Wikipedia? Feh!

I know, I know, I know: Wikipedia is one of the wonders of the online world. I hear this regularly, especially from young journalist friends and also in e-mails concerning Freakonomics. A casual mention in our book concerning the derivation of the Chicago Black Sox’ nickname began a debate chronicled here, a debate in which participants regularly cited the Wikipedia entry as a definitive source. Michael Kinsley is so enamored of the communal encyclopedia idea that he experimented with turning the L.A. Times editorial page into a wikitorial page, wherein readers could add and subtract from the paper’s editorials. (This experiment ended abruptly when one reader contributed a porn link.) But if anyone ever needs a reason to be deeply skeptical of Wikipedia’s dependability, I urge you to click on this entry, which is introduced thusly: “This is an alphabetical list of well-known economists. Economists are scholars conducting research in the field of economics.” It is true that the list includes George Akerlof and Paul Samuelson and Jeffrey Sachs and even Steve Levitt. But if you want to see how truly pathetic Wikipedia can be, check out the sixth “economist” listed under “D.” [NOTE: “Carl Johnson” (see first comment below) was helpful/mischievous enough to read this blog item and quickly amend the Wikipedia entry; until then, the sixth name listed under “D” belonged to yours truly, and though some of my best friends are economists, I am very much not.]

Carl Johnson

And the strength of Wikipedia:

Already fixed.

Yes, yes, Wikipedia is a terrible source to cite, since it has no credibility. But, it's a wonderful place to go to get more of the gist of things you already know a little about. The information you find there is useful for giving you more jumping off points with which to do further, credible research. And besides, for people of a certain temperament, editing an encyclopedia is fun.

Rory Parle

Wikipedia articles are supposed to be accompanied by full references, so that all of the information can be independently verified byany reader. The fact that so few contributers bother to do this is dissapointing but understandable. Many don't know they should cite references, most don't know how, and in some cases the information they add is first-hand knowledge so they have no reference material to cite. If you want a reliable source you could simply restrict yourself to featured articles, which are all fully referenced.

Carl Johnson

Actually, it was already fixed before I checked, but I had every intention of doing it myself, if someone else hadn't.


The value of wikipedia lies not in its 100% accuracy *right now*, it's value lies in that it is an in-depth source for information that is only getting better over time.

I wouldn't cite it in a scholarly article, certainly, but it's great for the average person to learn something they didn't know.

qualityg says


Wikipedia is like the Internet, Encyclopedia, and Dictionary, they are "information" only.

All of these resources at best may be informational, but knowledge, no way. Folks please don't confuse the two.




Wiki wouldn't be dangerous, just pathetic, if web users could also look at credible sources without paying money, sometimes big money.

Only amateurs and fanatics spend time writing articles for free. If you want a well-researced article (say from the NYT or a reviewed encyclopedia) it will cost you.

AND as a result, the credible sources don't come up in Google.


Isn't the value of Wikipedia kind of like natural selection?

Some form gets put out there, it gets edited, added to, edited, and so on. If it's a bad entry, nobody will use it, if it's a good one, people will. The sourcing is really the key, but ultimately, it is always moving forward, pushed through a design process.


"AND as a result, the credible sources don't come up in Google."

Perhaps you should research a little yourself before posting:


"Some form gets put out there, it gets edited, added to, edited, and so on. If it's a bad entry, nobody will use it, if it's a good one, people will. The sourcing is really the key, but ultimately, it is always moving forward, pushed through a design process."

Exactly, entries on abortion gets editted by the left, then the right, back and forth until it is in such a form that is acceptable to all side, making it truely "fair and balanced".


Typical response from a "hit" on

"The full text article is available for purchase

$35.92 plus tax

The exact price (including tax) will be displayed in your shopping cart before you check out. You will be able to remove this item from your shopping cart at any time before you have completed check-out."

Somerset Frisby

All the editing is fine and dandy, but what do we tell the person who referenced a Wiki entry on July 1 and on Aug. 4 that entry is completely different? How is a person to tell how definitive the information is?


I think Wiki would make Hayek smile.


"Typical response from a "hit" on"

That is not a "typical" hit in myself or anyone else I know.

Eric Galloway

Stephen Dubner was incorrectly listed in Wikipedia as an economist for a little more than three months (from May 4, 2005 to Aug 5, 2005). It will interesting to see whether his name is added to the list in the future, and if so, how long it stays there. See here for the history of the list with access to older versions.


I ran into an aggressive journal on my second check (snowball earth was ok, but erbium rhodium lanthanide had a simple first citation and the second one grabbed the back button), so it varies by what you are looking at.
If you want a valid sample, check one hundred random wikipedia examples vs one hundred examples and see what you get. Then tell us tomorrow.

Abbot Uhhm

But the point of wikipedia is not to be an authority. Its to be a source.

Users may mistake it for one when the contributor displays a style that is typical of "an expert". But its supposed to be a learning place, one that anyone can contribute to. The relative chaos of a user-built site does not make it worthless, any more than the contributors on this site make it worthless.

I appreciate learning about - I learned about it on a page that (in part) reads "I think wiki would make Hayek smile". I'll admit I don't know what Hayek has to do with it, but I enjoy not having to be in a classroom environment to learn.


dubner: and though some of my best friends are economists, I am very much not.

wow. a whopping understatement and overstatement in the same sentence!

i agree that you know very little about economics and often wonder why the NYTimes lets you write about the topic so frequently, given this obvious fact.

also, as far as I can see, only one of your best friends is an economist. What other economists do you include in your "best friends?"

Why does the New York Times Magazine allow a journalist with no knowledge of economics to have a quasi-monopoly on economics articles, all of which are about one economist who is nowhere near as influential among his colleagues as he is in the mass mediumb?

Surely you guys understand the concept of "diminishing marginal utility" well enough to realize that an article by someone other than Dubner about research other than Levitt's would be more interesting than more Dubner&Levitt.

Even if you think Dubner&Levitt is brilliant (which I don't), you have to agree it's irrational for the Sunday New York Times to publish a half dozen articles in one year about or by the stevies.


Carl Johnson

Somerset Frisby:

You provide a link to that day's entry in Wikipedia, instead of the current entry (whatever it may be). Wikipedia keeps all the old versions of pages (unless they're completely deleted for being irrelevant to an encyclopedia), so you can always refer back to a particular version of a page.


I don't understand why some people don't like Wikipedia. It is often very useful. The fact that anyone can change the articles just unnerves people.