In 2005, Wikipedia user Ikkyu2 wrote what was to become a well distributed and resonant criticism of Wikipedia. Though the essay was eventually deleted at the writer’s request, a copy was saved and it was hosted on another user’s wikipedia page. Very recently, this copied version was also deleted for unknown reasons.
For posterity’s sake we’ve dug up a cached version of the piece to add to our growing collection of essays. And to ensure that it doesn’t disappear down the plug hole for ever.
What’s wrong with Wikipedia
What’s wrong with Wikipedia is neatly summarized in Wikipedia:Policy, which is a very old and very entrenched official policy.
The offending text follows:
Respect other contributors. â€”Wikipedia contributors come from many different countries and cultures, and have widely different views. Treating others with respect is key to collaborating effectively in building an encyclopedia.
Then there is a list of links, which essentially are a user’s manual concerning how to implement respect for other people in a civil and effective manner. These are fine. I have no beef with them. I also have no beef with the factual accuracy of the second or third sentences of that quote. To my mind they are correct as stated.
Here is the problem: Respect other contributors, while a good guideline, is too broad. Let me explain why…with a personal example regarding Epilepsy. I’m highly qualified to contribute to an article on epilepsy. I have a 400-reference review on epilepsy epidemiology in press. I’m a board-certified American neurologist. I’m a clinical epilepsy specialist and I took my training at some of the best neurology departments in the world.
More than that, I’ve been obsessed with neurology and epilepsy since I was eleven years old. I doubt a day has gone by in the past twenty years that I haven’t tried to learn something about neurology. It is my great passion and vocation in life.
I have spent forty hours or so editing epilepsy. After my edits, anyone else can come along and introduce factual inaccuracies, distortion of perspective, misleading anecdotal experience, or simply muddy thinking. For instance, since the last time I spent several hours editing the article, someone introduced a bunch of red wikilinks under the subheadings Types of seizure (which should be Types of seizures; a single seizure can’t be every type at once). As a response, I listed some of them under Seizure syndromes as a temporizing measure.
Whoever introduced these classifications to the article had not the first idea what seizure classification was about. Classifications of individual seizure semiology were interspersed at random with general syndromology related to cerebral localization (the general and useful rubric, ‘localization-related,’ has yet to be introduced into the article). Furthermore, syndromes with multiple seizure types were introduced under ‘Type of seizure’ with random or no description of the seizure types involved, or why a soi-disant seizure “type” should have multiple “types.” Finally, seizures were classified, as well, according to their etiologies and by their provocant in the cases of reflex epilepsy.
In short, this is a god-awful mess that might be created by a medical student who has heard one or two lectures; but not by someone with a deep understanding of the current state of classification schemes in epilepsy.
Worse are the folks who come through asserting that all religious experience is a product of complex partial seizures (the idea came to him while watching Joan of Arcadia); or the guy who hasn’t yet mastered English grammar, but saw someone fall over and shake, was frightened, and decided to instruct the world that this is what epilepsy is about. These so-called “contributions” pollute the article and re-pollute it on a regular basis, and most editors are not qualified to recognize them definitively as the misleading, stigmatizing, distorted perspectives that they represent. In the absence of such expertise, confidence to remove them is lacking, and they remain, misleading all who visit the article.
I understand that I need to treat such contributors civilly. That’s important; civil discourse is the foundation of understanding. But I do not respect them nor their contributions. I understand that oftentimes persons less qualified than myself improve an article. This has happened to articles I have edited many times. But it is the exception, not the rule. In general, such contributors and such edits make a mess out of my expert contributions; a mess that requires hours of my valuable time (if you doubt it, I can receive $600 an hour for an initial consult) to repair. They should be kept out of my way. I should not be required to respect such contributors or such contributions. Most importantly: consider the effects on the article. This kind of “consensus” editing makes the article worse, not better for the encyclopedic use for which it is intended.
Also, consider the effect on me, a good-faith Wikipedia editor. I understand that certain people may disagree with me and wish to contribute an opposing point of view. But when it comes to factual matters concerning epilepsy, I also understand how unlikely it is that they are going to be better qualified than I - especially when we’re disagreeing. I understand, also, that this can be humbling, intimidating, and annoying, and I well understand how it inflames the emotions of people who have psychological trouble accepting the existence of authority in any form. But, quite apart from all that, I am a human being in addition to being an epilepsy expert, and I have an AIM block list a mile long, full of people who would like nothing better than to insult, harry, and argue with a physician twenty-four hours a day. Does the fact that I don’t want to deal with still more of that make me less qualified to improve a Wikipedia article? The current system says Yes.
I am someone who could go through and revise that section on seizure and syndrome classification until it reflected the state of the art in current world-wide thinking. It’d take me 20 or 30 hours and require me to cite a dozen or so references. And then any yo-yo with an IP address could come along and crap on it four times in a day, and under wikipedia policy I couldn’t even revert it back. I must leave the article in a wrecked state and defer to ‘community consensus’ to have my contribution restored.
Where’s my incentive to do that? It sounds like a painful, joyless task with a guarantee of tragedy at the end.
User:Larry Sanger makes some similar points on his userpage and in the articles he’s written (to which he links); he’s quite articulate about it. (It also appears to me that his experience is sufficient to qualify him as an expert on the subject of Wikipedia; unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, this has not brought greater attention to his views and their importance.)
He points out that in topics of narrow and specialized interest, such as my monographic articles PPRF and PNES, this sort of “consensus editing” is unlikely to destroy the substance of the article; but that in topics of wider interest, it must always do so unless there is a firmly followed principle of extra respect for expertise. I believe that he is correct in every particular.
I still like the Wikipedia, but not as an encyclopedia. It’s just an enjoyable, relaxing way to fool around and waste some time; enjoyable for its own sake, but not useful as a finished product. I would never recommend it to my patients nor to anyone else as a source of reliable information.
Am I content with that? No. I think the Wikipedia is amazing and wonderful. I am watching its evolution with great interest and fascination, because I see that it has the potential to be something very wonderful - and if it doesn’t become that thing, something very similar to it certainly will. That’s exciting.
Do I have the solution to the problems I raise in this little essay?
No. I wish that I did. Not having them, I am sometimes ashamed of having posted this essay, because instead of paving the way for the future, it is just a lot of petty carping and complaints. Maybe someone who reads this essay will think of a good solution. That would be very wonderful. Maybe Jimbo’s “article review” idea will fix it. That would be wonderful too.