TCS Daily


The Faith-Based Encyclopedia Blinks

By Robert McHenry - December 14, 2005 12:00 AM

"First, get the mule's attention."


That piece of folksy wisdom -- on the necessary initial step in getting useful work out of a mule -- came to mind as I read about the latest events in the evolution of Wikipedia. The traditional tool for getting the mule's attention is a two-by-four. In the case of Wikipedia, it seemed for a few days that the Seigenthaler business might serve in lieu of lumber, but it seems now that the mule is still dreaming of distant shores.

The bad publicity that resulted from Mr. Seigenthaler's complaint about a libelous biographical entry in the online encyclopedia moved "constitutional monarch" Jimmy Wales to institute the merest of revisions in Wikipedia policy. Before, anyone was free to write and insert an article anonymously into the vast and rapidly growing database; now, would-be encyclopedists must first register a user name. What protection or assurance this provides remains to be explained. As for editing articles that already exist, that is still wide open to all comers. Wales continues to insist that the volunteer corps of Wikiwatchers -- how many there are varies from one published estimate to the next, but evidently there are some hundreds, perhaps a thousand -- is adequate to the task of monitoring new articles and edits to old ones.

A little more than a year ago I first wrote about Wikipedia. In that article I attempted to make two points: that the basic premise of the project is fatally flawed and can only be embraced as an article of faith, and that the project lacks a proper concern for ordinary users, those who are not in on the game.

The premise is this: By making every article open to the revisions, corrections, and updates offered by any and all users, the collective knowledge and wisdom of the whole community will find expression in each article. In short, every article will get better and better. The flaw is this: Many revisions, corrections, and updates are badly done or false. There is a simple reason for this: Not everyone who believes he knows something about Topic X actually does; and not everyone who believes he can explain Topic X clearly, can. People who believe things that are not the case are no less confident in their beliefs than those who happen to believe true things. (In case this point interests you, I have written extensively on it.) Consequently, it is far more reasonable to expect that, while initially poor articles may indeed improve over time, initially superior ones will degrade, with all tending to middling quality and subject to random fluctuations in quality. Note that this has nothing to do with the vandalism or the ideological "revert wars" that are also features of Wikipedia's insistence on openness and that apparently occupy much of the volunteer editors' time and effort.

To the ordinary user, the turmoil and uncertainty that may lurk beneath the surface of a Wikipedia article are invisible. He or she arrives at a Wikipedia article via Google, perhaps, and sees that it is part of what claims to be an "encyclopedia." This is a word that carries a powerful connotation of reliability. The typical user doesn't know how conventional encyclopedias achieve reliability, only that they do. Nothing in or around the Wikipedia article on the screen gives any indication that the people who produced it don't necessarily know, either.

An anecdote: Not long ago I became curious about the name "Mnestheus." It seemed likely to be an ancient Greek name, but I didn't recognize it. I Googled it, and one of the top hits linked to a Wikipedia entry. "Well, OK," I thought, "give it a try." The entry, in its entirety, read thus:

"In Greek mythology, Mnestheus accompanied Odysseus on the Odyssey."

That's really all I wanted to know, and I was about to chalk up one point for Wikipedia. But then I noticed a source line just below:

"Virgil IV, 288; IX, 171, 781."

"Hold the phone," says I to myself. "Odyssey? Virgil?"

Ten minutes' more searching around, including full-text scans of online versions of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid, confirmed that the references to Virgil were correct and that Mnestheus appears nowhere in Homer. He is a character in Latin literature, not Greek mythology, and he was a companion of Aeneas, not Odysseus.

Leaving aside the entry title itself, the entry consists of eight words, of which four are wrong. The correct words are "In," "accompanied," "on," and "the."

By the time you read this, the entry will likely have been corrected, and some Wikipedians will proclaim this as another proof of concept. It does not occur to them to wonder how many people may have come upon that entry in the more than three years it has existed and relied in some way on the misinformation in it. They nearly got me.

I was once an encyclopedia editor, but I wasn't one just because I said so. It's not like being an artist, after all. When I began I first learned to proofread, then to fiddle about with galleys and page proofs, then to fact-check, then to write clearly and concisely, and so on; at length I learned (so we agreed to say) editorial judgment. Late in my days I took a hand in training others. There really is something to the job -- skills, knowledge, experience, and maybe even a touch of talent.

The editorial process I learned was very elaborate. Nothing was published that had not been seen by four or more sets of eyes. Why? Because it was believed that our continued employment depended upon our reputation, which in turn rested on the reliability of what we published. There came a time in the 1980s when, like so many other firms at the time, our company was invaded by swarms of consultants. Though our business was explaining and we were, by most accounts, pretty good at it, we found we could not explain to the satisfaction of someone laboring under the burden of a business-school education just why we would proofread an article three times, or fact-check something written by an expert. I finally went out and got an MBA myself just so I could oblige these folks to listen. But they had been taught that they needn't know anything so specific about the businesses they "advised"; theirs was the grand general view, and in that view we spent too much time and money in needless busywork.

Another anecdote: Working on an article in the field of economics that had been written by a Nobel laureate, I came to a sentence that was meant to explain a fairly fundamental relationship, and it seemed wrong. The more I read it the more convinced I became that it said just the reverse of what was intended. Like a good junior editor, I finally wrote the author and very timidly suggested that perhaps he had miswritten. He had, indeed, he conceded graciously, and he thanked me for noticing. This wasn't proofreading. This wasn't fact-checking. This was close reading, an editor standing in for the eventual reader in order to assure that what was written was clear, logical, and to the point. This was responsible publishing.

Since my first article I've had several conversations with Jimmy Wales, and I've tried to make clear to him that I would love to be able to agree that Wikipedia is all, or even most, of what he claims it to be. The Internet needs a great encyclopedia. It's going to take a long time and hard, skillful work; and I guess it's going to take an even bigger stick.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (Booklocker.com, 2004). You can find a Wikipedia entry for McHenry here.
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