Why Trust Wikipedia? Caveat Lector (February 6, 2011)

Posted: February 6, 2011 by docbabad in Academia, The Greening Continues, by Harry {doc} Babad
Tags: , , , ,

By Harry {doc} Babad, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

As a technology and greening blogger, and co-author of two reference rich textbooks on the world of nuclear I almost always provide my readers with a Wikipedia citation about my subject matter. Why? First and foremost, after employing a strong application of Caveat lector (Let the Reader Beware), all the Wiki based articles I use for reference purposes are both well written and follow Doc’s rule for reference use in peer review.

Are the references provided essentially complete or representative of the literature, and relevant?  Do they include both precedent and present work, including any referenced disagreement with any of the Wiki author’s views?

Yes, tedious as it may seem, I go back and check, at least skim if not study, all the RELEVANT reference contained in the Wiki. If the material parallels the analysis, not always necessarily the conclusions, found in cited references at the end of each Wiki, I deem credible, I reference the Wikipedia article; it’s an easy source for my readers to access. My requirement is credibility based on my assessment of good science, peer reviewed if possible, not consensus.

Good Science in Wikipedia Is Too Often Challenged By Purists
Because it’s Published in a
Mere Wiki

I recently (2008 and 2009) coauthored and published two books nuclear science and technology, both textbooks. They are, as referenced below, Nuclear Energy and the Use of Nuclear Materials For High School and Middle School Teachers, and more recently Nuclear is Hot. The EnergySolutions Foundation published these, in support of its educational mission.

I mention this because the most broadly focused negative feedback we received on our books, from some reader, but not our reviewers, was related not to the books’ contents, but to our use of Wikipedia for some of the many hundreds of references in the books.

We were scolded by a few academics, mostly science high school and college teachers or professional ‘educators’. This it was noted reduced our credibility. Bad authors… we should have used only primary references, despite their technical complexity, instead of Wikipedia and other more reader accessible generalized references. The commenters claimed Wikipedia references were not trustworthy when compared to references cited in the Encyclopedia Britannica, journals or professional society published science-technology magazines.

Alas, such trustworthiness arguments also holds true whether reading a textbook full of primary and secondary references that are digests on any technical subject. Unfortunately, if your goal is reader accessibility to source materials, as the song say – primary journals are “the last thing on my mind.” From my perspective, accessibility means both ease of access and ease of understanding by my target audiences.

Using journal level source or often-outdated Britannica details as a basis for sharing information, sucks. Journal articles are hard enough to understand by well-educated degree bearing professionals; especially when they are not experts in that particular scientific or technical niche.

For example, I’m earned both a doctoral degree and have a number of years of postdoctoral experience at MIT and the University of Chicago. I studied to become a synthetic and physical-organic chemist, I’ve worked and published both as an academic and then industrial scientist until 37 years ago, publishing in my field of study and work. Then, mid-career I switched jobs and specialties to the area of nuclear science and technology, particularly the management of radioactive waste.

Trying to wade though and understand the details in an interesting appearing article in a physical or biochemistry journal, this is still chemistry. It’s tough, like trying to read Homer’s Iliad in the original Greek. Even following the details of current organic practice, 37 years from having worked in the field, very difficult. Not only has the knowledge base grown exponentially, but also the vocabulary has changed beyond my present understanding.

What does that suggest about the general ability of even bright student and education degreed teachers, to deal with such ‘primary’ reference materials? Talk about Towers of Technical Babble!


A Bit About References…Their Coats of Many Colors

Like dwags and people, references come in many types and pedigrees. Just to tickle your appetite, here’s my stream-of-consciousness partial list of reference categories.

Primary ReferencesJournal Published Research

Primary (Professional Society Published)

Secondary (Published by an Industry or Advocacy)

Well Referenced Magazine & Newspaper Articles including Op-Ed Pieces (e.g., MIT Technology Review, Discover Magazine, Scientific American)

An additional source of information comes from the Internet associated with those above or other that specialize in reporting about specific technical topics.

Secondary References Including Media Published Web Sites

General Magazine & Newspaper Articles w/o traceable leads to background information

National Magazine with Strong Editorial and Fact Check Policies (e.g., The NY Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal LA Times and a few like the Silicon Valley Review

All the rest

Well Referenced Wikipedia Articles

Journal Review Articles

Furthermore, all science is fluid, both growing and changing; you knew that? New paradigm arise, out dated theory is replaced, and additional better-verified data serves to change the reported original outcomes and conclusions.

As facts evolve, we must face the challenge that to remain informed we must keep challenging universal truths (e.g., “everyone knows…”) about science and technology. This circumstance is real, regardless of whether the source is Wikipedia, a science article in The Economist or Scientific American. Remember, we live in a world of evolving or even changing paradigms; therefore our knowledge must keep pace with such growth. That’s correct, but only if we’re are not to lapse into judging the technical world on outmoded and inaccurate information.

Why Use Wikipedia?

We know that all material on the Internet can contain both errors in fact or by the author selectively omitting contradictory information. This as is well-documented serves both to circulate his/her belief set or as a shortcut to escape the pressing of grants chasing and perish or publish.

A study in the magazine (scientific journal) Nature in December 2005 found “Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries. (Nature is a peer-reviewed journal.) That investigation studied ”42 {scientific} entries from the websites of Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica on subjects that represented a broad range of scientific disciplines. A team of independent subject mater experts analyzed the articles. They found when the error categories were expanded to include “factual errors, omissions, or misleading statements” 162 errors were found in Wikipedia and 123 in the Britannica. That is roughly four per article for the upstart amateurs and three for the professionally authored and peer reviewed publication that has been around since 1768. (Nature 438, 900-901; 2005.) There may be more information on the Internet but time constraints did allow me to check for more current analysis.

Since 2005 all the documented Wikipedia errors have been corrected. The Wiki managers have also expanded their efforts to deal with such error identifying feedback more rapidly and closer to real time. The heavily peer reviewed Britannica claims it was slandered and at least in 2008, the Nature cited errors had not been corrected.

LET THE READER BEWARE — Caveat Lector

Therefore, as with everything scientific and technical you read, whether textbooks, an Internet article, or an entry in an encyclopedia, check out both the facts and the author’s affiliation. Google it, then draw your own conclusions based on the evidence.

On the Internet, checking facts and looking for biases is easier than you think.

Read the articles, check who sponsors the site, and that organization’s mission statement. You may not like what you find relative to possible sponsor bias. I often don’t – but relative to science and technology I read, even as an old man set in his ways, I live with it. The best I can do with problem documentation is to sort out half-truths and distortions from substantiated fact; and attempt to verify that the research sponsors have not bought the results. [E.g., think drug trials and genetic engineering test results.]

It’s a little bit like the so called “fact” sheets politicians post on their websites about their opponents, which show little resemblance to things like the details documented in the Congressional Record.

Alternatives to Wikipedia

You can search each subject one search topic item at a time in Google. Remember the way you ask the question will filter your results. Then start reading …all thousand or hundred thousand hits. Fortunately the most relevant hits are in the first 100 references (links) Goggle retrieves. There are also semi-static encyclopedias on the web. Amazingly they too often lift material, from open information sources, such as Wikipedia or Encarta without acknowledging that fact.

In seeking reference information for our nuclear textbooks, most of what we found from antinuclear groups was irrelevant, inaccurate, outdated, heavily emotionally biased or downright scare mongering. The textbook authors chose not to cite or list the documented inaccuracies, and instead did not use these sources as references. Two examples:

The TMI reactor accident killed no one and albeit cleanup was expensive to deal with. This was particularly true in the panicky environment fostered by the local and national press. The accident did not significantly increase the cancer mortalities in the nearby Harrisburg, Pennsylvania region. If zero is a number you prefer, stop flying, don’t visit Denver, and stop eating because food is naturally radioactive as is the world. Chernobyl (USSR) was a reactor, unlike all now operating licensed power generating facilities in the world, which had no containment vessel. You know, that’s the dome around the reactor at a nuclear power station.

The Chernobyl Disaster was caused by human error and compounded by faulty technical design, yes, and no containment vessel. TMI had a containment vessel that worked, which limited release. America has never used uncontained nuclear reactors nor have any of the nuclear dependent nations such as France, Japan, England Korea, China or India. Modern nuclear reactors are even now being built to even stronger containment standards to thwart terrorist threats such as those of 9/11.

In addition the new reactor types coming online, are passively safe, they need no operator or instrument controlled safety intervention so shutdown if anything goes wrong.

Did you know that Wikipedia publishes a Teachers’ Guide?

The guide can also be used as a general users guide, since it stresses Caveat lector, albeit implicitly. Unlike most other sources of information I use, it provides detailed answers to questions about the limits of Wikipedia accuracy and reliability. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About/) Part of the information is related to the rules under which the site operates; the rest focuses on the feedback and corrections practices used by the site’s developers.

http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Schools/Teachers’_Guide The sections relevant to this article are listed below.

  1. Is Wikipedia accurate and reliable?
  2. What keeps someone from contributing false or misleading information?
  3. Can students cite Wikipedia in assignments?
  4. Is it a safe environment for young people?
  5. What is open-source media?
  6. Why do people contribute to open-source projects?
  7. Why have we not heard of this {about Wikipedia} before?

Also check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About#Strengths.2C_weaknesses.2C_and_article_quality_in_Wikipedia/.

I’m not going to rehash the contents of the referenced articles provided Wikipedia’s operating philosophy and rules, I also accept that some of you won’t believe simply because information, simply because it’s from Wikipedia. You’ve a right to believe, but from my perspective, not to try to force me to accept your beliefs. I challenge you to identify an alternative, broad source of high quality information that prominently acknowledges both disagreements and errors. Some of the media does this in fine print on page 10 of a magazine or newspaper never on TV and rarely on commercial radio.

To date, of the thousands of blog s I’ve visited, searching for information to write about, only a handful, admit to error or acknowledge opinion contrary to what they pitch. As bloggers, are we as stated by and old New York Times masthead publishing all the news that’s Fit to Print; or hiding behind a facade of all our news is Print to Fit.

The Wikipedia teachers’ guide notes, as do other Wikipedia links I’ve provided acknowledges: “Wikipedia cannot be perfect. There is almost certainly inaccurate information in it, somewhere, which has not yet been discovered to be wrong. Therefore, if you are using Wikipedia for important research or a school project, you should always verify the information somewhere else — just like you should with all sources.”

Without belaboring the much point further, I’d like to quote from Bill Kerr, with whose analysis I agree. Bill is an Australian blogger who frequently and intelligently deals with Internet censorship in public schools and other related topics.

Bill Kerr’s Concerns (and also mine.)“I am worried about how academics {and teachers in general} are treating Wikipedia and I think that it comes from a point of naivety. Wikipedia should never be the sole source for information. It will never have the depth of original sources. It will also always contain bias because society is inherently biased, although its {Wikipedia} efforts towards neutrality are commendable. These are just realizations we must acknowledge and support.

But what it does have is a huge repository of information that is the most accessible for most people. Most of the information is more accurate than found in a typical encyclopedia and yet, we value encyclopedias as an initial point of information gathering. It is also more updated, more inclusive and more in-depth. Plus, it’s searchable and in the hands of everyone with digital access (a much larger population than those with encyclopedias in their homes). It also exists in hundreds of languages and is available to populations who can’t even imagine what a library looks like.

Yes, it is open. This means that people can contribute what they do know and that others who know something about that area will try to improve it. Over time, articles with a lot of attention begin to be inclusive and approximating neutral. The more people who contribute, the stronger and more valuable the resource. Boycotting Wikipedia doesn’t make it go away, but it doesn’t make it any better either.”

http://billkerr.blogspot.com/

http://users.tpg.com.au/billkerr/index.htm

Also check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About#Strengths.2C_weaknesses.2C_and_article_quality_in_Wikipedia/.

More About Checking Technical Web Sites for Bias, Error, Omission,
and Just Plain Dumb Mistakes

You know, googling a subject, not only for Wikipedia reliability, but also checking information provided in other media, including that of blogs, is wise if you want to write credibly about technology. Certifiable accredited subject experts write many of the web’s posted technical pages. Unfortunately folks write too many others on a belief-based mission. I’m talking about blogs the political and think-tank pundits, aka talking heads. It’s not always easy to tell the difference between the two, without taking the time to further check.

Some of these are articles I reviewed are by a. new to me author category, discipline jumping born-anew experts. [E.g., an industrial engineer becoming an authority on genetic engineering. Alternatively, a nuclear engineer suddenly becoming an authority on cancer or nanotechnology.] Are you to let Dr. Harry Babad {me} do surgery on you? If so I have a bridge in NYC to sell you – it’s a real bargain.

One aspect, call it doc’s head check for evaluating the credulity of a source of material, is an author’s willingness to provide referenced full disclosure of opposing viewpoints. I found for most of the Wikipedia articles I checked, where appropriate, differences of opinion or a weakness in basis was noted. After all it’s what Wikipedia rules {author guidelines} require.

More About the Value in Blogs — From a devil’s advocate point of View, there are strong believers out there that who know that blogs are worse than porn. Check it out — for now I’ll provide only a single link – you can Google further to follow this belief set. See: http://singaporeangle.blogspot.com/2005/09/its-official-now-blogs-are-worse-than.html/. Perhaps this too will become a subject of a future article.

In Closing

I will continue to judiciously use Wikipedia as a reference source in my technical work when I’m writing for a non-technical audience.

Reality, in everyday usage, means “the state of things as they actually exist.” The term reality, in its widest sense, includes everything that is, whether or not it is observable or comprehensible. Isn’t philosophy awesome?However, the only ways our concepts of reality have a demonstrable basis would be on the preponderance of available evidence. This requires an ability to reproduce observations of any part of the world around us. And of course, the more we know and study and test what we read or hear or see, the more our vision of reality changes.

In the sense I’ve defined above, the reality of information found in our sources of information, which can be physically or statistically checked, the closer the information comes to being valid at any given time. That also holds true to papers by student using Wikipedia as a reference. I agree with teachers that students need to provide more dialog and references than a Wikipedia article. By simply citing a Wikipedia reference or three and quoting them is insufficient to understanding of the subject matter and that’s what learning is all about. Parrots are not thinkers, neither are tape recorders.

TEST TIME — Apply the caveat lector test to the following a list of web published realties, be they from Wikipedia or your grocery checkout counter’s favorite tabloid.

  • Information provided in a 30 second TV spot by a politician up for election.
  • Alleged facts during TV debates about the environment – folks claiming solar energy is clean energy without taking full life cycle pollution costs of making the solar cells and solar arrays into account.
  • The actual number of folks who’ve gotten cancer from radiation released in the Chernobyl reactor disaster or the TMI accident.
  • Information supporting your buying a stock from someone who gains by making it appear as a good deal.
  • Medical information on sites owned and operated by those trying to sell you cures.
  • Facts about people and issues by those who have a vested interest in their TRUTH such as many TV and Internet talk shows that take information out of context or just plain lie to get their message across.
  • Most advertising that claims superior performance about a product in LARGE print and provides you actual details in tiny print.

My Bottom Line — the more subjective a topic, the more room there is for bias or error or omission. At issue, it is and always will be hard to prove the reality of subjective information, despite the number of people who treat such information as TRUTH.

Therefore, do your homework. Remember, according to doc_Babad, grey is more beautiful than black or white. The more important the decision, the bigger the challenge of the homework assignment, but pick a topic and start checking… it will brighten up your mind.

Conclusions About Wikipedia as a Valid Technical Source

I wholeheartedly disagree with claims that Wikipedia is not trustworthy when the reader practices Caveat Lector! I consider, as do many other scientific and technical experts, Wikipedia a reliable and accessible site for technical information, provided that the reference cited in the Wikipedia article meets the standard identified at the beginning of this article.

While some educators dislike usage of Wikipedia, a nose in the air attitude, Doc continues to verify, to the extent that the information is available online, all cited Wikipedia references. I check for technical accuracy and the use of the scientific method in data acquisition that support the author’s findings. If I’m not comfortable with the underlying data, I either don’t site that Wiki, or provide a footnote documenting my concerns.

Therefore their use as broadly accessible reference to technical fact or analysis is justified. As I tell naysayers, if you don’t like the references I use, provide me with a readable, accessible and peer reviewed or otherwise credible alternative. I’ll add you counter argument to my articles and reference list.

Science is grey and evolving, and topics such as nuclear safety or man-made CO2 being the major cause of climate change evolve. Today’s demonstrated truths rapidly become yesterday’s fairy tales.

As facts evolve, we must face the challenge that to remain informed we must keep challenging universal truths (e.g., “everyone knows…”) about science and technology. This circumstance is real, regardless of whether the information source is Wikipedia, a science article in The Economist, Business Week (on technology, Discover Magazine, Scientific American, or a blog reporting on technical material. I use Caveat lector when reading a web hosted article, or any blog espousing any point of view whether it be a headline in a newspaper seeking circulation, or a study in a medical journal by an author whose work is funded by a drug company.

Remember, we live in a world of changing paradigms; therefore our knowledge must keep pace if we are not to lapse into judging the technical world on outmoded and inaccurate information.

I recognize that some of the other internet references may at future date become unavailable, thus by adding ‘living’ Wiki-based reference(s) to my articles, where appropriate, we hope to maintain the ‘knowledge thread.’ In addition, hopefully, the information in the article will allow readers to look elsewhere if they encounter unavailable citations at a future date. Or perhaps more to the point — Google On, but Caveat lector!

References

Nuclear Energy and the Use of Nuclear Materials For High School and Middle School Teachers by Raul A. Deju, Ph.D. and Harry Babad, Ph.D.; © 2008 EnergySolutions Foundation, Inc.

NUCLEAR IS HOT!{A book for High-School Students.} Everything you wanted to know about nuclear science and were afraid to ask. By Raul A. Deju, Ph.D., Harry Babad, Ph.D. and Michael A. Deju. © 2009 The EnergySolutions Foundation. First Edition Published March 2009,
ISBN Number 0615277543.

The EnergySolutions Foundation [http://energysolutionsfoundation.org/%5D

Teachers and Wikipediahttp://www.google.com/search?ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=Teachers%20and%20Wikipedia

Trusting Wikipediahttp://www.google.com/search?num=30&hl=en&newwindow=1&safe=off&q=Trusting+Wikipedia&btnG=Search

Wikipedia Errors http://www.google.com/search?ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=Wikipedia%20Errors

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – – – – – – – –

Sidebar Notes

Copyright Notice: Product and company names and logos in this review may be registered trademarks of their respective companies.

Some of the articles cited or quoted in this column are copyright protected – their use is both acknowledged and is limited to educational related purposes, which this column provides.

Appendix

The Scientific Method and More

Thumbnail definitions clipped from WIKIPEDIA

But let’s define some other terms first.

BIAS: is a term used to describe a preference toward a particular perspective or ideology, which means all information and points of view have some form of bias
BELIEF: is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise (argument) to be true without necessarily being able to adequately prove its main contention to other people who may or may-not agree.
FAITH: can refer to a religion, or to another deeply held belief, such as freedom or democracy It allows one to commit oneself to actions or behavior, based on self-experience that warrants belief, but without any existence or need for existence of demonstrable or absolute proof.
PARADIGM: Since the late 1960’s, the word “paradigm” has referred to thought pattern in any scientific discipline or other epistemological context. The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines it as “a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated.”

Therefore, bias, error, omission, and just plain mistakes are all a part of our information sphere —yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The major differences are that we now, in 2008, have a greater ability to more broadly and deeply check what we read and hear and to attempt to make sense of the information available.

The Scientific Method

Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The Oxford English Dictionary says that scientific method is: “a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

Although procedures vary from one field of inquiry to another, identifiable features distinguish scientific inquiry from other methods of obtaining knowledge. Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses. These steps must be repeatable, to predict future results. Theories that encompass wider domains of inquiry may bind many independently derived hypotheses together in a coherent, supportive structure. Theories, in turn, lead to new hypotheses or place groups of hypotheses into context.

Scientific inquiry is generally intended to be as objective as possible, to reduce biased interpretations of results. Another basic expectation is to document, archive and share all data and methodology so they are available for careful scrutiny by other scientists, giving them the opportunity to verify results by attempting to reproduce them. This practice, called full disclosure, also allows statistical measures of the reliability of these data to be established. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_Method

Doc notes this is made more interesting by the fact that measured data is often modeled conceptually to determine further relationships among groups of tests, or to predict, let’s day for climate change, or disease spread, to predict future trends from past or present collections of data. [Doc’s bias, if you can’t measure it, I ain’t data.]. However it may be knowledge with is the result of extrapolating data, let’s say by modeling.

Did you know that the presumed father of the scientific method was Galileo Galilei (1564-1642.)”?

And as frail human beings, all of this is continually confounded by trying to distinguish between measurable (e.g., scientifically measured) truth and belief.

Truth and Belief — Again from WIKIPEDIA

Beliefs and BiasesBelief can alter observations; the human confirmation bias is a heuristic that leads a person with a particular belief to see things as reinforcing their belief, even if another observer would disagree. Researchers have often admitted that the first observations were a little imprecise, whereas the second and third were “adjusted to the facts”. Eventually, factors such as openness to experience, self-esteem, time, and comfort can produce a readiness for new perception.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth/]

To explore further, check out

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Comments
  1. When I was an undergrad, several of my professors teaching Computer Science and History courses would not allow students to cite Wikipedia in any papers we submitted for our classes. If you want to pass a course you do as your professors direct.

    I recall reading that Wiki content was manipulated for the US 2004 elections so certain issues were slanted to match those favored by political conservatives and big business.

    Data manipulation for political gain is not new, and there have and will be people that attempt to manipulate scientific data (like global warming deniers) in an effort to confuse the unwary. So, for all data sources I agree with Harry – Caveat Lector.

  2. Harry (doc) Babad says:

    Mike,

    Thanks for the accurate comment — You’ll notice I never quote anything but technical oriented Wiki’s and those only after checking the majority of references there-in for accuracy or if not, for reasonableness of their underlying science.. This is complemented by my checking their overall conclusions for implied bias.

    I do the same when writing a tect-book book, or article for publication in a technical journal. Where I have residual doubts, I note about my concern of a reference’s accuracy or reasonableness, in a foot note that the reader has access to. Part of my paradigm is always asking the WIFT question.

    Doc.

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