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Sam Vaknin : Wikipedia’s Six Cardinal Sins

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The following post was written by Sam Vaknin, author and a noted critic of Wikipedia. The piece was in response to an article supporting Wikipedia that appeared in Science Progress journal, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.


It is a question of time before the Wikipedia self-destructs and implodes. It poses such low barriers to entry (anyone can edit any number of its articles) that it is already attracting masses of teenagers as “contributors” and “editors,” not to mention the less savory flotsam and jetsam of cyber-life. People who are regularly excluded or at least moderated in every other Internet community are welcomed, no questions asked, by this wannabe self-styled “encyclopedia.”

Six cardinal (and, in the long-term, deadly) sins plague this online venture. What unites and underlies all its deficiencies is simple: Wikipedia dissembles about what it is and how it operates. It is a self-righteous confabulation and its success in deceiving the many attests not only to the gullibility of the vast majority of Netizens but to the PR savvy of its sleek and slick operators.

1. The Wikipedia is opaque and encourages recklessness

The overwhelming majority of contributors to and editors of the Wikipedia remain anonymous or pseudonymous throughout the process. Anyone can register and members’ screen-names (handles) mean nothing and lead nowhere. Thus, no one is forced to take responsibility for what he or she adds to the “encyclopedia” or subtracts from it.

This amounts to an impenetrable smokescreen: identities can rarely be established and evading the legal consequences of one’s actions or omissions is easy. As the exposure of the confabulated professional biography of Wikipedia Arbitrator Essjay in March 2007 demonstrates, some prominent editors and senior administrators probably claim fake credentials as well.

A software tool developed and posted online in mid-2007, the Wikiscanner, unearthed tens of thousands of self-interested edits by “contributors” as diverse as the CIA, the Canadian government, and Disney. This followed in the wake of a spate of scandals involving biased and tainted edits by political staffers and pranksters.

Everything in the Wikipedia can be and frequently is edited, re-written and erased and this includes the talk pages and even, to my utter amazement, in some cases, the history pages! In other words, one cannot gain an impartial view of the editorial process by sifting through the talk and history pages of articles (most of which are typically monopolized by fiercely territorial “editors”). History, not unlike in certain authoritarian regimes, is being constantly re-jigged on the Wikipedia!

2. The Wikipedia is anarchic, not democratic

The Wikipedia is not an experiment in online democracy, but a form of pernicious anarchy. It espouses two misconceptions: (a) That chaos can and does lead to the generation of artifacts with lasting value and (b) That knowledge is an emergent, mass phenomenon. But The Wikipedia is not conducive to the unfettered exchange of information and opinion that is a prerequisite to both (a) and (b). It is a war zone where many fear to tread. the Wikipedia is a negative filter (see the next point).

3. The Might is Right Editorial Principle

Lacking quality control by design, the Wikipedia rewards quantity. The more one posts and interacts with others, the higher one’s status, both informal and official. In the Wikipedia planet, authority is a function of the number of edits, no matter how frivolous. The more aggressive (even violent) a member is; the more prone to flame, bully, and harass; the more inclined to form coalitions with like-minded trolls; the less of a life he or she has outside the Wikipedia, the more they are likely to end up being administrators.

The result is erratic editing. Many entries are completely re-written (not to say vandalized) with the arrival of new kids on the Wikipedia block. Contrary to advertently-fostered impressions, the Wikipedia is not a cumulative process. Its text goes through dizzyingly rapid and oft-repeated cycles of destruction and the initial contributions are at times far deeper and more comprehensive than later, “edited,” editions of same.

Wikipedia is misrepresented as an open source endeavor. Nothing can be further from the truth. Open source efforts, such as Linux, involve a group of last-instance decision-makers that coordinate, vet, and cull the flow of suggestions, improvements, criticism, and offers from the public. Open source communities are hierarchical, not stochastic.

Moreover, it is far easier to evaluate the quality of a given snippet of software code than it is to judge the truth-content of an edit to an article, especially if it deals with “soft” and “fuzzy” topics, which involve the weighing of opinions and the well-informed exercise of value judgments.

4. Wikipedia is against real knowledge

The Wikipedia’s ethos is malignantly anti-elitist. Experts are scorned and rebuffed, attacked, and abused with official sanction and blessing. Since everyone is assumed to be equally qualified to edit and contribute, no one is entitled to a privileged position by virtue of scholarship, academic credentials, or even life experience.

The Wikipedia is the epitome and the reification of an ominous trend: Internet surfing came to replace research, online eclecticism supplanted scholarship, and trivia passes for erudition. Everyone’s an instant scholar. If you know how to use a search engine, you are an authority.

Wikipdians boast that the articles in their “encyclopedia” are replete with citations and references. But citations from which sources and references to which works and authors? Absent the relevant credentials and education, how can an editor tell the difference between information and disinformation, quacks and authorities, fact and hearsay, truth and confabulation?

Knowledge is not comprised of lists of facts, “facts,” factoids, and rumors, the bread and butter of the Wikipedia. Real facts have to be verified, classified, and arranged within a historical and cultural context. Wikipedia articles read like laundry lists of information gleaned from secondary sources and invariably lack context and deep, true understanding of their subject matter.

Can Teenagers write an Encyclopedia?

The vast majority of Wikipedia contributors and editors are under the age of 25. Many of the administrators (senior editors) are in their teens. This has been established by a survey conducted in 2003 and in various recent interviews with Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of the enterprise.

The truth is that teenagers cannot do the referencing and research that are the prerequisite to serious scholarship - unless you stretch these words to an absurd limit. Research is not about hoarding facts. It is about identifying and applying context and about possessing a synoptic view of ostensibly unrelated data.

Moreover, teenagers can’t tell hype from fact and fad from fixture. They lack the perspectives that life and learning -structured, frontal, hierarchical learning - bring with them.

Knowledge is not another democratic institution. It is hierarchical for good reason and the hierarchy is built on merit and the merit is founded on learning.

It is not surprising that the Wikipedia emerged in the USA whose “culture” consists of truncated attention spans, snippets and soundbites, shortcuts and cliff notes. The Wikipedia is a pernicious counter-cultural phenomenon. It does not elevate or celebrate knowledge. The Wikipedia degrades knowledge by commoditizing it and by removing the filters, the gatekeepers, and the barriers to entry that have proven so essential hitherto.

Recently, on a discussion list dedicated to books with a largely academic membership, I pointed out an error in one of the Wikipedia’s articles. The responses I received were chilling. One member told me that he uses the Wikipedia to get a rough idea about topics that are not worth the time needed to visit the library. Whether the rough ideas he was provided with courtesy the Wikipedia were correct or counterfactual seemed not to matter to him. Others expressed a mystical belief in the veracity of “knowledge” assembled by the masses of anonymous contributors to the Wikipedia. Everyone professed to prefer the content proffered by the Wikipedia to the information afforded by the Britannica Encyclopedia or by established experts!

Two members attempted to disproved my assertion (regarding the error in the Wikipedia) by pointing to a haphazard selection of links to a variety of Internet sources. Not one of them referred to a reputable authority on the subject, yet, based largely on the Wikipedia and a sporadic trip in cyberspace, they felt sufficiently confident to challenge my observation (which is supported by virtually all the leading luminaries in the field).

These gut reactions mirror the Wikipedia’s “editorial” process. To the best of my knowledge, none of my respondents was qualified to comment. None of them holds a relevant academic degree. Neither do I. But I strove to stand on the shoulders of giants when I spotted the error while my respondents explicitly and proudly refused to do so as a matter of principle!

This may reflect the difference in academic traditions between the United States and the rest of the world. Members of individualistic, self-reliant and narcissistic societies inevitably rebel against authority and tend to believe in their own omnipotence and omniscience. Conversely, the denizens of more collectivist and consensus-seeking cultures, are less sanguine and grandiose and more willing to accept teachings ex-cathedra. So said Theodore Millon, a great scholar and an undisputed authority on personality disorders.

5. Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia

Truth in advertising is not the Wikipedia’s strong suit. It presents itself, egregiously, as an encyclopedia. Yet, at best it is a community of users who exchange eclectic “information” on a regular and semi-structured basis. This deliberate misrepresentation snags most occasional visitors who are not acquainted with the arcane ways of the Wikipedia and trust it implicitly and explicitly to deliver facts and well-founded opinions.

There is a lot the Wikipedia can do to dispel such dangerous misconceptions (for instance, it could post disclaimers on all its articles and not only on a few selected pages). That it chooses to propagate the deception is telling and renders it the equivalent of an intellectual scam, a colossal act of con-artistry.

The Wikipedia thus retards genuine learning by serving as the path of least resistance and as a substitute to the real thing: edited, peer-reviewed works of reference. High school and university students now make the Wikipedia not only their first but their exclusive “research” destination.

Moreover, the Wikipedia’s content is often reproduced on thousands of other Website WITHOUT any of its disclaimers and without attribution or identification of the source. The other day I visited and clicked on its “free encyclopedia.” It is a mirror of the Wikipedia, but without anything to indicate that it is not a true, authoritative, peer-reviewed encyclopedia. The origin of the articles - Wikipedia - was not indicated anywhere.

It could have been different.

Consider, for instance the online and free Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Each entry is written by an expert but is frequently revised based on input from members of the public. It combines the best elements of the Wikipedia (feedback-driven evolution) with none of its deficiencies.

6. The Wikipedia is rife with libel and violations of copyrights

As recent events clearly demonstrate, the Wikipedia is a hotbed of slander and libel. It is regularly manipulated by interns, political staffers, public relations consultants, marketing personnel, special interest groups, political parties, business firms, brand managers, and others with an axe to grind. It serves as a platform for settling personal accounts, defaming, distorting the truth, and re-writing history.

Less known is the fact that the Wikipedia is potentially and arguably the greatest single repository of copyright infringements. A study conducted in 2006 put the number of completely plagiarized articles at 1% of the total - a whopping 15,000 in all. Books - from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, through David Irving’s controversial work, down to my own, far humbler, tomes - are regularly ripped off and sizable chunks are posted in various articles, with and without attribution. The Wikipedia resembles P2P (peer-to-peer) networks such as the first incarnation of Napster: it allows users to illegally share pirated content using an application (Wiki) and a central Website (the Wikipedia).

The Wikipedia does not provide any effective mechanism to redress wrongs, address problems, and remedy libel and copyright infringements. Editing the offending articles is useless as these are often “reverted” (restored) by the offenders themselves.

My personal experience is that correspondence with and complaints to Wikimedia and to Jimmy Wales go unanswered or stonewalled by a variety of minions. Even when (rarely) the offending content is removed from the body of an article it remains available in its history pages.

The Wikipedia has been legally shielded from litigation because, hitherto, it enjoyed the same status that Bulletin Boards Services (BBS) and other, free for all, communities have. In short: where no editorial oversight is exerted, no legal liability arises to the host even in cases of proven libel and breaches of copyright.

But the Wikipedia has been treading a thin line here as well. Anyone who ever tried to contribute to this “encyclopedia” discovered soon enough that it is micromanaged by a cabal of c. 1000 administrators (not to mention the Wikimedia’s full-time staff, fuelled by 2 million US dollars in public donations). These senior editors regularly interfere in the contents of articles. They do so often without any rhyme or reason and on a whim (hence the anarchy) - but edit they do.

This fact and recent statements by Wales to the effect that the Wikipedia is actually regularly edited may provoke victims of the Wikipedia into considering class action lawsuits against the Wikimedia, Jimmy Wales personally, and their Web hosting company.

The Wikipedia is an edited publication. The New-York Times is responsible for anything it publishes in its op-ed section. Radio stations pay fines for airing obscenities in call-in shows. Why treat the Wikipedia any differently? Perhaps, hit in the wallet, it will develop the minimal norms of responsibility and truthfulness that are routinely expected of less presumptuous and more inconspicuous undertakings on the Internet.


Written by The Review

February 29th, 2008 at 2:52 am

Posted in Critics

17 Responses to 'Sam Vaknin : Wikipedia’s Six Cardinal Sins'

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  1. “The Wikipedia is an edited publication. The New-York Times is responsible for anything it publishes in its op-ed section. Radio stations pay fines for airing obscenities in call-in shows.” And Wikipedia Review is responsible for the comments in its blog and its forums. Or not. I don’t remember anymore.


    29 Feb 08 at 3:33 am

  2. Pop Quiz for the Random Reader —

    What’s the diff between a Discussion Forum that calls itself a “Discussion Forum” and a Discussion Forum that calls itself an “Encyclopedia”?

    Jon Awbrey

    29 Feb 08 at 6:34 pm

  3. “The truth is that teenagers cannot do the referencing and research that are the prerequisite to serious scholarship… Moreover, teenagers can’t tell hype from fact and fad from fixture.”

    What a ridiculous assertion. “All teenagers are incapable of sorting fact from fiction”? “All teenagers are incapable of performing in-depth research”? Do you hear yourself?

    As a SIX year old I probably knew more about the life of Galileo than 99.99% of people know in their entire life. Was I some sort of savant? Hell no! I just read books and did RESEARCH out of pure curiosity and interest.

    If a six year old can do it, why the hell not a sixteen year old?



    24 Dec 08 at 2:56 pm

  4. @anonymous - well you clearly are unable to perform basic research - you misquoted and distorted Vaknin’s original text twice in quick succession. Throwing in a couple of straw-men for good measure.

    Following that up with an irrelevant anecdotal tale about yourself as a six year old, and ending with a childish insult, you pro-Wikipedians consistently prove critics’ points at every turn! You simply do not have the minimum whereabouts, integrity or decency to responsibly oversee the Sum of All Human Knowledge.


    3 Jan 09 at 12:46 am

  5. Anonymous:

    As a SIX year old I probably knew more about the life of Galileo than 99.99% of people know in their entire life. Was I some sort of savant? Hell no! I just read books and did RESEARCH out of pure curiosity and interest.

    That’s because you didn’t have Wikipedia and Google to distract you from gaining real knowledge.

    But the 99.99% of ignoramuses who think they know about Galileo’s life are now controlling the article. And so knowledge is lost - Vaknin’s “negative filter” in operation.

    John A

    11 Jun 09 at 10:36 pm

  6. Valid criticism, with the exception of the bit on teenagers (as above). I knew a guy (won’t call him a friend, but I knew him), who was 2 years into Law School at age 19, having already graduated from a prestigious American university. Are you trying to say that merely by virtue of his age, he was incapable of telling fact from fiction? That a 26 year old high school dropout was better qualified to “do the referencing and research that are the prerequisite to serious scholarship” than my friend?

    The problem with Wikipedia editors isn’t that many of them are so young. It’s that they’re so unqualified (educationally). Many of the oldest contributors to Wikipedia are also the most idiotic; a certain type of retiree seems drawn to the place. Really, the ideal Wikipedia editor is a graduate student in his/her twenties. Maybe you want the contributors to be tenured professors, but most of them have far better things to do with their time. Young graduate students (say someone who’s 24 years old and in a PhD program) have more than adequate academic qualifications and experience; they also have few avenues open for publication (and generally the desire to write fro the public), so they are truly the best sort of contributor to recruit.

    I imagine your criticism is really more about high school students. If it is, then say so. Of course, in my experience, most of the high school kids running around either spend all their time reverting vandalism or writing about the latest internet meme, activities that are simply irrelevant.

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