Sunday, June 1, 2014

Monday Morning Read: Wikipedia, Friend or Foe?

Note: Starting this week, I'm going to begin a blog segment called the Monday Morning Read. It will be some short tidbit for teachers that gives you something to think about to start your week, or something you can use in the classroom.  

Most social studies teachers have a love-hate relationship with Wikipedia. On one hand it is an exhaustive resource with up-to-date information on nearly every subject imaginable. On the other hand, it's cloud-sourced knowledge, meaning anyone can write anything. As I blogged just last week, a few years back I encountered a Wikipedia article that swapped out King Leonidas of Sparta for the fear-inspiring King Poopypants.

Single handedly stopped the Persian invasion and saved Western Civilization

This dichotomy makes Wikipedia a dicey source at best. But I do tell my students it can be a good one with a caveat: you must check the citations! To their credit, Wikipedia does a great job of requiring citations in their articles. I've even used Wikipedia to help teach students about citations.

But what happens when some miscreant writes errors on a Wikipedia entry, which is then read by an undiscerning journalist, who writes an article that is then used as a citation to prove the original mistruth? A raccoon turns into an aardvark, that's what.

"Call me whatever you want, just give me some bugs to eat."

This excellent piece in the New Yorker lays it all out. Above is a coati, but a while back some snot-nosed New Yorker edited its Wikipedia page to say "also known as the Brazilian Aardvark." Which it was not. Yet, if you google "Brazilian Aardvark" now dozens of entries come up.

Disturbingly, it appears newspaper reporters do exactly what my students want to do when told to research something: 
  1. Get on a computer, 
  2. Type whatever it is into Google
  3. Click on the Wikipedia link
  4. Write down whatever comes up 
Once that reporter wrote an article calling the Coati a Brazilian Aardvark, someone on Wikipedia linked that article back to the original error on Wikipedia, making it seem credible. The Wikipedia lie became a truth.

The article makes a great point. With any crowd-sourced knowledge platform, if enough people believe a lie, it becomes a truth. Think about all the funny, fascinating, or sad beliefs that people have held throughout history:

  • The Romans and Greeks believed a giant river named Oceanus surrounded the world.
  • Medieval Europeans though urine could help cure the Black Death.
  • Around the time of Lewis and Clark, many Americans thought Wooly Mammoths lived beyond the Rocky Mountains.
So, if Wikipedia were available at that time, we can imagine that the articles on Oceanus, Black Death cures and zoology of the West would have been authoritative and error filled.

While ignorance is one thing, in the coati's case the author willfully entered an error, that became cited so much it made its own truth. It's an invaluable case study for students to understand the limits of Wikipedia, and the potential of any source to be inaccurate purposefully or not.

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