The Examined Life

Where I torture reality till it confesses the truth

Criticisms of Wikipedia

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.

9 Comments

  1. Agree.

    Point worth deliberating is that Wikipedia is still evolving. Pieces of information are being written, rewritten, debated, refined and so on.. this process of continued morphing will eventually ensure that a democratic viewpoint will float over to the top.

    As such, if Wikipedia is frozen at any particular point for introspection, surely one can find thousands of articles that won’t stand the test of objectivity, logic or factuality. Nevertheless, this should not be construed as fatally flawed.

    Wikipedia makes no claim to faultlessness. So let us enjoy wikipedia with all its warts for its spirit of democratic particpation of the masses.

    Cheers, Jagan.

  2. “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.” – absolutely

  3. yes; it seems Dilip and Co are a trifle muddled in their thinking about this.
    There are two types of info:

    objective: like 1+1 = 2; I don’t think Dilip et al are protesting the “lack of accuracy” about
    things of this sort on Wikipedia. Most wikipedia articles on objective matters contain links to outside material anyway.

    subjective: it is here that Dilip et al want to protest. But, as you rightly point out; it is HERE that you NEED an open discussion as opposed to closed statements from “experts”.

    Basically, they are taking an obvious *advantage* of Wikipedia, and fanning their lace hands into a faint at such a disadvantage of it not being “rock-solid”.

    How do they manage such double-think?

  4. “Wikipedia makes no claim to faultlessness”…

    Yes, and any such claim is inherently ridden with problems… A “faultless” “encyclopedia” (two big words) is a very precarious position to defend…

    The article on Kashmir – infact – has many positives though full of such political debates. Think of the tourist from Australia who is planning a visit to Ladakh and thereabouts. I am sure such heated political debates in Wikipedia will be immensely helpful to him and highly informative as a fair warning…

  5. I still do not get what Dilip’s point is.

    Can someone please explain why the obvious is being restated?

  6. And oh, I forgot to add… Dilip of course will maintain that all these posts of his are not criticisms but his “expression of fascination” at Wikipedia…

    And I challenge, no one can disprove that claim… ;-)

  7. Maybe in time, a software will be available that averages out all the views and spews out text inoffensive to all ;)

  8. “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.) “…

    I disagree: The second version simply states facts that are irrelevant to the 1993 bombings (at least this early in an article)–it wouldn’t make any sense to me to find information about some completely unrelated riots in an article on the bombings! In an excessibly long article (like wikipedia’s articles often are ;o)), one might later discuss whether or not this is the worst case of criminal violence; but generally, this fact is rather irrelevant information compared to the event itself. (What does that show us? That every reading of a text is inherently subjective, just in the line of your reasoning…)

    Apart from that, I fully agree with you. (Of course. :o))

  9. Good job with this article. Sometimes the truths are necessary. regards