Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Wikipedia challengers face accuracy issues

Wikipedia challengers face accuracy issues
Home » Volume 97 » Issue 14 » Opinions
March 20, 2007
By Nathan Harrison, Staff Writer

If Citizendium or Conservapedia have their way, Wikipedia will be king of the online encyclopedia realm no longer.

The two new competitors both hope to unseat the popular user-moderated site, though for different reasons. One — Citizendium — is the product of Larry Sanger, a former Wikipedia insider, and seeks to lend the reassuring, authoritative voice of vetted experts to its entries.

The other — Conservapedia — is the aptly-named brainchild of Andy Schlafly, a member of a conservative think tank, and seeks to counter Wikipedia’s perceived anti-Christian and anti-American bias.

There are plenty of “wikis” scattered across the web, reflecting minority interests, ranging from the controversial (like the Christian origins site CreationWiki) to the inane (a wiki project devoted entirely to lore from Blizzard’s “Warcraft” video game series, for example). But these two are the first to try to take Wikipedia head-on.

Sanger, a Wikipedia co-creator, was an editor-in-chief for the site until he was laid-off from the project in 2002. During that time he conceived of a “citizen’s compendium” that would offer a better, more managed source of information than Wikipedia.

From Sanger’s perspective, Wikipedia has become “committed to amateurism,” and the cases of public figures such as John Seigenthaler, on whose Wikipedia page a false allegation of murder survived for more than 100 days, only drove that point home.

So far, the Citizendium project has yet to go live, since a central philosophy of the site is that nothing will be published online until thoroughly reviewed. This involves editors, proofreaders as well as moderators termed “constables” — and in order to even qualify to become a constable, a user needs to possess a bachelor’s degree.

In stark contrast to this expert approach, many of the earliest Conservapedia entries read as though they were written by children. Early on, the entry for communism consisted entirely of the line: “Communists believe that if they share everything, no one will ever have to work.”

In fact, being written by children isn’t far off the mark: Conservapedia first emerged as the product of about 50 homeschooled students under the personal tutelage of the site’s founder.

A bigger problem than over-simplification and easily-corrected inaccuracy is a Bible-thumping tone that seems strident even for a site wearing its Christian affiliation on its sleeve.

Consider this early entry on the theory of gravity: “The considerable disagreement between scientists about the theory of gravity suggests that, like evolution, the theory will eventually be replaced with a model which acknowledges God as the source of all things, the Prime Mover, and the only real fundamental force in the universe.”

Currently, Conservapedia has made an about-face and edited the entry to close with the assertion that “gravitation is responsible for the formation of the earth and sun, the stars and the planets.” No mention of God anywhere, and credit for the creation of the earth and stars given to natural forces, departing widely from the creation account in Genesis.

Was this the product of non-conservative vandals? Perhaps. But such a divided mindset is likely to plague Conservapedia until its detractors grow bored and move on from planting satirical and intentionally ridiculous edits in various entries.

Until the furor settles down, both sites serve more as reminders of the transient nature of wiki information projects — Wikipedia included — than anything else. Citizendium may seem standoffish and aloof and Conservapedia rabidly partisan, but Wikipedia, too, should always be subject to a skeptical eye.

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