The Problem with Wikipedia

Mark Herring

The problem with Wikipedia isn’t so much its potentially flawed nature.  That happens with all materials, whether printed or digitally delivered.  Of course, the argument is always that electronically delivered materials can easily be updated, and that is true. The first problem is that this occurs far less than one might think (see for example Eve Fairbanks’ “Wiki WomanNew Republic, 09 April 2008). But putting that aside, what is troubling about open access and its ilk are really two things.  Open access works like Wikipedia have lowered our threshold for flawed work or work that may be in error.  When the Rawls biography appeared in Wikipedia it was virtually (no pun intended) completely wrong.  Many Rawlsian scholars sent in corrections, and it was changed in about 36 hours.  Twenty-four hours later, it showed up all wrong again.  I’m not talking about mere grammatical errors or slips of pen which anyone can make: Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.  Rather, I speak of the almost cavalier nature with which serious mistakes are dismissed as spoondrift from an ocean wave.

And this leads to an even more serious corollary: open access materials may also increase illiteracy while spoiling reading skills in the young.  A Rawlsian scholar reading an entry on the philosopher will know when something is wrong, but 95% of everyone else using that flawed entry will not.  Shouldn’t this matter to us?  I think it should.  This is not a cry to abolish them but it is certainly a cry for better quality control.

The second reason that open access materials like Wikipedia present difficulties is the tendency of young people from 3-35 to use them exclusively, regardless of the project and no matter what the reason.  Wikipedia may be a fine start to a project (though even here caution should be observed) but for too many students it is the first and last place they look.

Meanwhile, the “snatch and grab mentality” of the Web means that any reading assignment taking more ten minutes is dead on arrival.  Take a look at our declining literacy rates since 1992 (coincidentally the same year websites were made easy by Sir Berners-Lee). 

Sadly, the generation that built vast libraries as storehouses of knowledge has left them to one that does not know how to use them, does not want them, and prefers instant information over reflective knowledge. 

Could it be that as we careen down the information superhighway we are later going to learn that literacy is its first roadkill?

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