Beware Wikipedia

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The Internet is just great! We can connect to everyone in the world and learn about just everything! Wow! All the world’s information at our fingertips.

There’s so much information, and if you’ve got a question you can do a search and you’re sure to find something. Or you can just go to Wikipedia. You don’t know Wikipedia? It’s like an encyclopedia that all of us are writing. Anyone can contribute; anyone can make corrections. It has articles on almost everything. Students, even professors are using it for reference. Here’s an example from the article about Chihuahua dogs:

Colonial records refer to small, nearly hairless dogs at the beginning of the 19th Century, one of which claims 16th-century Conquistadores found them plentiful in the region later known as Chihuahua.*

* Pedro Baptista Pino y Juan Lopez Cancelada, Exposición sucinta y sencilla de la Provincia del Nuevo México y otros escritos. Ed. Jesus Paniagua Perez. Valladolid: Junta de Castilla / León: Universidad de León, 2007, p. 244: “even in the desert the tiny dogs could be found, hunting rats, mice, and lizards.” The footnote that follows alludes to starving Conquistadores reportedly hunting and stewing the dogs (Universidad Veracruzana, Arquivo Viejo, XXVI.2711).

Chihuahua dog, Wikipedia, February 2012

Isn’t that amazing? So the state of Chihuahua was named after Chihuahua dogs! Amazing, yes; true, no. Michael Rooney and I were working on a new edition of my book on critical thinking and we wanted to see what could go into Wikipedia. So we wrote this up — it’s pure fantasy — and submitted it. Yes, the book it refers to does exist, but there’s no such quote, and we made up the reference to Arquivo Viejo. It was in Wikipedia for at least six months, and for all I know it’s still there.

One young man who believes that Wikipedia is an important source of knowledge and really useful for quoting was horrified when I told him about our Chihuahua article. How could I do that? I was ruining Wikipedia. He missed the point. How do you know that any other article you read isn’t just as bad?

Yes, there may be good stuff there, but unless you already know about the subject there’s no way for you to distinguish what’s reliable from what’s not. Nothing is signed. No one takes responsibility. The only value of Wikipedia is to give references we can consult. No matter how good the entry is, any fool can change it. A lawyer I know told me I could consult the Wikipedia entry he wrote about a problem in the law — if, he said, no one had “corrected” it.

They’re not like you and me, staring at the computer screen with their mouths agape. They think that knowledge comes cheap and everyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. They confuse having a right to believe with having good reason to believe.

We know better. When we want to learn, we go to someone who knows a lot, whether that’s our mechanic down the street or a physician on the Internet. We think about what we read and hear. We’re not so ready to be duped.

Hey, if you want I’ll send you the Internet address for that story about that guy who has the genetic make up of both a dog and a man. It’s amazing! I always wondered why some people are so loyal.

Arf, formerly known as Dr. Richard L. Epstein, is the author and publisher of books on reasoning and is head of the Advanced Reasoning Forum in Socorro.