Truths, half-truths and Wikipedia

Journalists play with loose facts


And then something else happened. In article after article, the same phrase kept cropping up: "health problems, including emphysema and lung cancer". Now the source for this specific phrase is somewhat convoluted, but one thing I'm certain of is that Wikipedia lay at the bottom of it. Why? Because that was the only place that those two specific diseases had been listed together.

So what? The information may not have had a reference on Wikipedia, but it was true. If we're feeling very generous, we can also assume that someone checked the information before using it. Good enough, surely? And if a response was needed, then adding "has third nipple" to the article, just to keep everyone on their toes, would be enough, right? Hell, I'll even supply the photo…

Well, no, it's not good enough.

The arguments about who should and shouldn't use Wikipedia involve a lot of smoke and mirrors, but all of them seem to hinge either on accuracy or whether an encylopedia - any encyclopedia - is a suitable reference. Wikipedia is quite happy to play this game. The fact that the argument is taking place bestows on it an ersatz authority, and we editors get the warm fuzzy glow of being involved with something important. Meanwhile, Wikipedia keeps promising that serious articles will carry on evolving towards something resembling encyclopedic quality. But they won't, and the giveaway is the word "evolving".

If a real encyclopedia or news service made an unjustified claim, true or not, it would be rightly pilloried. Encyclopedias are expected to deal with facts, not truth. And the encyclopedia wouldn't (or shouldn't) get the chance to leave the claim in place until someone was kind enough to provide a reference to support it. Big deal? Well, maybe. But consider this. The claim that my father had ephysema and lung cancer was previously without a reference. Now it's got one. I put it there. It's become a 'fact'. The only trouble is, and unless I'm very much mistaken, the original source of that reference is Wikipedia itself.

And if that doesn't worry you, or if you think it's a one-off, then you don't know much about Wikipedia.

On any but the most innocuous or obscure articles, there will be several factions behind the scenes fighting, vocally or silently, for their version of the truth, and this isn't going to change. If journalists or academics have started treating Wikipedia as a reference - irrespective of how diligent they are in their fact-checking - then those wars are having an impact on the wider world. Do we really want Wikipedia setting the terms, the limits, of the debate?

If your answer is no, then, to return to an earlier question: who, and what, is Wikipedia for?

Well, it's for Ade in the office, who wanted to know what Catharism is. It's for Tim, who brushes up for pub quizzes. It's for my wife, who reads up on authors before going to her book club. It's for its editors, who take pleasure in the activity. It's for everyone who is absolutely, never, ever, going to attempt to do anything serious with the information it contains. Not because it's inaccurate, and not because the majority of articles are, to be frank, fairly amateurish, but because a resource for "facts" that generates its own references is an irretrievably flawed creation. It cannot evolve out of this problem, because evolution is the problem. ®

Part of the writer's fee is being donated to Admiral Nurses. You can donate too by following the link.


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