Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Encyclopaedic thoughts

I very much like old encyclopedias of the 1800s to early 1900s. At home we have The Popular Educator, John Cassell's dour but massively influential 1850s instructional encyclopedia (the full text is online at Google Books); Cassell's Book of Knowledge; and Arthur's Mee's eclectic and rambling Children's Encyclopedia. At best, these make excellent reading for their broad and clear presentations of the knowledge of a particular period. However, as Imagination in Education points out, their considerable artistic and instructional flair often comes with a certain amount of dated moralising and even propaganda, as in this extract.

Before the German Empire was shorn by the Paris Peace Conference - east, north, and east - the map of Germany was not unlike the picture of a stupid helmeted giant, sprawling on all-fours, with a pygmy master on top. Prussia made up the body and head, with Berlin at the heart, and its ore and grain-bearing province of Silesia, stolen long ago from Austria, as creeping arms and hands. Schleswig, filched in 1864 from Denmark, pictured the Hohenzollern masters; while the South German States and Alsace-Lorraine formed an undefined but important lower part

This excruciatingly hostile description leads the Germany and its people article in Cassell's Book of Knowledge, an encyclopaedia for children, ed. Harold FB Wheeler, The Waverley Book Company, London (early 1920s).

The problem of bias and accuracy in encyclopedias is an ongoing issue. I was reminded of the above passage on reading this opinion piece, The Wisdom of Crowds, by Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. He is, unsurprisingly, highly optimistic about its possibilities. This view has been challenged on various fronts. For instance, Wiki wars talks about the problems of vandalism. Or there was the fallout from the notorious "Seigenthaler incident" where an entry libelled John Seigenthaler Sr by falsely associating him with the Kennedy assassination (see his own account, A false Wikipedia 'biography'). The accuracy issue was, furthermore, highlighted in 2006 when, as described in A thirst for knowledge, Nature conducted a study comparing selected articles from Wikipedia with those on the same topics in Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Wikipedia itself has an extensive selection of quotes on its reliability).

My two cents on the matter (everyone has them so why not?): I'm not sure any of these tackles one of the more besetting problems with Wikipedia: active contributor bias. I very much doubt any regular good-faith contributor can have failed to run into articles that are either a permanent battleground, or completely gridlocked, because of "SPAs" (single-purpose accounts) - editors whose sole purpose on Wikipedia is to spin an article to their preferred view of the world, and argue at length with all comers in favour of that spin. It can happen anywhere, but it's particularly common in articles relating to controversial topics in religion, politics, medicine, science, biography, and so on. It's often associated with behaviours such as "wikilawyering" (nitpicking at length about the rules) and other obfuscation tactics. This, not general vandalism, I would say is the most serious and time-consuming irritation in editing Wikipedia, and probably the one most responsible for driving away good editors (in large part because Wikipedia's mechanisms for restricting or removing tendentious editors are slow and cumbersome). If there were one improvement I could make by waving a magic wand, it would be to install rapid procedures for banning troublemakers.

Part of the problem is Wikipedia's success. Nowadays, Google for a term - say "cat" - and Wikipedia will be one of the top hits. This privileged search placement means that it is a major vehicle for shaping worldwide what is known about a topic. Not unnaturally, this makes it inevitably a battleground, and Wikiscanner shows what's probably the tip of the iceberg.

If you enjoy "Wikidrama", the Wikipedia:Conflict of interest/Noticeboard makes for compelling reading; there's a steady stream of quite well-known people caught out in completely crass attempts to game the system. If you see people elsewhere on the Web whining about being ill-treated by Wikipedia, it's always worth checking out the Talk pages of relevant Wikipedia articles. Maybe they were wronged like John Seigenthaler Sr; or maybe they were rightly slapped down for self-promotion and for behaving disruptively on being found out.

Despite such issues, other encyclopedias are moving toward their own modifications of the Wikipedia format, primarily by introducing some form of editorial oversight. Even mainstream encyclopedias look likely to move into the territory: Wired recently reported Encyclopaedia Britannica To Follow Modified Wikipedia Model. However, Citizendium was probably the first, founded by Larry Sanger, Wikipedia's co-founder, who in 2007 described Wikipedia's organisational model as "broken beyond repair". Citizendium's differences from Wikipedia include a two-tier contributor system where "authors" are overseen by "editors", and all are required to identify themselves. Personally I like the idea; though Clay Shirky, in Larry Sanger, Citizendium, and the Problem of Expertise, argues that Sanger's view of expertise is mistaken; also it's a matter of observation that the effort to spin is by no means removed by revelation of identity. It doesn't take much work to find articles where Wikipedia refugees - ones who left or were ejected because they couldn't/wouldn't work under its neutrality policies - are now editing Citizendium.

As to Wikipedia, I do find it useful (some articles are excellent) but I have some sympathy with the school librarian who put up a "Just Say No to Wikipedia" sign. It's good for a quick overview of a topic and getting an idea of what the basics are and where to look. But it also requires a strongly critical (paranoid even) attitude to the origins of an article, where you need to take a hard look at the article history, discussion page and even contributor histories to see if there are ongoing editorial disputes or contributors with known/likely bias.

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