Anti-Wikipedia bias

David Henderson complains:

When I first heard about Wikipedia, I thought, “this can’t work.” My reason: there was no assurance that letting huge numbers of people fill in entries and update things would lead to correct information. That said, it works much better than I had expected.

But in my only two cases where I have paid close attention to how information gets screened, Wikipedia has worked badly.

It’s a fair point.  My forays into Wikipedia have generally been on the hard-science side, where I’m either reading Wikipedia and Mathworld in parallel to try to teach myself something mathy or looking for an interested dilettante’s introduction to some endocrinological system or other.  I haven’t noticed any errors in the math stuff, but I have noticed a strong status-quo bias in the physiology stuff — particularly as one gets closer to lipid transport and metabolism.

However, we have to be careful to avoid slamming Wikipedia for failing to adhere to an implicit best-case standard when deciding whether or not to use it.  It’s fine (and helpful!) to point out its flaws when discussing how to fix them, but when picking a first point of reference the question isn’t “is Wikipedia any good?” but “is Wikipedia any better than the alternative?”  If I want a quick overview of AMPK-alpha2 in order to get some context for interpreting a SuppVersity post, is Wikipedia’s status-quo bias really going to be all that big an issue?  Would I really be any better off trekking an hour to the nearest research library and digging up a textbook on biochemistry which is probably less peer-reviewed than that Wikipedia article?  Judged by the same standards people — usually people in gatekeeper-of-knowledge roles, like teachers, profs, and other credentialed experts — tend to apply to Wikipedia, most textbooks are shit.

What’s the BATWA — Best Alternative To a Wikipedia Article — for any given topic?  Since those alternatives naturally include “whatever pops up first in a Google search” and “staying ignorant/common wisdom”, I submit that checking Wikipedia first is a much better strategy than it’s trendy to admit.


5 Responses to “Anti-Wikipedia bias”

  1. 1 TMI
    May 31, 2012 at 13:44

    I usually add the name Stanford to any search.

    Those Stanford guys are pretty good.

    • May 31, 2012 at 14:14

      Quick test of the method: googling “AMPK-alpha2 Stanford” gives me abstracts to publications out of Stanford, but nothing entry-level.

      • May 31, 2012 at 17:59

        Works pretty well for philosophy.
        However, Stanford’s philosophy articles tend to agree with Wikipedia’s, but are more verbose. The advantage is that they have more information overall.

  2. 4 TMI
    May 31, 2012 at 20:45

    I use Altavista for search…entered your “AMPK-alpha2 Stanford” and was able to download the .pdf files.


    At least, this one: http://www.stanford.edu/group/brunet/Max%20Banko%202011.pdf

    • June 1, 2012 at 12:23

      Yep, found those papers. They’re not really suitable as an introduction to the topic for an interested amateur, which is the niche Wikipedia’s page on AMPK more or less fills.

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