Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Encyclopedia Updatica

I grew up with The Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia, published by the Grolier Society. But the standard for encyclopedias of the day was the Encyclopaedia Britannica (American Edition). The traveling salesman for Grolier must have gotten to our house before the traveling salesman for Sears (the distributor of E.B. at the time). Grolier had written and telephone research facilities as part of the price, so I'm sure that was also a decision-maker for my parents.

Today, you can buy the Encyclopaedia Britannica online, complete with interactive research. But the online "people's encyclopedia," which is free, is Wikipedia. Millions of students and others seeking information turn to Wikipedia for research materials and historical information turn daily to this online source. They should have their heads examined.

Let's start with Wikipedia's own article on the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Since the article is not supposed to be either an advertisement or an editorial, the content of the article ought to be neutral. At first blush, it appears to be completely neutral. But very little goes on Wikipedia that doesn't have some sort of agenda. The article describes the venerable Britannica publication and its history with a large amount of accuracy and neutrality. But why the emphasis on this? Read what Wiki's writers have to say: "In 1933, the Britannica became the first encyclopaedia to adopt a 'continuous revision' policy, in which the encyclopaedia is continually reprinted and every article is updated on a regular schedule."

The suggestion that the Britannica was dumbed-down with the 11th edition for consumption by dumb North Americans aside, Wikipedia is setting the stage for justifying its own policy of having friendly users revise Wiki entries online, sometimes daily. It ignores the fact that the Britannica is carefully put together by international scholars, peer-reviewed, and changed only to correct erroneous facts in earlier editions and bring each edition up to date. It is not changed to reflect current political trends, nor does it utilize scholars with a viewpoint which has strong opposition from other peer scholars. And it most certainly doesn't allow "democratic" changes to entries that delete or revise the work of other writers. Britannica avoids updated entries by writers who might simply not agree with the tone or politics of the original authors.

Wikipedia on the other hand, commits all of the aforementioned scholarly errors. Which brings me to the point of this article. The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, wrote a piece published in the Wall Street Journal last week which lamented "the rise of online hostility"and the "degeneration of online civility." Much though I may agree with him on that general principle, what does it have to do with publications which are supposed to provide information that the public can rely on?

Mr. Wales is of, shall we say, the "progressive" persuasion. Which means that among other things, there are no real "facts" or "truths" but only opinions of fact and truth. And since that is the situation, why not allow a supposedly neutral compendium of knowledge to be edited by hand-picked experts and writers of like mind?

The latest, and biggest flap over Wikipedia rewrites, and the one which brought Mr. Wales out of hiding, was the startling article by Lawrence Solomon entitled "How Wikipedia's green doctor rewrote 5,426 climate articles." In the wake of irrefutable proof that the world has been cooling slightly for nearly ten years, "global warming" articles on Wikipedia have become "climate change" articles. But the articles predict doom, either way, if mankind doesn't surrender to the wisdom of the pseudo-scientists and give up almost all of their modern conveniences.

The revisionist author in question is William M. Connolley, a Green Party activist in Britain, and a pal of Wales. After most of the globaloney appearing on Wikipedia was either disproved (the "hockey stick graph") or seriously challenged by other, less agenda-driven scientists, Connolley began the lengthy process of re-writing the global warming articles on a regular basis to justify the conclusions by adjusting the responses to the legitimate challenges to the underlying theory/agenda.

Among Connolley's accomplishments are his twin magical tricks of eliminating both the medieval warming period and the "little ice age" from the entries describing earlier warming and cooling periods. With those earlier eras left in concerning a period of pre-industrialization and low population, the entire agenda of the neo-luddites simply looks like a ridiculous con job. Having eliminated science from the science articles, he then began prodigiously producing political articles attacking all the critics of the global warming/anthropogenic climate change agenda. Did I mention that Connolley has no scientific expertise, but is rather a software engineer? That makes his revisions and new articles easy for him to post, in large numbers.

Although Wales laments the harshness of Solomon's uncivil "attack," nevertheless on December 23, a mere day after Solomon's article appeared, the following showed up at Wikipedia: "Recently, the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee determined that Wiliam M. Connolley has on a number of occasions misused his administrator tools by acting while involved, and as a consequence, William M. Connolley's administrative privileges are revoked." I suppose that means that "uncivil" commentary gets results. But at Wikipedia, such results appear to be highly ephemeral.

Within three days after Solomon's article, the articles on the medieval warming period were still revised nearly 50 times. Connolley had departed, but his acolytes kept submitting articles, which were then countered by other less agenda-driven writers, and then back again. The facts from Wikipedia on Monday were quite different from the facts on Tuesday. Are you high school and college scholars beginning to get a picture of why I think you should have your heads examined if you rely on Wikipedia as a source for your term papers?

Some of the notable Connolley disciples who have been involved in the revisions on the medieval warming period alone have included Penn State's Michael Mann (the inventor of the "hockey stick graph") and numerous writers from RealClimate.org, global warming enthusiasts all. I won't go any farther into the climate debate, since that alone could be the subject of many articles, and isn't the purpose of this piece anyway. It is simply a cautionary warning to those who aspire to knowledge and academic excellence. Go to the sources and view opposing opinions. Don't go to the secondary or tertiary source and the purveyor of multiple revisions and secret agendas. In other words, don't go to Wikipedia.

20 comments:

patti said...

i wish i was one of wiki's "friendly users"...oh man what fun i'd have. 5th graders histroy reports would never be the same. of course i would be found out and denounced as a tea-bagger, or a constitution-hugger or a ~gasp~ republican, but still, it would be fun...

StanH said...

Wiki, "facts" on the quick and free, you get what you pay for. It’s a good quick reference for dates, and spelling, sometimes. If you want to get an understanding, get to the source, dig down, and the truth will be revealed. It’s very worrisome that many kids today use Wiki for end all reference, not good.

AndrewPrice said...

The value of the Wikipedia varies greatly depending on who wrote the content. I've found a lot of their science/medical stuff to be very good. Some of their history stuff has been quite good, but the rest was horribly wrong. They're generally pretty good when you want to find out who some band was/is, but I would never rely on them for anything political and I would always try to verify what they tell me.

Writer X said...

I remember the set of encyclopedias my parents had. Used those for many a book report in elementary school. I especially remember the volume "X" had these plastic pages that were in color. For x-ray, maybe? I forget.

Anyway, anyone who rely on Wiki to learn about Al Gore's global warming and the supposedly declining polar bear population might also be the same people who buy term papers on Al Gore's Internet.

Interesting post, LawHawk!

BevfromNYC said...

Is this a rebuke for using Wikipedia for my New Year's Eve object drop post? I'm sorry...really...it will never happen again. ;-)

Actually, like Andrew and StanH, I use it as a quick first look on a subject before other research. And the links are useful especially in research on medical issues.

We were a World Book Encyclopedia family. Later we got Encyclopaedia Britannica, but it was too intellectual for me.

Tam said...

If it makes you feel any better, I tutor online and our company doesn't allow us to use wiki as a reference with our students. We can use it as a quick refresher, and if a student uses wiki, we have to remind them that it is an unreliable source.

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk, my parents got World Book for my brother and myself. I don't trust Wikipedia for very much unless it is looking up a musician's discography or an actor's general biography. As Andrew points out, the value flucuates greatly so if it is anything important, I'd NEVER use it as a sole source.

LawHawkSF said...

Patti: Sorry to be so late replying, but I've been away from home and computers most of the day. Let me loose on Wiki's history pieces, and the world will change. LOL

LawHawkSF said...

StanH: You're right. I use it for those purposes all the time, but I usually get side-tracked when I start catching errors in either narrative or historical fact.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: The problem with Wikipedia is its inconsistencies (not to mention constant revisions). The other problem is that we've been through good schools, parental guidance, and years of genuine research. Many people have not, and younger people almost never. That was who the warning was aimed at. No matter how educated or how borderline illiterate a reader of Britannica may be, he or she will get the right information. Not so for Wikipedia.

LawHawkSF said...

WriterX: You, Andrew and I should become administrators for Wikipedia. Then we could also get input from all our readers. We'd turn that sucker around overnight.

LawHawkSF said...

Bev: No rebuke whatsoever. I know you use real sources for anything more than surface information. Besides, I steal about half of my stock photos from Wikipedia. I can't point the finger at anyone.

LawHawkSF said...

Tam: Great! I know that many teachers and college instructors are starting specifically to warn students that if they recognize a Wikipedia citation, the student will be graded down.

LawHawkSF said...

Tennessee: I do the same thing you do. But the difference for us is that we can get that common general information, and stop at that. Too many Americans don't have the background for knowing when to stop accepting Wikipedia information. We can read an article and tell when it's inaccurate or slanted, but the largest number of people using Wiki as a primary source have no independent knowledge to make them say: "That doesn't sound right, I'd better check the original sources."

USArtguy said...

I began to have concerns about Wikipedia during the primaries before the last presidential elections. Drudge linked to articles about how information regarding people running for office would change hourly (or even more often), because many supporters/detractors became administrators. I looked into it a bit at the time. Real credentials in any particular area didn't seem necessary to become an administrator. Plus, administrators had/have the power to block contributors and each other if they don't like what they read.

Additionally, I believe there was some hubbub recently about how articles regarding one type of cancer (melanoma?) weren't merely wrong, but dangerously so.

I Googled the words "Wikipedia AND wrong" just now and got over 67 million hits. interesting.

USArtguy AKA positron57 --I didn't realize I logged in the other day as my alter ego... now I know how Iron Man feels ;-)

LawHawkSF said...

USArtGuy: Aha! So that's who Positron is. LOL. I've read too many articles about Wikipedia and their loosey-goosey policy on who's allowed to post and alter. They're not only at war with the more conservative writers, but apparently they're even at war with each other. It's more like a gigantic dysfunctional blog than an academic enterprise, let alone an encyclopedia. 67 million hits--HOLY SMOKE!

HamiltonsGhost said...

Lawhawk--I just read a comment on The Volokh Conspiracy (repeated on InstaPundit). The subject was that Ford sales are growing, while GM and Chrysler sales are falling. Main thrust: Union benefits and government control are killing the latter two. Says one commenter: Arrowsmith says:

"I will never buy a .gov auto.I do not support the concept and the UNIONS can lick the dirt off my shoes.I just do not understand why the companies do not move the whole thing to a non union state.They would have no problem getting happy workers at half or a third of their cost now.And these people would live good middle income lives at those wages.Why they stay in dead corrupt states is beyond any understanding. The Japan auto makers are much smarter.

If you hate unions, you hate America. The unions built American industry and won us WW II. (I did the italicization)."

I think we just read a comment by someone who gets his information from Wikipedia. Starts out with a personal opinion (not an entirely bad one), then concludes with a "fact."

LawHawkSF said...

HamiltonsGhost: I haven't bothered reading any Wikipedia entries on unions, since I get that information from real encyclopedias and respected new sources, then read what the National Right to Work Foundation has to say on the subject. But your conclusion sounds about right.

I think the commenter knows nothing about the union strikes during the height of the Guadalcanal campaign. And I'm sure he doesn't know that post WWII unions were trying desperately to purge themselves of mafiosos and communists (or the prominent and open leadership of avowed communists who had no compunction about stopping their war efforts as soon as Germany was defeated and Uncle Joe Stalin was safe). They succeeded partially, but the Obama administration (and their leftist Secretary of Labor) are quickly going soft on the unions that are clearly dominated by far leftists (if not actual communists): See articles on the SEIU, but don't read them on Wikipedia. Note carefully the political affiliations of the leaders.

Joel Farnham said...

LawHawk,

Until there is a definitive alternative to Wikipedia, I fear that it will be used by most people. I remember getting into an argument with a Global Warming idiot. He used Wikipedia.

LawHawkSF said...

Joel: I've noticed that even during disagreements on our site, the arguments are almost always based on sound reasoning and some pretty solid facts. I truly appreciate the fact that our readers seem to be a cut above, and know the very limited usefulness of a Wikipedia type of source for their information. On other blog sites, I often see truly skewed "facts," and many have no compunctions whatsoever about citing Wikipedia as their source.

It's human nature to look for shortcuts, but Wikipedia is more than a shortcut. Too often, it's a detour. A shame that there really isn't an alternative. But as StanH said, it's free and you get what you pay for.

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