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.


You should, of course, check out Alex's post on the topic...

I find trashing wikipedia just about as useful as... well not useful at all. Not that it is great. I've been working with it and wikis for a long while, but the unspoken assumption is that the 'others' are better. The bankrupt authority of peer reviewed scholarship, unchallengeable bias in textbooks and encyclopedias, and general sloppy research and publishing are all given a goldseal of approval when you trash wikipedia for its emergent and unfolding work. Unless your goal is to just silence a new form of meaning making and co-construction of knowledge.

I have always taught my student to never trust a single text or source of information, and be skeptical of whatever you're dealing with. Relocalizing this from print to online to wikipedia is simple... Only a total moron would wake a single source as authorative and believe it. Ooops. Did I say that?



I just looked up in wikipedia a topic in government finance (sales tax) in which I am usually regarded as an expert. If this entry were given to me to grade by a student, it would not receive a passing grade -- too many factual errors and grave misinterpretations of the literature. Maybe this will ultimately get corrected -- but that will amount to cleaning the stables at Churchill Downs. Go to multiple sources and just ignore this one.


mikej - correct the entry and improve it.


Colbert's joke IS funny. It shines light on some weakness of wikipedia's editorial policies.

None the less, part of the joke is founded on the erroneous assumption that you should read wikipedia like a bible -- something handed down from God that is not to be questioned.

Many people read Encyclopedia Brittanica (sp?) this way. They shouldn't but they do.

As others have pointed out above, the real strength of wikipedia is in the references. It is easy to vandalize wikipedia but it is a lot of work to try and build factual looking references to cite so that your vandalism persists because people beleive it.

While wikipedia has much room for improvement the real flaw is in the users not reading it with the proper level of skepticism. Of course these same sheeople probably believed the President (and the mainstream press that echoed the president) when he said "we WILL find WMD in Iraq".



Wikipedia seems to be a religion. The thing that troubles me about wikipedia are its disciples. If anyone dares to point out it's not a good reference encyclopedia they are immediately attacked from all sides. It's a good place to find information, that I used to used google for webpages about. E.g. information I don't neccessarily trust. But as a reference it's pretty much useless. The entries on subjects that I'm an expert on are full of misinformation, to which the answer is always "fix it." How is that a rebutal? It just admits something is broken. Even if I did fix those articles, I can only assume if the ones I know about are bad then most of the rest are too.


This is a great discussion! I have only a couple things to say about this stuff:

1) I love wikipedia! I use it alot. It's helped me solve problems for assignemnts in mathematics -- there are proofs on there that are great!

2) For those who might resist free 'news' or 'information' for fear of job loss in the future... that's probably the typical initial response so don't feel bad. To survive, you must either successfully wipe out free sources (basicallly impossible to get rid of the internet though!) or you must embrace it and find new ways to harness this energy for money! So don't waste your time resisting. Be an innovater and harness its capabilities (like this blog does -- you may disagree with Levitt's opinions but he has an audience doesn't he! :)


Don't want to fix it yourself? Tag the top of the article with {{accuracy}}, and briefly explain on the article's Talk page why it's inaccurate. --~~~~


A lot of articles contain so many citations that I get sick of seeing the little superscripts. Also, for topics like mathematics, I wouldn't bat an eye if anyone cited an article because they're usually written by graduate students.


Since Wikipedia lets anyone edit any entry in any way at any time, it's obvious, even tautological, that it may contain inaccuracies. The true test is whether the inaccruacies are lasting.

Anything Colbert did has by now certainly been corrected. The true test is to find entries that are stable and check those. The accuracy of information on Wikipedia is probably very much dependent on how long it has been there uncorrected.


I don't think Colbert was making fun of Wikipedia per se; the bit just let him make a point about people manipulating reality in a funny way. It's a running theme with him how something "becomes" true because it gets repeated enough times by high-status sources (going along with the truthiness theme, about how something "becomes" true because people feel like it should be). He usually jokes about it happening in the context of politics, theology, etc, where sources really ought to be authoritative. Everyone should know better than thinking the internet is authoritative.

Bruce Hayden

I do find Wikipedia helpful for non-controversial topics, and as a good first or second place to look.

But part of the problem with it is that the more controversial the subject, the more biased it seems to be. You seem to see editing wars there, until one side gives up in disgust.

As a result, I disagree with the poster who suggests that time is a valid way to determine accuracy. Rather, if one side of an issue has more edits and/or editors than another, it will usually triumph, regardless of accuracy. That doesn't necessarily mean that that side has more support, or is more accurate, but, rather, that it just gets more edits in its favor. Indeed, it often appears that the more zeleous the advocates of a position, the more likely it is that the Wikipedia entry will ultimately favor their side over their opponents.

And, yes, I think that Cobert played this dynamic very well.


mikej - You can't make conclusions on ONE anecdotal fact. Otherwise your approach can perfectly be reversed and lead to an opposed conclusion : if one finds accuracy in a topic he knows well, he'll tell you, wikipedia is good.

Take an example : ME. I looked up a topic in labour law (in French), and, as a lawyer specialized in labour law, I was astonished at the accuracy of it. If I applied your reasoning, I would conclude that wikipedia is always good (just as you conclude that wikipedia is always bad).

Anecdote can NEVER be a criterion to determine the validity of an assertion.

And that's what Nature understood, so they decided to make a more comprehensive study of wikipedia :


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.