Friday, February 5, 2016

The Best Source for Misinformation

Before the advent of the internet, researchers spent hours poring over encyclopedias and other reference volumes compiled by scholarly entities like university professors, professional tradesmen, and field experts. Those volumes were the result of months, sometimes years, of studies and experimentation. Their findings were checked, rechecked, and rechecked before being published.

Today we have the internet, a constantly changing and anonymously updated media without oversight. Rising out of this morass of cat memes, social media narcissism, and pornography is a questionable database called Wikipedia.

Anyone may edit Wikipedia entries. Creating an account is dead simple. Although studies have shown that Wikipedia rates high in accuracy when it comes to science and mathematics, those objective sciences are not subject to the possibility of deliberate vandalism of other pages.

It's difficult to know what to trust about Wikipedia when researching politics, religion, entertainment, and social issues. Before a major overhaul in its editing process, it was not uncommon to come across some blatant errors in the database. However, even with its best intentions, Wikipedia remains vulnerable to outrageous vandalism, a fact even it admits. A recent study by MIT's Technological Review pointed out the problem is a shrinking number of fact-checkers and a stifling bureaucracy that discourages new blood.

Worse than the vandalism is the misinformation. This is nowhere more evident than in the entries concerning politics. Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has gone increasingly to the left, so far that another site, Conservapedia, a far-right site, was created to balance its influence. It has a summary page delineating what it considers Wikipedia's most blatant inaccuracies. Nevertheless, Wikipedia remains the better-known and more referred to site.

The bottom line is that, when it comes to anything other than the sciences, Wikipedia should not be trusted as the most reliable source. Using it as a launching point for research may be acceptable, but no student or researcher should use it as a final or single source.