Lowell Deeds

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February 15, 2006

Reliability of Online Information

by @ 1:01 pm. Filed under Pop Culture

Earlier this week the Boston Globe ran a two-part series assessing the accuracy of Wikipedia, the communally produced online encyclopedia (the articles which ran on February 12 & 13 are already in the Globe’s archives). Wikipedia has been around since 2001. The term comes from the word “Wiki” which is Hawaiian slang for “quickly” and “pedia” which is Latin for “education.” The idea is that anyone and everyone can contribute new articles or edit existing articles. It relies on the belief that there are “more good people in the world than bad.” There have been several highly publicized cases where entries in Wikipedia have been vandalized by untrue information or where true but unflattering information has been deleted. Still, the main criticism of this 21st Century encyclopedia is that you have no way of knowing whether an article has been written by someone with a PhD in the subject or by some hallucinatory crank. But that turns out to be a risk for more than just Wikipedia. Just last month the prestigious journal Science which has a panel of subject matter experts scrutunize all articles before they are published, confessed that it had printed two papers by a South Korean researcher on cloning that were complete fabrications. The editorial board of Science didn’t catch the fabrications; perhaps one of the hundreds of thousands of contributors to Wikipedia would have. The process described above is in many ways emblematic of a wider cultural shift precipitated by the Internet – rather than suppress critical or questionable information, the Internet invites us to throw it out there and let everyone comment upon it. In the end, the most compelling arguments should prevail. In schools today, they emphasize the need to teach students “critical thinking” skills. The Internet makes that a way of life.

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