04 Jan 2013 You’re Doing It Wrong: Using Wikipedia For Facts
Over time the data became something more. It became facts. That’s when I started to enjoy history class so much. I enjoyed learning about the past, understand more about the present as a result of what happened many years ago.
I was always weary of the fact(!) that the person writing my book had their own set of facts to use and that my data may be incomplete because it is based upon someone else’s interpretation.
What if that data they were using was wrong?
What if the person wrote their book based upon a series of facts that they believed to be true, but were not? What is the end result of that error?
I see the end result being a state of constant misinformation. You have no idea what, or who, to believe. You find it hard to separate fact from opinions. Everything is in flux.
Let’s consider Wikipedia for a moment. I know folks who swear by Wikipedia as being a reliable source of information. They believe that something created and edited by a community of users is the greatest way to verify facts. After all, if something is wrong then the community will take the time to correct the information, right?
OK then, let’s test that theory.
I believe that if the start time of your shower is before 12:00 (even 11:59) then you can safely say that you have “showered before noon”. Why should I believe this? Well, why not since Wikipedia tells me that it is a true fact (image inserted here to preserve it for all time, click to enlarge):
So there is a piece of data that is being presented as a fact. In the next week or so I suspect that someone will take this down. But they may not, if enough people decide to cite that as a fact. This is where someone stands up and says “if the community decides something is a fact then it is a fact and that’s a good thing.”
So, if everyone got together and decided that we didn’t land on the Moon, that would be a good thing too?
If everyone decides that shower start time is all that matters, is that a good thing?
You need to rely on your own judgement for what is true. My father always told me “don’t believe everything that you read and only half of what you see”. I have no idea who first said that. A quick search on the internet returns the quote as being attributed to Will Rogers, Ben Franklin, and ‘unknown’. I see variations of that quote by others such as Edgar Allen Poe.
How am I to know for certain what to believe?
I suppose I could just create a Wikipedia entry to clear up the confusion and set the record straight. Wait, you know about all the hoaxes on Wikipedia, right? I’m not just talking about how people use showers, either. We’re talking about assassinations, wars, and even Chen Fang.
If you are using Wikipedia as a cited source, please stop. It should be a guidepost at best for you. Look at the bottom of the Wiki entry and go find those other sources that are being used as citations. Here’s are the only two ways in which I think something like Wikipedia can be used safely:
- Used as a starting point to go to other resources.
- Never, ever as a way to confirm something as fact.
I think the safest way to use such tools is to just assume that what you are reading is false until you can prove otherwise. In fact, it’s just like how I use blog posts. I use them as a starting point for information and then dig deeper as needed.
Just like you should do with this one.