Friday, March 04, 2005


As everyone knows, Wikipedia is the well-known FREE encyclopaedia. Over the years, the number of articles on it has grown substantially, and now, a search for almost any 'encyclopaedia type' article on Google brings up Wikipedia as one of the prominent hits. I have been contributing to Wikipedia for some time now. Some of the articles I have contributed a reasonable amount, and in one case completely to, are Linus Pauling, Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Robert B. Woodward.
However, in the past few months, I have become increasingly pensive about Wikipedia, and indeed, about any such FREE venture. The reason centers upon a long and incessant argument I had (and keep having) with a user regarding an entry.

The most important policy Wikipedia exhorts is its so-called 'NPOV' (Neutral Point of View) policy, which simply says that contributions should be objective and unbiased. I have no argument with people who support this policy, and I myself think that it should be an essential quality of any encyclopaedic article. However, this unfortunately cannot be well-defined in each and every case and therein lies the big problem. I think the best, although certainly not the most comprehensive, way to overcome this problem and avoid perpetual debate is to precisely attribute statements to sources and then let the reader judge their veracity for themselves. This should at least largely solve the problem and should make Wikipedia a nice source of information which our grandchildren could potentially read. However, as much as I hate to say it, I believe that Wikipedia will finally turn out to be a failed effort, albeit a noble one. The following paragraph could explain why I think this way.

A long and protracted argument I had with a user (let's call him Druid; unlike him, I am civil enough not to mention his real user name here) illustrates what I think are the problems inherent in a FREE encyclopaedia to which every anonymous person can contribute. This user had contributed subtantially to an article from the above list, that is related to the history of science. I was also much interested in contributing (in fact, I will humbly say that I created the article on that topic a few years ago) and so put in what I thought were cogent points related to the article. Repeatedly, I saw my contribution being reverted (deleted). Druid thought I was putting in hagiographical POVs. Although he was right about a few things, my argument, especially later, was that I could support almost every one of my so-called 'hagiographical POVs' with authentic references. After that, the onus of interpretation and judgement is on the reader. Druid and me kept on going back and forth on this (and I think this will continue). Countering Druid's comments and criticizing his opinions became almost a daily evening pastime for me. Druid is someone who is getting an entire PhD. in the history of science, and so obviously he has a lot more time and patience to spare on the article than I have, even though I too am deeply interested in the subject and have read about it for a very long time.

The point is that, in the end, Druid was being plain adamant about what HE thought was the right way to go about writing the article. It was all about HIM. He wanted to make the entry essentially HIS entry. This, I believe undermines a fundamental aspect of a FREE encyclopaedia. In a FREE encyclopaedia, every well-supported argument (which sometimes DOES look like a POV) should be admitted. After all, unless the situation is obviously extreme or unambiguous, it is very hard to always truly judge the veracity (or lack thereof) of a source. You can keep on quibbling about what you think is a good source and the argument can go on without end. In my opinion, the sources I quoted were good ones. In Druid's opinions, they were not. In my opinion, some of his sources were biased, although I did not revert most of his statements the way he reverted mine. If you are going to impose a unilateral point of view on what goes into an article, how does Wikipedia become a FREE encyclopaedia? I would suggest contributors to respect people's contributions, and unless they are obviously dubious, should not take them out of the article, like Druid did, just because they don't 'look good' to THEM.

However, human nature and ambitions being what they are, I don't think this is going to happen in practice. Users like Druid who have a lot of time and patience, would continue to make an entry in Wikipedia THEIR entry. Depending on their proclivity toward Wikipedia, in theory, they could spend an infinite amount of time reverting other users' contributions and making and remaking sure that an entry contains almost exclusively THEIR contribution. Users like me, who don't write for Wikipedia as their profession and don't have all the time in the world for this, will eventually, and wisely, concede to the wishes of these Wikipedia obsessive compulsives. Hence, in the end, every entry will become biased. If this has been the case even for the relatively objective historical entry that I contributed to, I cannot even imagine how the situation will be (and already is) for inherently opionated and contentious entries like Communism, Free Will, Abortion, Gay rights, and even Evolution ;).

Given this, I don't think anyone should ever trust an article from Wikipedia the way they would trust an article from an authentic book or similar source. Of course, in every source, no matter how unbiased, there are always biases and points of views. However, in most cases, at least one "knows" the author and can read up on him, thus knowing his biases too. Secondly, judging by the level of scholarship of the author, one can decide how much to trust him/her. On the other hand, in a free encyclopaedia, a diverse number of contributors abound. Most of these include amateur enthusiasts, mavericks and non-conformists, and finally people who just have too much time to spare in making sure the world hears their words (I have similar qualms and fears about the internet in general). Once in a while, a scholar may contribute, but his contribution will be lost in the din of the aforementioned characters' biases. In the end the article will hardly be an encyclopaedic article, and will end up being a conglomerate of opinions and POVs.

So, on a somber note, I think that as membership grows, Wikipedia is going to become more and more fuzzy as an authentic source of information. The bottom line is that when it comes to Wikipedia or anything similar to it, read all the entries, but with a whole bucket of salt, and not just a pinch! Maybe this just reiterates the maxim that there is no free lunch, but with an extra addendum; if the lunch is truly free, it probably stinks!

P.S: For this particular entry, I have to say that Druid's contributions were in general not all that bad, but his obstreperousness illustrated to me in a very striking way, the big problems inherently associated with a FREE encyclopaedia.
As for me, paradoxically, I am almost waiting for the time when Wikipedia ceases to be interesting for me so that I will spend no more potentially fruitless time on it...


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