the wikipedia review

It’s only a website… it’s only a website…

Ikkyu2’s essay

with 8 comments

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. —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.


Written by The Review

September 1st, 2007 at 1:32 pm

8 Responses to 'Ikkyu2’s essay'

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  1. This is a good essay, that I hadn’t seen before. Whilst it focuses solely on the example of being an expert on Epilepsy, it could equally apply to an expert on any subject, or even a semi-expert, or someone with great knowledge of a subject. I personally consider myself to be an expert on one particular topic - the Port Arthur massacre - which to my great dismay now has (Australia) next to it to distinguish it from some event in China that actually goes by a completely different name and should be referred to as a battle rather than as a massacre. I also have a level of expertise in many other subjects.

    Perhaps one difference is that I reacted rather heavily, and was treated rather heavily, but that is more because of the nature of the article and the people controlling it, than anything else. Had I been lucky enough to have come across a relatively undisturbed article, as it had been 3 years prior, then I would have most likely had similar experiences, for some elements of my experiences are similar to this.

    Wikipedia has a problem that stems from their introduction of NPOV. If you compare an article written from an expert yet biased POV to one written neutrally by an idiot, there is really no comparison - the expert version is far superior in every way. Expertise should never be the victim of neutrality.

    What ideally should happen is that the most expert persons that are willing to contribute should be the primary people contributing to the article, and they are then mediated by someone who is neutral and who has some vague interest in the topic. This will create the ideal circumstance.

    One problem with this is that the most expert people in the world probably couldn’t care less about wasting their time on Wikipedia, and it may be that only one expert, only from one of the perhaps 6 or 7 major points of view (especially with highly controversial topics) is willing to contribute, and hence it risks becoming horribly biased.

    Bias should be discouraged, but not forbidden. Bias is natural, normal and a part of human nature. People can account for bias when using something as a resource tool. It is far more difficult to account for idiocy and factual inaccuracy.

    And of course when accounting for bias, sometimes you end up with something that has so many different biases that it is impossible to work with accurately anyway.

    A good essay, I think.


    1 Sep 07 at 9:11 pm

  2. Wikipedia Makes for a Nightmare in Online Journalism Ethics


    29 Sep 07 at 1:50 pm

  3. I’ve changed my mind about a number of things since I wrote this essay, which is one of the reasons I deleted it.

    Wikipedia is actually a good source of information about things that other information sources wouldn’t consider worth spending editor time or page space on. For instance, I had always wondered what the title of the Led Zeppelin song, “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp,” meant. Turns out it’s the name of a small cottage in a valley in Wales, owned by a friend of Robert Plant’s father. This piece of information is in one book somewhere, and maybe one interview. And it’s on Wikipedia, accompanied by a photograph of the house.

    Wikipedia’s great for that kind of thing.

    For things that people are really interested in, though - things that are of interest to many, complicated, heavily investigated, the things that most Wikipedia users use Wikipedia to research - it fails, for the reasons I stated above. It continues to fail spectacularly to this day. And, as a physician who speaks to my patients and finds out what they know, I can tell you that it often fails dangerously by giving wrong information to people who desperately need right information.

    I don’t contribute to Wikipedia much anymore, and I still use it. And I’m kind of fond of it. I’d miss it if it went away. But it was the first entry to fill a particular information void that has always existed. I am eagerly awaiting the next step, the thing that kicks it to the curb. (And if I knew what that was, I’d be building it.)


    7 Jun 09 at 1:04 am

  4. You have hit the nail on the head.

    A well-known quote from Lore Sjoberg sums up the situation:

    The Wikipedia philosophy can be summed up this way: “Experts are scum.” For some reason people who spend 40 years learning everything they can about, say, the Peloponnesian War — and indeed, advancing the body of human knowledge — get all pissy when their contributions are edited away by Randy in Boise who heard somewhere that sword-wielding skeletons were involved. And they get downright irate when asked politely to engage in discourse with Randy until the sword-skeleton theory can be incorporated into the article without passing judgment.

    Jed Rothwell

    6 Sep 09 at 3:01 pm

  5. Is that really important?

    Nicole Masson

    29 May 10 at 7:23 pm

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