Sunday, February 26, 2012

Is Wikipedia the Most Useful Encyclopedia In All of Human History?

I recently received my February 12, 2012 copy of Perspectives on History. This is the official magazine of the American Historical Association. I was shocked as I read the contents from an article published by the AMA's president, William Cronon, entitled "Scholarly Authority in a Wikified World" (available here.) At first he states the expected skepticism towards Wikipedia's reliability, but then he writes:
Whatever reservations one might still have about its overall quality, I don't believe there's much doubt that Wikipedia is the largest, most comprehensive, copiously detailed, stunningly useful encyclopedia in all of human history.
Really? I suspect that many professors and high school teachers have criticized students for using Wikipedia as a source in research. Is Cronon's article a scholarly scandal or is he marking a new shift in academia's views regarding this online source? I think he is making a broader point that should not be misunderstood. He is not saying Wikipedia is an infallible location of all human knowledge. He is addressing that it is a great place to start in research and that all encyclopedias, like any source, can have misinformation. He writes later on in this piece his clarification:
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that any encyclopedia entry is a substitute for the much deeper, richer, more integrated knowledge that has always been the goal of good scholarship. Like every teacher, I caution my students not to rely on encyclopedias when doing serious research.
Here is perhaps where some educators have got it wrong. Research strictly founded on any encyclopedia source or limited works of scholars is not quality research. Singling out Wikipedia as potentially fallacious to students can send the wrong message.

Although, Cronon takes his praise of Wikipedia one step further. In some instances he finds Wikipedia's data superior to standard encyclopedias! He writes:
Wikipedia blows away most competitors for topics involving scientific or technical information, not only because it attracts volunteers especially knowledgeable in these areas, but because it can give such topics all the space they need and revise them literally by the minute. Compare Wikipedia with Britannica on "Fermat's Last Theorem" and you'll see what I mean. On topics of current interest, including many environmental subjects central to my own work, Wikipedia has a nimbleness that even newspapers have trouble matching. Its entry on Hurricane Katrina, for instance, already filled many screens while the storm was still raging over New Orleans. (Britannica, in contrast, still offers only seven short paragraphs on the subject.) Even controversial topics that are famous for generating warring submissions by opposing sides often do a remarkably good job of migrating toward shared middle ground. Compare Wikipedia's entry on "abortion" or "abortion debate" with Britannica's and ask yourself which does a better job.

Perhaps most importantly, Wikipedia provides an online home for people interested in histories long marginalized by the traditional academy. The old boundary between antiquarianism and professional history collapses in an online universe where people who love a particular subject can compile and share endless historical resources for its study in ways never possible before. Amateur genealogists have enabled the creation of document databases that quantitative historians of the 1960s could only fantasize.
I think William Cronon's viewpoints regarding Wikipedia will be charged with debate. Did he just open a can of worms, Pandora's Box, or the door to the future regarding technology and scholarship? I encourage everyone interested in this to read his entire article and tell me what you think.

1 comment:

Chris Van Houten said...

As a student I often hear the "cautions" that Instructors give to students about using Wikipedia, stating that it is not a viable avenue for research because it is not scholarly. While there is truth to that, it is not the complete truth. Wikipedia is a great tool and very useful as a starting point for research. There will probably always be controversy regarding its validity because it all can't be "peer reviewed and approved". However, this doesn't mean that it is not factual because a contributor doesn't have a Doctorate. There are many people who have factual and useful knowledge and don't have degrees. For example, my Grandmother lived in Holland during WWII. Her father secretly housed defectors and helped them escape from Nazi rule as Germany had taken control of her country and if caught would have surely ended in death. She doesn't have a Doctorate. She doesn't have a degree at all. This is not something that she read out of a book and studied. She lived it! Does this make her less credible? We should always be cautious, maybe even skeptical, about where we get our information from though. And we should always give due diligence when doing research on a topic and never consider just one source as the "end all" authority.