Thursday, April 16, 2009

Why I like Wikipedia

A common refrain I hear about Wikipedia is that it is not to be trusted because anybody can edit any article, that unlike a traditional encyclopedia, there is no enforced expert review of articles. While those observations are true, I think dismissing Wikipedia as a result is the wrong conclusion to draw from them.

It seems to me that in general, the very fact that the broad community can edit articles is actually Wikipedia's strength. The argument behind this is essentially the thesis of the book The Wisdom of Crowds, and can be summarized as this: large groups of people - including experts, amateurs and even crackpots - collectively contain more wisdom on a given topic than any single expert.

We actually see this every day in the stock market. What is the value of a specific company? Any given stock analyst - who we typically consider experts in the field - can give an answer to this, yet multiple analysts often disagree with each other by a considerable degree. So why would we trust any one of them to give a "valid" answer when we have no way to know whether one is any more accurate than another? Well, we actually do have a way to know this: the stock market itself - composed of experts, amateurs, and crackpots alike - does a pretty good job ("pretty good" is a key qualifier - I'll come back to that below) at figuring out the value of a company, and most people put a lot of trust in that value, and it is remarkably accurate at doing so over long periods of time (i.e., not so much on a day-to-day basis).

The same dynamics are at work at Wikipedia. Any given article is created and edited by a collection of experts, amateurs, and crackpots, and yet the net result can be remarkably accurate - not perfect, but "pretty good," as with the stock market.

Just as there are day-to-day fluctuations in a stock's value that have nothing to do with its intrinsic value, there are edits that are made day-to-day to articles on Wikipedia that may be accurate, biased, or outright nonsense. This is what Wikipedia's naysayers tend to focus on, but I think it misses the point. Rather, the more interesting fact is that Wikipedia's community and process has a set of rules that not only allow anyone to edit, but also anyone to flag something as problematic, so that discussions can take place and - equally important - controversies can be exposed.

Pick an article on, say, butterflies, and you're not likely to get a lot of controversy. Pick an article on George W. Bush and you're likely to get somewhat more. Readers do need to understand that while Wikipedia in general is quite accurate and unbiased, that any given assertion in any given article may or may not be; one must decide for oneself how much to trust these statements. (This, by the way, is why Wikipedia values references and attributions for assertions).

Yes, Wikipedia can be gamed, yes it can be flawed. But for the most part, it is like the stock market - much more comprehensive, up-to-date, and (yes) accurate in the big picture than any collection of "experts" could produce.

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