information sources have never been perfect

wikipedia_logo.jpg

A friend and I have always differed in our opinions about Wikipedia. I like it; she feels she can’t trust it. Today for the first time I feel that I at last articulated why I too feel like I can’t trust Wikipedia either — but I love it and use it almost daily.

Here’s the email that my friend sent me comparing her experience of Encyclopedia Brtiannica on CD vs. Wikipedia:

Everyone,

So, I got an ad in the mail offering a new, updated CD-Rom EB Ready Reference, plus four other CDs of great art, for $20, and I couldn’t resist. The thing arrived and I installed in on my computer….so the first thing I did was to look up a Puritan woman my Women’s History students have been studying. Here’s what I found (after several minutes of poking around and trying to figure out how the thing works!):

Mary Rowlandson

born c. 1637, England

died Jan. 5, 1710/11, Wethersfield, Conn.

British-American colonial author.

orig. Mary White She was the daughter of the original proprietor of Lancaster, Mass., where she lived with her minister husband and their four children. When Indians razed the settlement in 1676, she was captured and held hostage for 11 weeks. Ransomed, she moved to Connecticut with her husband and two surviving children. Her narrative of captivity, titled The Soveraignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson and published in 1682, became popular in the colonies and in London.

Then, I went to Wikipedia and found this!!!! <link to a much longer, better entry>

Jennifer, I surrender. Wikipedia is so far superior, at least for this particular topic, that it isn’t even funny. Britannica has dug its own grave…it’s just pathetic that they couldn’t do a better job than that!

<end my friend’s email>

Here is my response:

I have never been interested in the Wikipedia debate.
There seem to be foolish claims on both sides. Fans
say the site has “self-healing” properties it doesn’t
seem to have. No stupid hater claims come to mind,
but you and I have both heard them.

Meanwhile, I remain a contented user. I let everyone
rage; whatever. I have no questions about why and how
Wikipedia works, I am just happy to have such an
excellent and convenient free service at my
fingertips.

The single best argument that I can offer for
Wikipedia is that I have used it for years very
happily — I who am picky about my information
sources.

Perhaps the acceptance of Wikipedia is easier for
people from my generation. We were trained from the
cradle to view all information as suspect. When I
find bad info on Wikipedia, I recognize it as part of
the process of gathering information, and I realize
that ultimately only I decide what is “good information.”

I never had any idea that encyclopedias were perfect,
when from childhood I found them outdated (new
technologies always replacing old ones, new countries
replacing old ones, etc.), sexist, politically suspect
and full of error that was not always obvious
(“Columbus discovered America.”)

Maybe I’m just used to being my own factchecker.
Maybe I never really had any choice. I think it’s a
fine skill to have! I am not frightened by being
shown bad information presented as good. It’s business
as usual to me. Information sources have NEVER been
perfect.

– Wikipedia fan

One response to “information sources have never been perfect

  1. I suspect you are right; those of us growing up with the Internet are used to being skeptical of anything we read online (and especially in an e-mail forward). I am a fan of Wikipedia as well (and even edit there) but if I read something which seems unlikely or I need to be sure of, I’ll certainly check the references or other sources.

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