Wikipedia Makes Me Clever: A Critique of Critical Critiques of the Online Encyclopedia

Hardly a day goes by without some educator protesting about the damage done to learning by Wikipedia. Students cut and paste text directly, they claim, or they repeat one-sided arguments and false stories planted by vandals and spin doctors. Actually I can well believe that students do these things and I am sure that had I grown up in the web 2.0 era I might have done the same, but this is no reflection on the quality of Wikipedia but rather a wasted opportunity to educate students about research techniques.

Pretty much everyone knows that Wikipedia is not perfect, but still it is an immensely useful source for a first quick look and as a source of links to primary sources, but anyone who is using the Wikipedia itself as a primary source badly needs to learn the basics of research. Rather than banning the use of Wikipedia, educators can actually use it as a very convenient, popular and well known resource for learning some key concepts of researching. To begin with you learn never to trust a single source, even if that distils the wisdom of the crowd. Pretty soon users understand that some pages are fairly risk-free – the History of Shoe Polish, for example – while other pages are obvious targets for vandalism and manipulation. Then you also learn to follow up the references and judge their trustworthiness.

For example, there is or was a Wikipedia page alleging that former French President Jacques Chirac preferred drinking Corona beer to wine. Now if the references cited articles in Le Monde, Le Figaro and Le Nouvel Observateur then I might have half believed it. In this case, though, the only source is a single article in a South American trade magazine quoting a single waiter who asserts that he saw Chirac drinking Corona. Googling “Chirac drinks Corona” turns up no other sources and I am pretty sure that if the president of France drank Mexican beer someone would have noticed it. My judgment in this case is that the story is very dubious, though I did not delete it because I use it as an example.

In fact the very open nature of Wikipedia has the healthy effect of making readers view the content with a critical eye. It is not likely that people will lie about the freezing point of kerosene but I would be very dubious about any article describing living political leaders. In addition Wikipedia follows the encyclopedic principle that everything must be sourced to external references, this means that you can follow up the references, something people should do anyway.

As for the claim that students cut and paste from Wikipedia, well they could do the same with any encyclopedia and it is always obvious anyway. Nobody should be fooled by the average student who suddenly starts using language that is obviously way over their head, and if they were smart enough to paraphrase they’d be able to do the assignment without help anyway.

And by packaging information in a convenient place Wikipedia actually makes them much smarter than they were in the old days of library stacks. I am sure that in the old days you could find just as much information by looking in books, but it took so long only anyone who wasn’t a full time researcher rarely bothered to check as much background as the average student today.


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