. In the first place, I am a casual editor on Wikipedia under the username Tomandlu. I've contributed to articles on various novels, historical events, and so on (including, for reasons I fail to recall, the tuberculate pelagic octopus – don't you hate it when that happens?). So, I like Wikipedia, I really do. Besides, any resource that has anything as bizarre as the Death Star talkpage gets my vote.
My father is George Melly, the British jazz-singer and writer. Needless to say, I keep an eye on Wikipedia's article on him. I try to avoid any bias, although I did once suggest that a particular anecdote wasn't really noteworthy or accurate. (It was a trout not a salmon, and he didn't wank on it, just near it; besides, if a wank-adote is really required, then there's a far better one involving cat impressions and a plate.)
The closest I've come to censorship was when I removed "incontinence" from a list of his health problems. I didn't lose much sleep over it - it's your standard, old-man, incontinence, so, once again, not very noteworthy. I'd have removed "has wrinkles" or "thinks modern music is too loud and repetitive" on the same basis. However, lung cancer (an early member of the list), and emphysema (a later addition) were retained.
I had some concerns about this. Nevertheless, the information was accurate – albeit unreferenced – so I let it stand. At least no one else seemed to have heard that he had also been diagnosed with early vascular dementia, and that stayed off the list – I certainly wasn't going to add it in.
We can now fast-forward to earlier this year, when my father came out, so to speak, as a sufferer. I duly added "vascular dementia" to Wikipedia, and settled down to following the various news coverage and articles on my father's condition – for the most part sympathetic and accurate pieces, and often based around interviews…and then I came across an article in the Times by a Dr Thomas Stuttaford.
Now, you can take my word for it, or you can take a look at the article and compare it with the entry on Wikipedia, but large sections of it are obviously sourced from there and I was rather shocked. This wasn't, as far as I knew, what Wikipedia was for. Wikipedia was for... well what exactly? Or more accurately, who?
And then something else happened. In article after article, the same phrase kept cropping up: "health problems, including emphysema and lung cancer". Now the source for this specific phrase is somewhat convoluted, but one thing I'm certain of is that Wikipedia lay at the bottom of it. Why? Because that was the only place that those two specific diseases had been listed together.
So what? The information may not have had a reference on Wikipedia, but it was true. If we're feeling very generous, we can also assume that someone checked the information before using it. Good enough, surely? And if a response was needed, then adding "has third nipple" to the article, just to keep everyone on their toes, would be enough, right? Hell, I'll even supply the photo…
Well, no, it's not good enough.
The arguments about who should and shouldn't use Wikipedia involve a lot of smoke and mirrors, but all of them seem to hinge either on accuracy or whether an encylopedia - any encyclopedia - is a suitable reference. Wikipedia is quite happy to play this game. The fact that the argument is taking place bestows on it an ersatz authority, and we editors get the warm fuzzy glow of being involved with something important. Meanwhile, Wikipedia keeps promising that serious articles will carry on evolving towards something resembling encyclopedic quality. But they won't, and the giveaway is the word "evolving".
If a real encyclopedia or news service made an unjustified claim, true or not, it would be rightly pilloried. Encyclopedias are expected to deal with facts, not truth. And the encyclopedia wouldn't (or shouldn't) get the chance to leave the claim in place until someone was kind enough to provide a reference to support it. Big deal? Well, maybe. But consider this. The claim that my father had ephysema and lung cancer was previously without a reference. Now it's got one. I put it there. It's become a 'fact'. The only trouble is, and unless I'm very much mistaken, the original source of that reference is Wikipedia itself.
And if that doesn't worry you, or if you think it's a one-off, then you don't know much about Wikipedia.
On any but the most innocuous or obscure articles, there will be several factions behind the scenes fighting, vocally or silently, for their version of the truth, and this isn't going to change. If journalists or academics have started treating Wikipedia as a reference - irrespective of how diligent they are in their fact-checking - then those wars are having an impact on the wider world. Do we really want Wikipedia setting the terms, the limits, of the debate?
If your answer is no, then, to return to an earlier question: who, and what, is Wikipedia for?
Well, it's for Ade in the office, who wanted to know what Catharism is. It's for Tim, who brushes up for pub quizzes. It's for my wife, who reads up on authors before going to her book club. It's for its editors, who take pleasure in the activity. It's for everyone who is absolutely, never, ever, going to attempt to do anything serious with the information it contains. Not because it's inaccurate, and not because the majority of articles are, to be frank, fairly amateurish, but because a resource for "facts" that generates its own references is an irretrievably flawed creation. It cannot evolve out of this problem, because evolution is the problem.