Seven deadly reasons not to trust a Wikipedia article

Good, bad, biased, paid or what-have-you. There's an endless supply.
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Seven deadly reasons not to trust a Wikipedia article

Post by CrowsNest » Fri Dec 21, 2018 12:07 pm

1. They tell you not to

The Wikipedians are always very quiet about this basic fact, but if you prod them enough, they eventually have to admit the reality they exist in. According to the Wikipedian's own advice, their legal disclaimer no less, because of the unique way they work, you are meant to assume every word on Wikipedia is complete garbage. Every word, even if it sounds like it could be right.

Obviously they don't like people realising that, because if you can't trust anything on Wikipedia until you have checked every word against a resource not called Wikipedia, the obvious question is, "Why the fuck do I need Wikipedia?". If the answer is, "Well, it is handy to help me to know where to look", you're a fucking moron, a moon unit who probably can't be trusted with possessing facts and knowledge anyway.

2. Citogenisis

So, after reading 1. you have at least figured out that you're not meant to trust something on Wikipedia unless it is backed up by a source (one of those little numbers in brackets at the end of a sentence). Oh man. YOU GOT PLAYED, SUCKAH!

Again, due to the unique way Wikipedia works, much of the material out there in that there internet (even some books), the supposed reliable sources Wikipedia is referenced to, have themselves been polluted by made up facts that were first posted on Wikipedia, either by a vandal or a clueless idiot. The exact mechanism by which this occurs is called citogenisis. It is Wikipedia's dirty big secret.

They don't like to talk about this because it is extremely hard to spot, and even harder to fix. The time, effort and skill required to do so, is out of the reach of most Wikipedia editors, which means Wikipedia is a veritable Pandora's box of surprises, just waiting to fool a mug like you.

Despite the serious risk citogenisis poses to their basic trustworthyness, there isn't any kind of coordinated effort to tackle it. No task force. No project. No noticeboard. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Why? Because that would just make more people aware of the problem. Their strategy is to ignore it, and hope people assume this is just a small issue, a very small needle in a very big haystack. Given the nature of the problem, that is best seen as one hell of a sharp needle, likely containing HIV.

And the sheer size of that haystack now means that you don't need a very high rate of citogenisis (the low fractions of a percent) before the actual size of the pile of needles in it begins to look quite big. And what does knowing this risk even do for readers anyway, if whatever the number, if not infinitesimal, the only realistic caution you can give is don't go playing in the hay without a suit of armour?

3. Time

I've put this at number three, above even vandalism, because it is very clear it is a little known flaw of Wikipedia. Why is a mystery, since we're all familiar with the concept - something that was true on one date, can become false or at the very least misleading, on a future date. This is why quiz shows say, "All information correct at time of recording". So, let's fantasize about a world where 1. and 2. don't exist, that every little piece of information added to Wikipedia was correct at time of posting. What's to stop it becoming out of date, and therefore making you, dear reader, look like a fool for believing out of date information?

Well, again, due to the unique way Wikipedia works, their only real answer to that, is hoping another reader will spot it, and update the information, or as a distant second best, that the person who wrote it will stay committed to Wikipedia forever, making timely updates every time they become aware of the need to do so.

Unsurprisingly, this is as dumb a strategy as it sounds, even savvy readers don't really care (hence why they are readers and not editors), and Wikipedia editors come and go as they please (when not being forcibly ejected from the building). As such, spotting out of date information in Wikipedia articles, for those who know how to determine when it was presumed accurate (any hope they would include such temporal context in the article text is usually futile), is like shooting fish in a barrel.

They are of course covered by their disclaimer, as they are with every Wikipedia intrinsic fault. But it they didn't want readers to assume every page on Wikipedia is up to date, why create a dynamically updateable encyclopedia in the first place? Especially one where they actually even boast of being able to cover news events in almost real time?

Like all of their fundamental problems, the things that utterly destroy any claim they might have to be an encyclopedia, or indeed a useful resource at all (see 1. and 2.), they have no answer to this problem, except to hope you don't notice it.

To counter this criticism, you may have vaguely heard one time that no, I am wrong, that there is a system by which Wikipedia editors can formally check whether an article is factually correct, and once checked, it is proactively monitored. And you are right, there is. But given this has only so far occurred to 1.5% of their giant pile of garbage (over five million articles and growing), and given even this has been shown not to spot all errors, and given the entirely volunteer driven system of future monitoring post-check has been shown to be quite lax in many cases, it is little comfort. That and the simple fact it is pretty hard for readers to tell which articles have been checked and so form the magic 1.5% (and I'm not going to tell you how to here, just so you can see how hard it is to figure out what I'm talking about).

If you haven't figured it out already, much of what Wikipedia is about, is simply deceiving readers into thinking it is something it is not. Part of that comes into play here. If you look hard, and I mean really hard, you will notice every Wikipedia article contains a statement of the time and date it was last edited. It's there at the bottom, in the fine print. They do this to fool readers into thinking the article was at least presumably correct on that date. You would be quite wrong to assume this is the case. There are many reasons a Wikipedia article might be edited on any given date, and unsurprisingly, a 'comprehensive check to ensure everything is still accurate' is usually not one of them.

4. Vandalism

A lot of people do now seem to understand that one of the main downsides of the unique way Wikipedia works, is vandalism. The presence of which is obviously a big reason why you can't trust Wikipedia. But now much do you really know about this issue?

Again, in this arena there is much deception of the readers going on. Current Wikipedia propaganda would have you believe "most" (a nicely unquanitifiable word that) vandalism is identified and removed quickly, often nowadays totally automatically. And in many cases, it is.

But there are two types of vandalism. Because there are two types of vandal. There are those who do it to get spotted, the people doing it for a laugh, to get attention. Bored schoolkids usually. The person adding "Dave is a penis" to the article on an obscure African beetle species, although he might claim otherwise, wants the Wikipediots to spot his grand attack on their edifice of "knowledge", and remove it. He's also wants Dave to see it most likely.

But there is another much more pernicious type of vandal. They want their vandalism to stick. They want to be able go back a year or more later, and stroke their penis at the sight of their evil genius having succeeded over the Wikipediots. Which is kind of sad, because not for nothing do I call these people Wikipediots. They are not exactly hard to beat. The Pentagon, this is not.

Here's where the unique way Wikipedia works comes into play. In their wisdom, they have enthusiastically made this into a kind of game. And what does this type of vandal like more than anything else? Games. They probably are bored gamers. On the flip side, the Wikipedians hunting vandals, they also seem to be bored gamers.

Rather than do something effective to combat this type of vandal, something that a true systems designer working for an encyclopedia might do, they have simply introduced measure after measure which merely incentivises the vandals to up their game. And what's the easiest way to win this game? To vandalize Wikipedia in ways that are indistinguishable from normal good faith edits.

Since we already know Wikipedia doesn't have the manpower required to check every single edit to see if the words match the source (1.) and the source itself is not corrupted (2.), much less keep going over articles periodically to review them for issues like missed vandalism (3.), the real victim here is you, the poor old reader.

5. You don't know who wrote it

Again, while most people do now seem to appreciate one of the unique ways Wikipedia sucks is that you really have no idea who is writing it, meaning they could very well be a vandal, you do have to wonder if they have really appreciated the many wondrous other ways this means Wikipedia content can be dodgy as hell.

People are blocked from editing Wikipedia all the time, and it is informative to examine the reasons why. Since literally anyone can edit Wikipedia, it can be no surprise then that those who do includes pedophiles, racists, homophobes, white supremacists, sexists, nationalists, political hacks, corporate shills, flat earthers and Scientologists. Oh, and children. Because Wikipedia has no age limit (a side effect of not wanting to verify anything else about who their editors are either).

And before you take some comfort in the fact Wikipedia is blocking them, consider how easy it is for people to subtly change their edits just enough that they enter the 'good faith' zone, so as to avoid getting blocked. Again, there is a gamification aspect to all this, with the evolution of Wikipedia's defences simply incetivising people with bad intentions to get better at blending in, or worse, hire a mercenary Wikipedian to do their edits for them.

Wikipedians have long had a quite commendable doctrine to assume good faith in everyone who comes to edit, until proven otherwise. A common issue is that they are all too hasty to withdraw this good faith, often confusing lack of knowledge of what Wikipedia is, with ill intent toward it. But bizarrely, an equally common problem is they are often too slow to recognise when they are being taken advantage of, especially by those who take the time to gain the knowledge of how Wikipedia works (reality and theory).

Part of the reason is because most highly experienced Wikipedians, certainly those who do the blocking, are themselves usually exploiting Wikipedia one way or another. It simply doesn't do to get people to focus too much on what the warning signs are. As such, as long as you are careful, as long as you aren't being too obvious, you can get away with editing Wikipedia even if your true motives are utterly contrary to the stated principles.

Wikipedians like to act like they're the victim in all this, as if it has nothing to do with them as far as how easy this is to do. The real victims of course, are you, dear readers. Because these nefarious people aren't editing just for the hell of it. They're aiming to influence you.

6. Lack of a garbage crew

Another reason not to take comfort in the fact Wikipedia is at least blocking some of the bad people who are there to deceive you by manipulating articles to their own ends, is the simple but quite startling realisation that whenever someone like that is blocked, it is quite rare for anyone to bother to go back over their edits and check whether anything they did before being discovered, needs cleaning up.

There are some crude tools which allow them to undo all edits of a user an masse, but there are only really used against vandals, and are of no use if some time has passed and therefore other edits have been made over the top of theirs, making it hard to remove it without making even more of a mess.

Like anything on Wikipedia, if it takes time and effort and is not a task you can record easily as one of your 'achievements' on a personal scoreboard, like writing X number of articles or blocking X number of vandals, then it quite often simply doesn't get done. And be in no doubt, trawling back through years worth of malicious edits by closet racists etc, that meets this criteria and then some. It is only slightly less hard than dealing with citogenisis.

7. Copyright

A rare exception to the rule above that there is often no concerted effort to clean up after a bad editor, is copyright. This is presumably because it is one of the few things that could theoretically get the people who own Wikipedia sued. As such, by successfully convincing their gullible volunteers that performing their corporate duty is something they should be doing themselves, Wikipedia does have a mechanism by which editors who got blocked for routinely posting copyrighted material to the website are logged as needing all of their past edits checked by other volunteers.

Unsurprisingly, there are few willing to take up this monumental task, meaning the extent of the backlog of this process is such that it may as well not exist. If you're smart, if you intend on using Wikipedia for any other purpose than cheating on pub quizzes, then you should really already be appreciating what a massive risk you would be taking in assuming the material found on Wikipedia is not violating someone else's copyright. You really are better off simply assuming that the edits even of those caught violating copyright are still in place, just as all the edits of those they have not yet caught, remain in place.

This is no theoretical risk either, since, and you are surely starting to realise what a warning flag this is, due to the unique way Wikipedia works, people are encouraged to literally copy information they find on it. It's yours, for free, to do with as you please, the only legal requirement being to say where you got it from on Wikipedia, and the specific license. Do that, and you are covered in terms of not breaching Wikipedia's copyright. That it was not theirs to copyright in the first place, won't help pay your legal bills.

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