Sunday, May 16, 2010

Yet Another Reason For Students Not To Use Wikipedia

Yet Another Reason For Students Not To Use Wikipedia

One of the reasons that I tell students not use Wikipedia when doing research papers is that it is only as accurate as the people editing the articles.  For some subjects, this isn't a problem; there's no political significance to the date when Cretans go from Bronze Age to Iron Age, or Newton's universal law of gravitation equation.  In the non-political areas, Wikipedia is pretty darn impressive.  I often use it myself as a "first look," but I don't rely on Wikipedia alone.

The problem is in any area of history, there is a very real risk that Wikipedia's entries have been politically motivated, or reflects honest but ignorant editors.  Trusting Wikipedia as a source is less than ideal.  (Of course, even serious published books are often wrong, as I have pointed out before.)

There is a new and troubling scandal involving child pornography and Wikipedia.  The first article, from April 27, 2010 Fox News, is troubling:
The parent company of Wikipedia is knowingly distributing child pornography, the co-founder of the online encyclopedia says, and he's imploring the FBI to investigate.

 Larry Sanger, who left Wikipedia in 2002, said Wikimedia Commons (the parent company of Wiki products including Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikinews and Wikiquote) is rife with renderings of children performing sexual acts.

Sanger sent a letter to the FBI earlier this month outlining his concerns and identifying two specific Wikimedia Commons categories he believes violate federal obscenity law.
Now, there was an update to the article that indicated:
In response to the content mentioned in Larry Sanger’s letter to the FBI, Moeller wrote:

“It’s a false claim related largely to some historic early 20th century drawings, as described in the summary published by the Wikipedia Signpost. The Wikimedia Foundation’s General Counsel examined the drawings and concluded that they do not violate federal laws; we have not received any communication from the FBI to the contrary, and when and if we are asked by authorities to remove images that are illegal, we will do so.”
This is a plausible claim. There are certain situations where really gruesome and awful stuff needs to be available for scientific or scholarly research. As an example, some years ago, I was at a friend's house who had a truly disgusting book. It was a diagnostic manual for identifying child sexual abuse, with photographs. It was enough to make me ill, and I didn't need more than a quick flip through it to know that I didn't need to look at it anymore.

It is plausible that Wikipedia had some material of historic significance--but I confess that having such material online seems quite questionable.  Once upon a time, some of the most grotesque history of the twelve Caesars, when translated into English, would leave certain sections in Greek, as a way of limiting access to a relatively small subset of highly educated people.  (Then Bob Guccione decided to make a movie about Caligula, making this horrible stuff available to those with too little sense.)  Not everything that is necessary for serious research has to be online--and there is some material that should not be online.  Child pornography is one of those examples.

But what troubles me is what happened when Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, had the unmitigated nerve to take gobs of this horrifying stuff online.  From May 14, 2010 Fox News:

After much pressure from within the Wikipedia community, co-founder Jimmy Wales has relinquished his top-level control over the encyclopedia's content, as well as all of its parent company's projects.

Though he remains the president of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wales is no longer able to delete files, remove administrators, assign projects or edit any content, sources say. Essentially, they say, he has gone from having free reign over the content and people involved in the websites to having the same capabilities of a low-level administrator.

“He had the highest level of control, he was our leader,” a source told

When asked who was in charge now, the source said, “No one. It’s chaos.”

Wales deleted gobs of this trash--and managed to infuriate the rest of the Wikipedia community--so much so that he no longer has any control.  Now, I can't tell if Jimmy Wales did this because he was repulsed by the prospect that his creation was carrying child pornography, or simply that he recognized that it was bad publicity for what is fundamentally a neat and useful idea. But the reaction of the Wikimedia "community" makes me wonder what sort of a community this is.

No comments:

Post a Comment