More Welcome Ridicule for Wikipedia

Wikipedia is generally fun, sometimes useful, often entertaining. What it isn’t is very dependable, for the very reason that makes it fun: it is an encyclopedia whose content is generated by random contributors. We’ve touched on this subject a few times on this blog, here and here and here. But Stephen Colbert has done a better job of ridiculing Wikipedia than we could ever dream.


I went back and read the other three entries you posted about wikipedia. It would seem the name was obviously a combination of 'wiki' and 'encyclopedia'. One is a technology, the other is a social acceptance as a large set of books (that is always correct).

Here you see the problem. While it's very easy to create a small subset of the world in text, and call it 'always correct,' you conversely miss out on the rest of the information in this world. Surely, there must be people out there who know more than those who write full-time for wikipedia, and they seem to realize this as they allow people to edit the entries.

The power of information is that when fostered by a global community, knowledge is endless. The downfall is that pranksters have a say in all of this. We have seen though, wikipedia takes measures against abuse. In the end, I think we all know to take what we read online with a grain of salt.



Wikipedia is certainly wrong on many issues, but on some serious academic-type subjects, it seems to be fairly accurate. Check out this post from the Scientific American blog (see link below); it details a study that randomly chose 50 science related topics, and compared Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica on the chosen subjects. Then they had experts review the entries for errors, and they found that Encyclopedia Britannica was no better than Wikipedia.


Actually, what Colbert did was idiotic, and has backfired:

It is as if I go to a park a pee all over the grass and then I claim that public parks are useless and shouldn't be allowed because they can so easily be vandalised. What wikipedia is doing is something never seen before, and you can constantly find better information than in many other similar sources of information, with one important difference: it is FREE.


Wikipedia may not be reliable for serious reasearch but it is useful for getting a quick and usually readable overview of an unfamiliar topic. That's the sort of thing which can be surprisingly difficult to find online.


The usefulness of Wikipedia is in its references. Proper articles always have references scattered throughout, plus a References or External Links section at the bottom where you can go elsewhere on the Internet and verify everything is true. And as we all know, pretty much everything on the Internet is true, so these can point anywhere.

For instance, did you know that the mango is North Korean President Kim Jong Il's favorite fruit?

It's true, look on wikipedia, in the first paragraph. Plus, it has a link to a web page that verifies the fact.


When Stephen Colbert says on TV that he is falsifying Wikipedia, it is trivally easy for Wikipedia administrators to correct the false additions and ban his username.

But it is not so easy to detect false data when it is systematically entered and maintained by (for example) anonymous employees in propaganda "wiki-tanks."

That was the point that Stephen Colbert was making. He didn't really care whether people believe he is in the habit of calling Oregon Idaho's Portugal or not, so it misses the point to say his action "backfired."

Stephen Colbert wants people to understand that all published information, whether published freely on a wiki or published privately elsewhere, might be a product of somebody's desire to mislead.


Hombrelobo ... take a deep breath. What Mssr. Colbert did was HILARIOUS. He is an entertainer and that was entertaining. I think what is a bit iditioc is to take him seriously, as you seem to have done.


On a "serious" note, anyone who takes a single source as definitive on any topic is taking a gamble. Even "serious" and "traditional" experts and sources can be contradictory and inconsistent. The wikipedia is a great resource - particularly (as noted above) it often contains links to multiple alternative sources of information.


I think what Stephen Colbert did was hilarious, but also had a point. His show is about poking fun at the 24/7 news channels, Fox in particular (where "truth" is as malleable to them as it is to Stephen's persona), and "personality" shows like Bill O.
The humor is also to remind you that you have to have a jaded eye (and ear) when you get facts from any source which has an agenda. He wears his "agenda" on his sleeve, which is what makes it so much fun. Where the Daily Show points us right to the manipulation of others, Stephen does it in front of us and pretends that it is more truth because he says so. This is making sure we get the idea of truthiness as opposed to fact.
Now, would you say Stephen is a great host or the greatest host? ;-)


Colbert's prank seemed to illustrate the efficacy of wikipedia. Very quickly, the errors were corrected, the vandalism halted, and if you read the discussion on the -elephant- page, the increased traffic to that and other articles from Colbert's report caused some revisions and edits that improved the quality of the entry altogether. The fact that anyone can contribute is exactly what makes the project work so well. It's not much different than the way in which markets harness the same kind of creativity and ingenuity in people.


I don't understand why this blog keeps attacking wikipedia. Wikipedia seems fine to me. It clearly indicates what it is and how it establishes the veracity of information -- anyone who uses wikipedia has an idea of how it works. Most people who read up on the concept assume that utter crap will emerge -- when they visit wikipedia pages on topics they understand, they're generally pleasantly surprised, not to find flawless information, but to find generally accurate information and a system open to improvement.
It would seem to me that economists would be interested in wikipedia for how good it is: why would people trust "random people"? why would people contribute to a site where their work can be vandalized? why is wikipedia growing so fast?
Instead, you just insist on picking out minor problems and pointing in astonishment -- as if saying, "look at the dumb masses, how dumb, they're dumb dumb dumb... we all know wikipedia can't work!".
Well, until you take the time to do a systematic study like this one, I think you should get over whatever your hang-up with wikipedia is.


Anonymous Coward

Tom, isn't it obvious that Dubner attacks the Wikipedia because it gives away for free what he sells? He's happy to laugh when other people have their information asymmetries taken away by the internet (e.g. life insurance salesmen), but when its his profession that now has to compete with free content, he starts sounding like a realtor nitpicking over details in a Freakonomics chapter.

I don't assume what I read in the wikipedia is correct just as I don't assume that the content I get from traditional media outlets are correct. The book Freakonomics itself complains that all the experts and traditional media sources are often wrong (for example in predicting that crime would keep rising, writing about economics generally).

Jane Shevtsov

Wikipedia covers many technical subjects that are too specialized for conventional encyclopedias. And its science entries, at least, are generally accurate.


Stephen Colbert is a brilliant comedian and this was a funny bit. In addition to being funny, what is so bad about reminding people that Wiki is not necessarily accurate. (Not everybody knows how Wiki works, but if you google a topic, it often brings Wiki up as the first link! I had used Wiki several times before I learned that it was vulnerable.)

I do find it a useful tool for solving crossword puzzles when I get stuck, but I would never rely on what I read there when putting together a paper or debating a topic.


I love this blog, but am always a bit dismayed and disappointed when it attacks Wikipedia.

Is it really because it occassionally "gets things wrong"? This seems unlikey to me. I mean come on, how many times does the NY Times get things wrong? (hello, run up on the war in iraq!) Or academic text books? (hello, elementary school textbook on U.S. history!) How many times has a major economic journal rejected a paper that decades later garners its author a Nobel Prize? (hello, 'market for lemons' by George Akerlof!)

Is the real reason because the authors of the blog come from the realm of traditional purveyors of information -- academia and journalism -- and feel confused/scared/threatened by something like Wikipedia? This, of course, would be understandable. Totally lame, but understandable.

So come on fellas. What is it about Wikipedia that troubles you so?


To know what's wrong with wikipedia you might look for technical information on Caterpillar equipment. What you will find is a screechy rant about those horrible Israelis and their use of D9 bulldozers. Huh?

Or you could look up the Swift Boat Veterans. From day one of that entry it was trashed repeatedly by creepy little basement dwelling moonbats. These are the people Orwell knew and they are trying to rewrite history on the fly. Two years after the election they are still chewing on that entry.

Paul Turnbull

If by "screechy rant" you mean "straight-forward description" then you might be right. I just read the article in question and I didn't see any judgement in the text beyond noting that there is controversy among CAT shareholders about the use of the equipment by the IDF. This is valid information to be present in a comprehensive article about the company and its equipment.

You'll also find all the technical information you'd want as well.


If by "you might be right" you mean "concede the point entirely" then I can live with that.


For a good summary on Wikipedia and its effects, read the new book "The Long Tail" (p. 65). Wired's Editor Chris Anderson makes the following points about Wiki's relationship to real encyclopedias:

1) On a micro level: Because it is open-source information, an individual Wikipedia article might not be any more likely to be correct than an individual, professionally edited encyclopedia article.

2) On a macro level: Because it is updated daily, in the aggregate Wikipedia is more likely to reflect current facts and opinions than a real encyclopedia, which is only updated annually.

3) Because the opportunity cost of including more information is essentially zero, the chance of finding information on a topic is much better in Wikipedia (millions of entries) than in an encyclopedia (tens of thousands of entries).

4) Encyclopedias are more authoritative of on scientific and historical matters (i.e. all scholarly subjects)

5) Wikipedia is more relevant for everything else, especially because encyclopedias are limited by page space.



My favorite "source" is Gullible.Info (, which is as the domain implies. (However, take my recommendation with a grain of salt since I am a frequent contributor.) (And I love Wikipedia and use it daily.)