There have been many criticisms of Wikipedia, many of them fair, but much of them unfair. One such criticism I believe is misplaced is by Dilip in this post. (Actually I saw it when it was linked from this post – which is criticizing the use of Wikipedia to target IIPM. I will come to that next.)
So Dilip uses the example of the Wikipedia’s entry on the 1993 Bombay Blasts. Apparently the lead section at one point said: “The 1993 Mumbai bombings were a series of bomb explosions that took place in Mumbai (Bombay), India on 12 March 1993. The attacks were the worst wave of criminal violence in the country’s history.” which is clearly inaccurate. Then someone changed it to “The 1993 Mumbai bombings were a series of bomb explosions that took place in Mumbai (Bombay), India on 12 March 1993. The attacks were the worst bomb explosions in the country’s history; various outbreaks of widespread criminal rioting (examples: 1984 Anti-Sikh riots, 1992-93 riots after the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, 2002 Gujarat violence) have killed more Indians than these bombs did.” which Dilip found more accurate. Apparently that did not satisfy someone, so it got changed to: The 1993 Mumbai bombings were a series of bomb explosions that took place in Mumbai (Bombay), India on 12 March 1993. The attacks were the worst bomb explosions in the country’s history. This is the version that remains.
Does this example indicate that there is something wrong wrong with Wikipedia? According to Dilip, this indicates that that building something like this will not be free of political problems.
But it seems to me that this example indicates the strength of Wikipedia. An encyclopedia is supposed to be a source of factual information. It is not supposed to be a primary source, but should summarise information that can be found elsewhere, and preferably point to that information if possible. Having said that, keeping information factual is a difficult task and keeping it free of bias is impossible. It is impossible for two reasons – information has to be selected and it has to be summarised. While selecting information, one has to make judgements about which piece is credible and which is not; which needs to be reported as fact and which needs to be put into someone’s mouth as a report. While summarizing, there is conscious as well as unconscious temptation to inject your point of view. For example, in the previous paragraph, I had almost written that “Dilip thinks that Wikipedia is apt to get hijacked by political opinions” when I realised that that might not be what he is saying (“Hijacking” implies that one side has taken over the debate. He might be saying that it becomes a political battleground. Subtle difference.)
Neither of these problems is unique to Wikipedia. Anyone who was faced with writing an encyclopedia article about the 1993 bombings would be faced with such choices. Whichever version is chosen, it is an attempt to influence the reader’s mind (the first and third wants the reader to think that there was something uniquely horrible about the bombings, the second wants the reader to think that bad as it was, it wasn’t the worst calamity to hit the country; there were others.) This is not a dispute over facts. If you had given this task to a team of experts, they would have come up with some variation of this. It would be just as unsatisfactory, but it would have a stamp of approval because they are from “authoritative sources”. It is far better to have a system where every single line is vigorously checked and discussed in the open. A sceptic like me can read the articles and the associated discussion and make up my own mind on the issue. It is far better to have the biases out in the open than to have something inherently biased presented as authoritative.