Dang, Eric Hartley wants me to be responsible.

In a private note, which he has given me permission to use, along with his name, he gently reproaches me for the rhetorical excesses in my most recent post on Wikipedia. He has something there, as you will see. After quoting his note at length, I will try to present a more nuanced and balanced evaluation of Wikipedia's usefulness and limitations. It will be duller than the previous.

Mr. Hartley:

"It's not much different from the way I use a press release from a police agency as a starting point, knowing that initial reports are often wrong, or a statement from an elected official as a jumping-off point for reporting, knowing that politicians, too, are often wrong.

"I would never cite Wikipedia in a news story. But if an entry there links to a magazine profile or a company website that can then be cited, hasn't Wikipedia in fact served a purpose?

"Of course, I'm a reporter who's trained to analyze information and sort fact from rumor. Do most people use Wikipedia this way? I doubt it. But that alone does not make it a worthless resource that should never be consulted. It can be helpful, used correctly. I know quite a few librarians who likewise use it as a starting, but not ending, point. ...

"You're right in some of your criticisms of Wikipedia. But to dismiss it entirely ('I advise copy editors not to consult it, and I tell me students every semester to stay away from it') is as unwise as it would be to rely on it unthinkingly. If a student or a copy editor consults a Wikipedia entry and resources it links to, enabling him to verify a fact or knock down a falsehood, isn't that a good thing?

"As journalists, isn't our job to gather information from as many sources as possible, weigh the reliability of it and synthesize it into some approximation of reality?

"I say this with respect for you, but the argument seems unworthy of you. You write intelligently all the time about the folly of relying on inflexible grammatical rules (or myths). Isn't 'Never use Wikipedia' just as inflexible a rule? You're denying yourself — and those who follow your advice — a massive and useful resource."


To be fair, Chris Prince and gfharboe (before the latter succumbed to tetchiness*) gave measured and reasonable responses to my impertinences, and you should attend to their comments.