Wikipedia, the people’s encyclopedia, is a multilingual, million-entry fount of knowledge from Britney to Byzantium that has lately become the elitists’ favorite whipping boy. Unreliable, they say. Easily tampered with. Incoherent. Out of control. A demolition derby of ideologies, driven by reckless amateurs and cybergeeks with too much time on their hands. And yet, when people take time to read the Wikipedia entries on subjects where they have some experience or expertise, they are most often pleasantly surprised.
I have found Wikipedia to be a tremendous resource, whether I need a quick primer on the history of the Caliphate, or the name of that dog that used to star in "Frasier." Wikipedia’s unpaid contributors are rapidly compiling one of the best movie databases ever, with extensive plot and character summaries of all major films, and tremendously useful linked-lists of subjects like "Best Picture Winners."
To try a more objective test than my own need to find Martin Scorsese’s birthdate, The Denver Post asked five Colorado scholars to review the Wikipedia entries on Islam, Bill Clinton, global warming, China and evolution.
The results? Four out of five agreed their relevant Wikipedia entries are accurate, informative, comprehensive and a great resource for students or the merely curious.
The fifth scholar called his chosen entry "not very good," found some details to be inaccurate by omission, and said similar entries in more accepted encyclopedias like Encarta do their job better.
The scholarly endorsements are encouraging, and increasingly important as Wikipedia becomes a favored international source not just of historical information, but daily events. In the two days after the Virginia Tech shootings, Wikipedia’s compilation of news accounts on that topic saw 750,000 page views. More than 2,000 volunteer editors contributed to rapid updates, according to a New York Times column on the phenomena.
Wikipedia has more than 1.6 million entries in English alone; it’s the most popular education and research site on the Internet, by far. On any given day, 8 percent of Americans online use the site, according to the Pew Internet & American Life surveys.
So now, to our scholarly panel.
On the much-debated topic of global warming, Colorado State University’s Scott Denning called the Wikipedia entry "a great primer on the subject, suitable for just the kinds of use one might put to a traditional encyclopedia. Following the links takes the interested reader into greater and greater depth, probably further than any traditional encyclopedia I’ve seen," said Denning, the Monfort Professor of Atmospheric Science.
Denning said he was pleasantly surprised how the main articles "stick to the science and avoid confusing the reader with political controversy." Students who want to study up on the controversy, however, find plenty of links if they want them. Denning wishes Wikipedia offered better links to basic weather science. "Apparently there is still a role for real textbooks and professors!" he said.
University of Colorado history professor William Wei was the most negative voice in the bunch, calling the basic entry on China "simplistic, and in some places, even incoherent." Wei said the Wikipedia entry mishandled the issue of Korean independence from China, for example, and the context of the Silk Road in China’s international relations.
"One of its problems is relying on amateurs to contribute," said Wei, who admits he brings a rigorous perspective to the material as a specialist in Chinese Republican history. "I applaud a democratizing spirit, but quite frankly it can lead to, for want of a better word, mediocrity."
Clinton: thorough, unbiased
Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College and frequent writer on Bill Clinton, said the President Clinton entry was thorough and unbiased, giving fair weight to both Clinton accomplishments and scandals. The bulk of it appeared to have been written by the Clinton Museum and Library in Little Rock, Ark., Loevy said.
"It would have been a great place for a student to begin building his or her knowledge" on Clinton, Loevy said. As did the other professors, Loevy said he cautions his students to treat Wikipedia like any other single book in the library – any fact cited there should be double-checked somewhere else.
If any world subject is ripe for tampering or acrimony, it would seem to be the Wikipedia on Islam. Yet retired CU religious studies professor Frederick Denny, a 40-year specialist in Islam, was "quite impressed" with Wikipedia’s 28-page entry.
"It looks like something that might have been done by a young graduate student, or assistant professor, or two or three," Denny said. He described the writing as clinical and straightforward, but not boring. Where important translations of Arabic language or fine religious distinctions are required, Wikipedia acquits itself well.
"I have a feeling there are very responsible people out there who are making sure this doesn’t become" a free-for-all, Denny said.
Finally, on the Wikipedia topic of evolution, CU biology professor Jeffrey Mitton declared the entry "good," even if "stylistic infelicities abound." If a student read through the main entry and the primary links to supporting concepts, he would get a fine introduction, Mitton said.
Always the careful scholar, Mitton scrolled to the bottom of the evolution entry to the bibliography. The first reference cited was for the authoritative textbook on evolution by Douglas Futuyma, "so that is excellent, as it should be," Mitton observed. The rest of the source list was appropriate, and well-rounded, he added.
"Years ago, I never thought you’d be able to use a computer to find information so easily," said Mitton, who consults Wikipedia among other sources when he writes a newspaper column on plant species. "It has changed the nature of studying."
Via Denver Post