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Wikipedia's limits, by one who knows

As some of you have commented, the sport of Wikipedia-bashing has begun to pall, and the back-and-forth with the True Believers is nearly as sterile a pastime as trying to discuss evolutionary biology with intelligent-design monomaniacs.

But for those of you still susceptible to the attraction of reasonable argument, an essay, “The Fate of Expertise After Wikipedia,” by Lawrence M. Sanger will be instructive. (The citation was sent to me by a reader of the blog.)

Mr. Sanger can speak with authority. He is a co-founder of Wikipedia and the founder of Citizendium, a rival wiki which practices editing.

I’ll summarize a few key points, but you should examine his argument in detail.

Mr. Sanger gives full marks to the openness and democratic nature of Wikipedia, describing how those qualities contribute to its strength, particularly in its articles ont he hard sciences.* He doubts that the popularity of Wikipedia will undermine actual expertise.

He is skeptical of the claims of the more extreme Wikipediasts that some kind of universal truth will emerge from the collective contributions of participants.

And finally, he finds that the weaknesses of Wikipedia, the lack of formal editing and the absence of a mechanism adequate to resolve disputes, lead to an overall mediocrity. The problem is that the most stubborn and aggressive contributors tend to outlast everyone else, discouraging the better-informed contributors.

I’ll post comments as usual, but at this point your argument is no longer with me.


* He takes a swipe in passing at the Nature article determining that Wikipedia and Britannica were roughly equal in error rates for scientific articles. That study, which Mr. Sanger insists is flawed, has been inflated by partisans and careless writers into a statement that Wikipedia and Britannica are equally reliable overall.



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