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You’re Doing It Wrong: Using Wikipedia For Facts

You’re Doing It Wrong: Using Wikipedia For Facts

informationI’ve always enjoyed data. It started at an early age, I just enjoyed numbers. Simple math problems led to more complex ones, but it was all just data to me at the time.

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):

useThe funny thing here is that this isn’t a fact at all. It’s an opinion, being presented as a fact. How do I know this? Because I’m the reason it got entered into Wikipedia today :

Screen shot 2013-01-04 at 2.07.23 PMSo 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.”

Oh really?

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:

  1. Used as a starting point to go to other resources.
  2. 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.

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  • Just to add to the confusion on what is fact and what isn’t you should read this:

    If I remember correctly I was pointed there by one of Brent Ozar’s weekly emails but since I already deleted it I can be sure.

    Oh, and can we add the “Media” to the list of places not to site for facts? I think half the time they contradict themselves a week later. My father-in-law has a good method .. he says to read everything you can, preferably from both sides of an argument, then make your own decisions.

    • ThomasLaRock

      That’s not bad advice either, thanks!

  • James Smits

    This is a good post. I’d like to note that your bit of misinformation was cleared up within 3 hours. Wikipedia is resilient in that regard, people who contribute to articles actually monitor them as well.

    Fortunately (or unfortunately) Wikipedia wasn’t around for me when I was in college because I do think the temptation to cite it would have been hard to resist. However, just because there is some inaccurate information on Wikipedia, it does not follow that Wikipedia is unreliable as a datasource. If you are writing a scholarly article or are really invested in the subject for other reasons then it should not be your one stop for information, but if you want a crash course on the general function of showers, then it is probably just fine.

    • ThomasLaRock


      Was it really a piece of misinformation though? Off topic, sure. Was it wrong?

      The thing here is that “last save wins”. If the editor decides that we didn’t land on the moon, or the bacon cures polio, then that’s the information that will be published. Then that information gets pushed further outward, and before you know it the truth is something very, very difficult to find.

      I can still recall the time I had a close friend argue with me about how a transaction log worked. I had an email from Paul Randal saying one thing and a Wikipedia article saying something else. My friend said Wikipedia was a better source of information on SQL Server transaction logs than Paul Randal because Wikipedia was viewed and edited by thousands of users, and Paul was just one person.


      That was all I needed to realize how easy it is to be seduce by what Wikipedia pretends to offer.

      Like you said though, crash course might be the best way to describe it. Certainly not an ending point, but not the worst starting point.

  • In less than 3 hours, a Wikipedia user came along and removed the statement you added (that’s what Wikipedia calls vandalism, by the way.) That’s pretty much what always happens on the site. If you look at that shower article, nearly everything is carefully cited. I’d compare it to the Encyclopedia Brittanica article on showering any day, if there was one. I have 12,000 Wikipedia edits, and I’m also a journalist. I get sick of people saying that you can’t take what you see on Wikipedia as a fact – perhaps there’s a kernel of truth there, but only in the same way you also need to independently verify anything you read on this website, or Twitter, or in a newspaper. Empirical studies have shown that Wikipedia is overall more comprehensive and more accurate than Brittanica, and I doubt 20 years ago you would have written an article denouncing the accuracy of Brittanica and how it can’t be trusted. Focusing on how sometimes someone may vandalize Wikipedia to say something incorrect carries about as much weight as criticizing this website for not having enough information on quantum mechanics – it misses the point entirely. Wikipedia is a free, amazing, and, overall, accurate resource that, while not perfect, is better than past encyclopedias, available to anyone in the world with just an Internet connection, and offers a wealth of information at our fingertips that no other generation has had, ever. And if you don’t like the content – well, you can always edit it to make it better rather than criticize it.

    • ThomasLaRock


      Thank you for your comment and thank you for you dedication to helping maintain Wikipedia as a viable reference resource.

      I don’t believe we are that far off in our opinions. I understand that you can’t trust any resource. I didn’t say that Britannica was better. What I was trying to say is that each individual needs to decide for themselves what the truth is about something.

      Wikipedia is a good starting point, for all the reasons you mentioned.

      Thanks again.

  • Aaron Bertrand

    I’m not sure where your disdain for Wikipedia comes from, but IMHO it’s misplaced. While I wouldn’t recommend a doctor use it for reference in the operating room while trying to save someone’s life, it’s perfectly adequate for the types of facts most of us are seeking – which are not life and death.

    As a few examples, I’ve used it recently to determine who the Flyers beat in the ’75 Stanley Cup Finals (it was the Sabres), find information on Halifax, review the full list of Oscar winners (Best Film and both leads), and look up the year that Deep Blue beat Kasparov (it was ’89). I don’t know of any site that would have made any of those searches easier, never mind one site that would make them all easier. And for these types of facts, I don’t feel the need to “go to other resources.” Why is any other web site less likely to have it wrong? Very few web sites are authored by the ultimate authority on any such facts.

    Do I run the risk of “learning” something that is not true because some vandalist (vandalizer?) put it there before I got there, and I got there before the maintainers corrected it? Sure. But I have a much higher likelihood of finding bad advice in an answer on stackoverflow or SSC that has been up-voted and seems like a good answer, and those live for years and users inevitably follow the advice to much worse consequences than having a piece of trivia wrong.

    So, I challenge you to find 5 incorrect “facts” on that site that you didn’t put there (not a very good example anyway, since it’s a subjective and language-specific interpretation), and that live longer than 24 hours. Let us know what you find.

    • ThomasLaRock


      Well, the easy thing to do here is to tell you that we never landed on the moon, and that the entire article is untrue. I could pick out five similar events and tell you they aren’t true. I could even cite books and blog posts as evidence if you wish. Moon landings, Kennedy assignation, 9-1-1, etc. The list of events and disputed facts are endless.

      That’s not the point here.

      The point is that when you want to know the truth you have to seek it out for yourself. You can’t simply rely on information that others have given you as the only possible truth.

      Let’s look at John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Were you aware that at his trial John Brown stated that he never intended to incite a revolt? (read first paragraph here:

      That testimony isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on the Harper’s Ferry raid.

      If all I did was read the Wikipedia article about the raid then I may think John Brown the equivalent of a terrorist today. Was he? Certainly he was an abolitionist, but is the entry for the raid on Harper’s Ferry enough information for me to decide?

      Perhaps you feel that it is, and that’s your right.

      But chances are there are lots of details missing. The event happened. So did the ’75 Cup finals. We know the people involved in both events. Yet there is still a lot of context missing. What was John Brown doing there? Why did the Sabres get beat in ’75?

      Next week that entry for Harper’s Ferry may have the word ‘abolitionist’ removed and simply replaced with ‘terrorist’. Even if that change lasts for a few hours, is that right? The person that gets to press “save” on that entry last gets to decide what we are to believe.

      I prefer to use Wikipedia as a starting point, nothing more. I recognize that the folks that work behind the scenes for Wikipedia have good intentions, but that doesn’t mean they always have all the correct facts.

      It’s up to me to decide what I believe to be true.

  • datachick

    Not all incorrect facts on Wikipedia are due to vandalism. I’m guessing a non-trivial number are due to urban legends and commonly held beliefs. The majority vote approach doesn’t fix the validation problem.. For instance, the It’s a Wonderful Life entry was locked to all edits for more than year because people kept editing in mis-information and people got tired of constantly fixing them.

    The entries for several topics in my area of specialization are terrible. People, including me, have tried over the years to improve them, but one or two dedicated editors keep reversing the changes, even when presented with citations and links from credible sources that the original facts/entries are wrong. Eventually, those who have valid facts get tired of the fight. So those entries stand, wrongness and all.

    My guess is that the more niche the topic, the less likely it is correct, especially where money and marketing is involved.

    I think wikis work best in a high-trust, common goal environment. The Internet, as a whole, isn’t that space.

    Yet I use Wikipedia almost daily. I use it as a guide to finding information, but I still attempt to verify data that I need to act upon. My guess, is, though, that the vast majority of Internet users have no idea that something in a post could be incorrect.

    • ThomasLaRock


  • disqus_psJcmhduDN


    Your points on this topic are right on!

    In some cases the facts may be correct, but the context is left out or skewed to one side. In other cases the facts themselves should be looked at with a grain of salt. Just because they are sited by a source you think is credible doesn’t really mean they are credible.

    An interesting entry to look at is Global Warming. There is a lot of political and monetary impact to the topic. The University researchers are funded by governments that would benefit from the taxation that is pushed in the name of Global Warming. If the university researches want more money, don’t you think they will skew their results in the favor of the Government outcome? Then the research is sited as truth.

    At the same time, the whole article acts like it is fact. What is funny to me though is when they mention the following: “Most scientists agree that humans are contributing to observed climate change”

    That is what you were saying about people agreeing to facts on Wikipedia. Now they are applying it to science. Consensus isn’t science.

    It would be interesting to see the distribution of the political views of the editors of articles. Every editor has some kind of motivation to edit an article. Sometimes the motivation helps to bring out the facts. But, sometimes it is marketing, or political, or propaganda.

    • ThomasLaRock

      Good points there, thanks for the comment!

      Yes, it is important to consider the source of you information. The term “follow the money” comes to mind here.

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