Why You Should Not Use Wikipedia As Your Primary Source

It is no secret to anyone who has read my posts in this forum for a while that I do not like Wikipedia. I think that there’s a fundamental flaw with the whole concept and philosophy of it. While I think that it may be useful to many who need a quick lookup for something, it is unfortunate that even more are using it almost as their primary source of information. And this is scary considering that (i) the validity of the information being presented is never guaranteed and (ii) the pedagogical presentation of the material is often shoddy, making the subject even more confusing.

I often get asked to look at such-and-such Wikipedia entry, or someone is trying to convince me of something and using a Wikipedia entry as a “reference” to back up his/her argument. It is usually during such instances that I find inaccuracies, confusing statements, and outright errors in such entries. I was doing my own search on something a few minutes ago, and I decided, out of curiosity, to see what Wikipedia has to say about “Work Function”. Now, keep in mind that this is a common terminology, especially for physics students, since the photoelectric effect is a “must-know” topic for these students. One would think that this should be a topic that a Wikipedia entry would get it right, considering how many people would look up such a thing, AND, the fact that errors and inaccuracy would, by now, be ironed out.

WRONG!

This is what I first saw on the Wikipedia page Oct. 8, and my last check today shows that it is still there.

work function wiki page

I posted the date in the screen capture as a date stamp on when this was first viewed.

The offending passage has been highlighted with a red box. Let’s look at it closely, shall we?

The description here is on what happened for an insulator (or a semiconductor, for that matter). The figure shown is the simplified band diagram for such a system (i.e. an intrinsic semiconductor, for example), and defines the various quantities such as the work function, bandgap, electron affinity, etc. The problematic statement says this:

For an insulator, the Fermi level lies within the band gap, indicating an empty conduction band; in this case, the minimum energy to remove an electron is about the sum of half the band gap and the electron affinity.

The first part of that paragraph which says “…. For an insulator, the Fermi level lies within the bandgap, indicating an empty conduction band …” is OK. However, the second part is very puzzling and an outright error: “… in this case, the minimum energy to remove an electron is about the sum of half the bandgap and the electron affinity …”

Whoever wrote this is STILL thinking that the work function (Phi) is still the minimum energy needed to produce photoemission, as in the case of a metal. This is FALSE, and anyone who looks at the band diagram can tell. Half of the bandgap plus the electron affinity is the work function Phi, but this is the energy between the vacuum level and the Fermi level. The Fermi level for insulator/semiconductor has NO STATES, and thus, no electrons to excite! After all, it resides in the bandgap! So what is being excited here?

For an insulator/semiconductor, while the work function may still be defined as the energy between the Fermi level and the vacuum level, it no longer corresponds to the photoemission threshold! The photoemission threshold now is the full band gap energy PLUS the electron affinity. You need to excite, at the minimum, the electrons from the top of the valence band to the vacuum level. One can see this clearly by looking at the band diagram in the figure.

Now, you can tell me “But ZapperZ, why can’t you correct these errors, and provide a service to the community?” You will then have missed my point entirely. My problem isn’t with these errors. My problem is the WHOLE PHILOSOPHY of Wikipedia. I find that to be the fundamental flaw, that no one of any authority is being given the ability to write and edit stuff. The errors in the various entries are only the SYMPTOMS of the flawed philosophy. I could spend a lifetime correcting many of these errors (now why would I want to spend a lot of my own personal time to do that in the first place, no one has given me a good reason), and it would not change a thing about my perception of Wikipedia.

If you don’t know the topic you are looking up, and you are using Wikipedia as your PRIMARY SOURCE OF INFORMATION, I would be very scared if I were you.

108 replies
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  1. atyy says:

    [QUOTE=”ZapperZ, post: 5197715, member: 6230″]Sticking to the subject, you accused my “two” essays at not having to do with each other. I responded by pointing out why you simply didn’t pay attention. Are you STILL under that false impression?

    And no, I have no desire to answer you anymore. I’m just doing cleaning up of the previously-created mess.[/QUOTE]

    Ultimately, you have only asserted that authority is necessary to be something non-existent – a recommended sole source.

  2. atyy says:

    [QUOTE=”micromass, post: 5197839, member: 205308″]Many people use wikipedia as only source.[/QUOTE]

    But should anything be used as an only source? If there is no such thing, why single out Wikipedia, especially when he faults Wikipedia’s “WHOLE PHILOSOPHY” but cannot even provide an example that Wikipedia recommends that it used as an only source.

    [QUOTE=”micromass, post: 5197839, member: 205308″]As a pedagogical tool, it has zero viability. It is simply awful. It should only be used if you already know what it is talking about.[/QUOTE]

    Why?

  3. micromass says:

    [QUOTE=”atyy, post: 5197810, member: 123698″]If you read ZapperZ’s definition of primary, it means only source. As far as I know, there is no such thing.[/QUOTE]

    Many people use wikipedia as only source.

    [QUOTE]
    So if there are degrees of viability, then why not consider Wikipedia a primary source with some non-zero viability.[/QUOTE]

    As a pedagogical tool, it has zero viability. It is simply awful. It should only be used if you already know what it is talking about.

  4. ZapperZ says:

    [QUOTE=”micromass, post: 5197793, member: 205308″]I don’t think I understood anything of what they said.[/QUOTE]

    And you know what, that is the problem, because as a professional working in photoemission and making photocathodes, *I* can’t figure out what Process 1 is in that description either!

    I know the Spicer 3-step process like the back of my hand. The entire description of the 3-step process in the Wikipedia entry is not only flawed (yes, there are amateur errors in there), but it is also awfully presented. This is one of my major issue with Wikipedia articles, which I had stated many times.

    Zz.

  5. atyy says:

    [QUOTE=”micromass, post: 5197716, member: 205308″]Yes, obviously there are degrees of viability.[/QUOTE]

    If you read ZapperZ’s definition of primary, it means only source. As far as I know, there is no such thing. So if there are degrees of viability, then why not consider Wikipedia a primary source with some non-zero viability.

    On what grounds is ZapperZ arguing that it hs d zero viability?

    Apparently, not on the basis of errors, only on the basis of authority?

  6. brainpushups says:

    Some valid points have been made both as to wikipedia’s flaws and to its usefulness. I think the bottom line is that, if you want to learn something in detail, you should probably be using multiple “primary” sources. Different authors can explain things in ways that different readers can find preference for. As a quick reference for something you are already familiar with, wikipedia can a nice resource.

  7. micromass says:

    [QUOTE=”ZapperZ, post: 5197770, member: 6230″]That’s fine, micro. I honestly don’t expect anyone, or a lot of people who are not experts in the photoemission phenomenon to find anything wrong with it.

    BTW, let me also try something here, and this has nothing to do with errors. When you read this (I know you did it rather quickly), did you understand it?

    In other words, did you understand this 3-step model, especially Process #1?

    Zz.[/QUOTE]

    I don’t think I understood anything of what they said.

  8. ZapperZ says:

    [QUOTE=”micromass, post: 5197740, member: 205308″]OK, so I (quickly) read the page and while I acknowledge that I did not understand much, I did not find anything wrong.[/QUOTE]

    That’s fine, micro. I honestly don’t expect anyone, or a lot of people who are not experts in the photoemission phenomenon to find anything wrong with it.

    BTW, let me also try something here, and this has nothing to do with errors. When you read this (I know you did it rather quickly), did you understand it?

    [quote=Wikipedia]
    [SIZE=4][B]Three-step model[/B][/SIZE]
    In the [URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-ray’]X-ray[/URL] regime, the photoelectric effect in crystalline material is often decomposed into three steps:[URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photoelectric_effect#cite_note-Stefan2003-14′][14][/URL]:50–51

    [LIST=1]
    [*]Inner photoelectric effect (see photodiode below[[I][URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Please_clarify’]clarification needed[/URL][/I]]). The hole left behind can give rise to [URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auger_effect’]Auger effect[/URL], which is visible even when the electron does not leave the material. In molecular solids [URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonon’]phonons[/URL] are excited in this step and may be visible as lines in the final electron energy. The inner photoeffect has to be dipole allowed.[[I][URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Please_clarify’]clarification needed[/URL][/I]] The [URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transition_rule’]transition rules[/URL] for atoms translate via the [URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tight-binding_model’]tight-binding model[/URL] onto the crystal.[[I][URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Please_clarify’]clarification needed[/URL][/I]] They are similar in geometry to [URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plasma_oscillation’]plasma oscillations[/URL] in that they have to be transversal.
    [*]Ballistic transport[[I][URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Please_clarify’]clarification needed[/URL][/I]] of half of the electrons to the surface. Some electrons are scattered.
    [*]Electrons escape from the material at the surface.
    [/LIST]
    In the three-step model, an electron can take multiple paths through these three steps. All paths can interfere in the sense of the [URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Path_integral_formulation’]path integral formulation[/URL]. For [URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surface_state’]surface states[/URL] and [URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecule’]molecules[/URL] the three-step model does still make some sense as even most [URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atom’]atoms[/URL] have multiple electrons which can scatter the one electron leaving.[/quote]

    In other words, did you understand this 3-step model, especially Process #1?

    Zz.

  9. micromass says:

    [QUOTE=”ZapperZ, post: 5197727, member: 6230″]Everyone read that page, and tell me if you find something either wrong, or not quite right.[/QUOTE]

    OK, so I (quickly) read the page and while I acknowledge that I did not understand much, I did not find anything wrong.

  10. ZapperZ says:

    [QUOTE=”Hornbein, post: 5197689, member: 489043″]Have you ever tried any other online encyclopedia?

    I have, to find a minimum of information and a maximum of advertising. Wikipedia was far superior.

    So…what alternative do you suggest? The Library of Congress is too far away for me.[/QUOTE]

    What were you intending to do? If you simply want to look up out of curiosity, then knock yourself out. Just don’t expect a guarantee on the validity of what you read, and this applies to both Wikipedia and the online encyclopedia.

    However, if you intend to learn physics, then there is no short cut!

    BTW, say you want to learn something about the “[URL=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photoelectric_effect’]Photoelectric Effect[/URL]”, and you look at the corresponding Wikipedia entry. If you are not me, and you know nothing about it, and this is your first time trying to figure out what it is, how accurate do you think the information that you get? Now, keep in mind that, as with the example I gave in the Insight article, this is not some obscure topic in physics. In fact, I would say that this is a very common topic that I’m sure a lot of people have used Wikipedia for.

    So, I’m not trying to put a trap or something on you, and I’m being honest here. We can try something easily among us friends. Everyone read that page, and tell me if you find something either wrong, or not quite right. Remember, my main objections to Wikipedia is not simply that it has errors, but also in how it presents the material, the latter of which I associate with its philosophy.

    Zz.

  11. micromass says:

    [QUOTE=”atyy, post: 5197708, member: 123698″]”More viable”? So there are degrees of viability? [/QUOTE]

    Yes, obviously there are degrees of viability.

  12. ZapperZ says:

    [QUOTE=”atyy, post: 5197708, member: 123698″]”More viable”? So there are degrees of viability? Just as there are degrees of “only”?[/QUOTE]

    Sticking to the subject, you accused my “two” essays at not having to do with each other. I responded by pointing out why you simply didn’t pay attention. Are you STILL under that false impression?

    And no, I have no desire to answer you anymore. I’m just doing cleaning up of the previously-created mess.

    Zz.

  13. micromass says:

    I don’t know what’s so controversial about ZapperZ’s opinion, it’s common sense really. Yes, I use wikipedia now and then, and I find it useful. But it is clear not to use it as a primary source for math or for physics.

    So what do I mean with this? Let’s say you wanted to know some linear algebra. Or you encountered the word vector space somewhere. What some people do, is just go to wikipedia and read the article of a vector space. I do not recommend this at all. What you will get out of this is some basic intuition of what it is about. This is good. But you won’t know much actual and deep stuff about vector spaces.
    On the other hand, what I recommend you do is pick up a good book on vector spaces such as Treil’s “Linear algebra done wrong”. There you get a structured approach to vector spaces.

    If somebody comes to me and says “I’ve read the book of Treil and done the problems” vs “I’ve read various wikipedia articles on linear algebra”, I would say that the former understands the material, why the latter does not

    I hope nobody in this thread thinks he should learn the material only by using wikipedia (which IS what some people think).

  14. atyy says:

    [QUOTE=”ZapperZ, post: 5197696, member: 6230″]Sorry, but you’ve just shown more evidence of your inability to comprehend what you read.

    In my “first part” of the essay, I wrote this:

    So now I bet you want me to explain what are the “flawed philosophy”, even though I’ve spent time and effort writing it all down already. The errors are one of the SYMPTOMS!

    At this point, I don’t care to answer this, because anyone reading this would have already known that I would consider as a more viable primary source than Wikipedia. If you consider this objection as empty, then it is fine with me, because any attempt at explaining it will be mangled as the others.

    Zz.[/QUOTE]

    “More viable”? So there are degrees of viability? Just as there are degrees of “only”?

  15. ZapperZ says:

    [QUOTE=”atyy, post: 5197681, member: 123698″]So your mention of errors is irrelevant to your objection to Wikipedia as a primary source? In other words, the first part of your essay is not related to the second part of your essay?[/quote]

    Sorry, but you’ve just shown more evidence of your inability to comprehend what you read.

    In my “first part” of the essay, I wrote this:

    [quote=ZapperZ]Now, you can tell me “But ZapperZ, why can’t you correct these errors, and provide a service to the community?” You will then have missed my point entirely. My problem isn’t with these errors. My problem is the WHOLE PHILOSOPHY of Wikipedia. I find that to be the fundamental flaw, that no one of any authority is being given the ability to write and edit stuff. [b]The errors in the various entries are only the SYMPTOMS of the flawed philosophy[/b].[/quote]

    So now I bet you want me to explain what are the “flawed philosophy”, even though I’ve spent time and effort writing it all down already. The errors are one of the SYMPTOMS!

    [quote]You still have not given any example of a primary source you recommend – in the sense of sole source. So at present your objection to Wikipedia as a primary source is empty, since it is not clear that any source should be a primary source.[/QUOTE]

    At this point, I don’t care to answer this, because anyone reading this would have already known that I would consider as a more viable primary source than Wikipedia. If you consider this objection as empty, then it is fine with me, because any attempt at explaining it will be mangled as the others.

    Zz.

  16. Hornbein says:

    Have you ever tried any other online encyclopedia?

    I have, to find a minimum of information and a maximum of advertising. Wikipedia was far superior.

    So…what alternative do you suggest? The Library of Congress is too far away for me.

  17. atyy says:

    [QUOTE=”ZapperZ, post: 5197676, member: 6230″]Then you don’t know how to read. Nowhere in the THREE points that I described as the flaw in the philosophy of Wikipedia involves a discussion about errors!

    There is no point in continuing this, because what I wrote is not what you understood. It is why you mangled what I wrote. So why would you bother to listen to anything that I have to say?

    Over and out![/QUOTE]

    So your mention of errors is irrelevant to your objection to Wikipedia as a primary source? In other words, the first part of your essay is not related to the second part of your essay?

    You still have not given any example of a primary source you recommend – in the sense of sole source. So at present your objection to Wikipedia as a primary source is empty, since it is not clear that any source should be a primary source.

  18. ZapperZ says:

    [QUOTE=”atyy, post: 5197665, member: 123698″]You used the errors as a symptom of the flawed “WHOLE PHILOSOPHY” of Wikipedia. So if there were no errors, there would be no symptoms and you would have no evidence.[/QUOTE]

    Then you don’t know how to read. Nowhere in the THREE points that I described as the flaw in the philosophy of Wikipedia involves a discussion about errors!

    There is no point in continuing this, because what I wrote is not what you understood. It is why you mangled what I wrote. So why would you bother to listen to anything that I have to say?

    Over and out!

    Zz.

  19. atyy says:

    [QUOTE=”ZapperZ, post: 5197658, member: 6230″]Only if you reply to my question on where I wrote that such sources must be “flawless”. This has been nothing but a one-way street, you convoluting what I said and asking me to defend it.[/QUOTE]

    You used the errors as a symptom of the flawed “WHOLE PHILOSOPHY” of Wikipedia. So if there were no errors, there would be no symptoms and you would have no evidence.

  20. ZapperZ says:

    [QUOTE=”atyy, post: 5197652, member: 123698″]Can you give an example of a primary source you recommend and explain in what way it differs from Wikipedia?[/QUOTE]

    Only if you reply to my question on where I wrote that such sources must be “flawless”. This has been nothing but a one-way street, you convoluting what I said and asking me to defend it.

    Zz.

  21. atyy says:

    [QUOTE=”ZapperZ, post: 5197640, member: 6230″]Again, you are WAAAAY off in this. Where did I insist that a source must be “flawless”?[/QUOTE]

    Can you give an example of a primary source you recommend and explain in what way it differs from Wikipedia?

  22. ZapperZ says:

    [QUOTE=”atyy, post: 5197637, member: 123698″]So primary source means “sole source”? Is there anything you would recommend as a PRIMARY SOURCE in this sense? Presumably it must be flawless.[/QUOTE]

    Again, you are WAAAAY off in this. Where did I insist that a source must be “flawless”?

    Zz.

  23. atyy says:

    [QUOTE=”ZapperZ, post: 5197626, member: 6230″]I am not a biologist. I want to look up what a particular virus is and what it can do. I don’t have other sources. I go to Wikipedia to learn about this virus. I’m using Wikipedia as a primary source.[/QUOTE]

    So primary source means “sole source”? Is there anything you would recommend as a PRIMARY SOURCE in this sense? Presumably it must be flawless.

  24. ZapperZ says:

    [QUOTE=”atyy, post: 5197619, member: 123698″]Define PRIMARY SOURCE. [/quote]

    I am not a biologist. I want to look up what a particular virus is and what it can do. I don’t have other sources. I go to Wikipedia to learn about this virus. I’m using Wikipedia as a primary source.

    [quote]And please give a reference that says the WHOLE PHILOSOPHY of Wikipedia is to be used as a PRIMARY SOURCE according to that definition.[/QUOTE]

    No, I never implied that being used as a primary source was the intention of Wikipedia. What I argued is because of the flawed philosophy of Wikipedia, it should never be used as a primary source! There’s a difference!

    Are we going to go down this path of splitting hairs again that you normally go into? If it is, then I’m done!

    Zz.

  25. atyy says:

    [QUOTE=”ZapperZ, post: 5197613, member: 6230″]Please note that, as I stated, and has been pointed out by several members, I’m criticizing the use of Wikipedia as the PRIMARY source of information. Stay in this form for a while, and you’ll find people using it as not only a primary source, but also as a learning material, as if this is a well-thought out textbook! This is what I am criticizing!

    There are several points that make up the “WHOLE PHILOSOPHY” of Wikipedia that I find to be flawed, especially when it is used as a PRIMARY SOURCE:[/QUOTE]

    Define PRIMARY SOURCE.

    And please give a reference that says the WHOLE PHILOSOPHY of Wikipedia is to be used as a PRIMARY SOURCE according to that definition.

  26. ZapperZ says:

    [QUOTE=”hideelo, post: 5197435, member: 438589″]I agree that it’s imperfect, but to look up an equation, or something like that it’s pretty good. The flip side is, don’t take textbooks as gospel either almost all have some typos and unlike Wikipedia, it isn’t constantly updated.[/QUOTE]

    Er.. we’re NOT talking about “typos” here. There’s a difference between the two. The errors in Wikipedia, especially the one that I used as an examples, are the type of errors that [b]AMATEURS[/b] would make, or at the very least, an error that would be made when there wasn’t a very careful consideration of what is being presented. I haven’t come across that same type of error in the textbooks that I had used, and I had used a lot!

    I have a higher degree of confidence in the validity of an equation coming out of a textbook than looking up on Wikipedia. Did I just say something crazy here?

    [QUOTE=”atyy, post: 5197453, member: 123698″]Can ZapperZ give a reference as to what the “WHOLE PHILOSOPHY” of Wikipedia is that he is disagreeing with?[/QUOTE]

    [QUOTE=”filipv, post: 5197536, member: 388487″]IF “the errors in the various entries are only the SYMPTOMS of the flawed philosophy” THEN “Encyclopaedia Britannica” is also based on a “flawed philosophy” since there are as many errors there as in Wikipedia.[/QUOTE]

    Please note that, as I stated, and has been pointed out by several members, I’m criticizing the use of Wikipedia as the PRIMARY source of information. Stay in this form for a while, and you’ll find people using it as not only a primary source, but also as a learning material, as if this is a well-thought out textbook! This is what I am criticizing!

    There are several points that make up the “WHOLE PHILOSOPHY” of Wikipedia that I find to be flawed, especially when it is used as a PRIMARY SOURCE:

    1. When I wrote this several years ago, anyone and everyone could contribute to it and edit it. While this may no longer be completely true now, there is still an element where anyone can write about something, regardless of that person’s credentials. The whole idea of the “cult of the amateur” scares me, where the opinion of someone is taken in with equal weight, regardless of whether that person has the knowledge or expertise to voice such an opinion. I want to know who is writing this thing that I’m trying to learn from. And yes, in that sense, I also would NOT use Encyclopedia Britannica as a source to learn something.

    2. When we have a discussion about a book that covers a particular topic, we often get a debate or discussion on whether such-and-such a book is better than the other. I’ve often criticize members who recommend Feynman’s Lecture Series books to someone who is just starting out in physics, because pedagogically, it isn’t a very good book for beginners! I can also say that I like Griffith’s E&M text, while someone else will disagree with me for various reasons. Yet, textbooks on the SAME subject area covers roughly the SAME set of topics. What makes one textbook different, or better than the other? It is [b]the way the material is presented[/b]! Textbook writers, or anyone trying to TEACH someone else about something, must not only know the material, but must also put in a lot of effort in trying to present the material in the simplest, clearest, and best method to be understood! This is what makes one textbook or one source better than the other. You just don’t spew the information out like a vomit.

    This consideration is what is seriously missing in Wikipedia articles. I’ve lost count of how many entries that I’ve read which felt jumbled, disjointed, and some time even contradictory. This is especially true when more than one cooks had dipped his/her hands into the pot. It is not presented in a thoughtful, systematic manner for learn from, and again, we are talking about people who are using this as a primary source of information! They, of all people, need more than others a source that is well-organized and clear. So even if there are no errors in a particular topic, there’s a lot to be desired on how that topic is presented. This lack oversight on how the quality of the presentation is something I consider to be a major flaw.

    3. The idea that one can study a subject matter using Wikipedia is scary. Knowledge isn’t just a series of disjointed and disconnected pieces of information. Rather, it is a series of connected information where they are interrelated to each other. “Encyclopedia”, by definition, is nothing more than a collection of information. It is fine if you simply want to look up something, but if you don’t know what you are dealing with, this will be a piece of information dangling in mid air, without any anchor to anything else. This is not knowledge. It is a piece of useless and irrelevant information that you can’t use, other than to impress someone at a party.

    Zz.

  27. symbolipoint says:

    Greg and ZapperZ,

    What you say is absolutely right. Wikipedia is not suited for deep learning of technical topics. Serious scientific expository articles are properly placed in research journals and in academic institutions, maybe sometimes as technical investigations within businesses.

  28. verty says:

    Wikipedia follows the example of the famous French [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclop%C3%A9die]Encyclopédie[/url] of 1750-1770:

    [quote]The Encyclopédie was an innovative encyclopedia in several respects. Among other things, it was the first encyclopedia to include contributions from many named contributors, and it was the first general encyclopedia to lavish attention on the mechanical arts. Still, the Encyclopédie is famous above all for representing the thought of the Enlightenment. According to Denis Diderot in the article “Encyclopédie”, the Encyclopédie’s aim was “to change the way people think”. He wanted to incorporate all of the world’s knowledge into the Encyclopédie and hoped that the text could disseminate all this information to the public and future generations.[/quote]

    It sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? Is it a coincidence that so many advances were made only a few generations later? I mean steam power, metallurgy, etc. By ~1870, the world was essentially modern as far as scientific thinking goes. That’s within one lifetime of the encyclopedia’s publication.

    [quote]The encyclopedians successfully argued and marketed their belief in the potential of reason and unified knowledge to empower human will and thus helped to shape the social issues that the French Revolution would address. Although it is doubtful whether the many artisans, technicians, or laborers whose work and presence and interspersed throughout the Encyclopédie actually read it, the recognition of their work as equal to that of intellectuals, clerics, and rulers prepared the terrain for demands for increased representation. Thus the Encyclopédie served to recognize and galvanize a new power base, ultimately contributing to the destruction of old values and the creation of new ones.[/quote]

    This may be overstated but the fact remains, many people were empowered to make better decisions and to think in a new way, thanks to the disseminated knowledge. The world in 1750 was positively primordial, I think this encyclopedia must have had a huge influence.

    So what is the philosophy of Wikipedia? I believe it is to spread knowledge and effect the future in a positive way. Does it do that, will it do that? Time will tell, but there are countries that are not all that different to the world of 1750, and it could have a similar effect today in those countries, I’m thinking of countries like Indonesia, Myanmar, etc.

    That said, ZapperZ was careful to limit his admonishing to those who would use Wikipedia as a primary source. But as a secondary source, it is surely good and definitely worth having around, I think. If editing can make it better, edit away.

    Thank you.

  29. Geometry_dude says:

    I like wikipedia. I know it’s not always correct and personally I’ve read entire articles that are bullocks, but I still like it, because it usually gives a nice intuitive introduction to a topic that is hard to get in a proper book.
    Personally, I have made it a custom to first read the wikipedia article about a topic, be very critical about it and then get to the actual literature with a glimpse of what it’s all about that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

    If you find an error in wikipedia, then just correct it or at least criticize it in the discussion. Also I think you are being delusional if you think that peer-reviewed journals and academic books are error free and don’t have nonsense-articles or statements. Think for yourself, you can obviously do it! No automaton can replace personal scepticism.

    It appears to me that you’re having trouble grasping the entire open-source idea. Do you like arxiv?

  30. Torbjorn_L says:

    “I do not like Wikipedia”.

    That is an opinion, and totally irrelevant to if it is useful. It is as good as any other encyclopedia, so can be used for pithy introductions with care. It is better than any other encyclopedia, when used in courses and even papers for that purpose, something few other encyclopedias can be seen to do.

    And reading the article, it is immediately apparent why an opinion instead of usefulness has been the vehicle: unrealistic or misunderstood expectations on such a source. ” One would think that this should be a topic that a Wikipedia entry would get it right, considering how many people would look up such a thing, AND, the fact that errors and inaccuracy would, by now, be ironed out. … flawed philosophy.”

    What reader, educator or researcher would have such an expectation, or try to expose themselves or others to the problems that follow from uncritical reading? This is an example of why You Should Not Use Opinions Nor Philosophy As Your Primary Source.

    (And notably the “philosophy” of the author doesn’t work, since expert written encyclopedia articles are no better on average than Wikipedia articles. [Wikipedia. =D But really, they back it up with statistics, arguable or not.] )

    So as usual, use what works and expect YMMV.

  31. Dr. Courtney says:

    It’s hard to blame students for preferring sources that may only be 90-95% accurate but are understandable over sources that may be 99+% accurate but not understandable.

    In my experience, students only turn to Wikipedia after having made some efforts understanding the material presented in their book and the lecture. I would be happy if most of my students ended the calculus semester with anything approaching the accuracy and mastery of the 50 most applicable Wikipedia articles.

    Until you can provide sources that are both perfectly accurate and perfectly understandable to all students, you shouldn’t criticize the use of alternate sources in the search for understandability. Would you criticize students for working together? I bet most Wikipedia articles are more accurate than most other students in the course. The caveats need to be understood, but the caveats do not mean the resource should be avoided.

  32. NickAtNight says:

    The simplest way to cure someone from using Wikipedia as a source is to edit a Wiki page in front of them. There are many noncontroversial pages that are open to an easy quick edit.

    Perhaps a quick story about the person being accused of being a witch, weighed on fixed scales to see if they weigh the same as a duck, and then… well, you most probably know the Monty Python scene from their movie.

    If you are real daring, you could change the particular material that they referenced into utter rubbish. Just be sure to fix what you break after you finish the lesson.

  33. Dr. Courtney says:

    A few years back, my colleagues and I in the math dept at USAFA realized how commonly students accessed the wiki articles on basic math and Calculus topics. We realized that it would be much easier to improve the relevant articles and thus improve education for millions of students than change student behavior, which would only help our own students.

    A lot of the articles in math are pretty good since faculty at a number of institutions have been contributing to them. I suppose some purists are still offended by occasional errors. But a student making an effort to look stuff up on Wikipedia is a positive sign compared with the average effort expended by college students these days, and it seems easier to me to work harder to ensure that the effort yields productive outcomes than to try and redirect the efforts.

    I don’t see why a concerted effort from physicists couldn’t make the physics related pages worthy of student attention. No one will stem the tide of students looking at them unless they can convince Google to stop putting them in the top three results of most searches on academic type subjects. Pages that my wife and I have improved have been visited many millions of times since we improved them. We’ll never touch that many lives in the classroom, and we’ll never be able to make that many students look elsewhere.

  34. Jeff Rosenbury says:

    The search for truth is ongoing. Does Wikipedia add to that search, or subtract from it?

    Like any power tool, it can be used incorrectly and even dangerously. But it is a great tool for what it does.

  35. himagain says:

    THE most valuable contribution of Wikipedia is that it allows ANY peasant access to put their own view.
    Imagine how much further Human Sciences could have been if Harvey ( on the circulation vs slosh around concept of blood) had access to an open forum!
    The key point of inestimable value here is that outsiders have access. Anyone can post or – importantly – read the discussions.
    Sure, it is flawed and there is reason to be highly suspicious of the people now controlling it, but without the Net which makes all things possible – it would be almost impossible still to access your own medical problems (much less your records!)
    Mass medication is a complex divisive subject and the principal weapon of those who rule us. Wikipedia is a first stop only and highly censored. THAT is a problem, but today even kids are smart enough to Google anything.
    I’m so old I remember when I was an Authority. I knew lotsa things most didn’t.
    Today, 10 y.o.’s correct me…..

  36. thelema418 says:

    This post is contradictory because it says not to use Wikipedia as a primary source, yet it uses Wikipedia as a primary source for its argument.

    That said, mistakes occur in all types of literature. This week I read an Economist article on dewormers used in schools. The first release incorrectly explained the meaning of a p-value. The editors fixed this, but the new release is also oddly worded and confusing.

    It is important for readers to be critical of all material they read. Even peer reviewed literature.

  37. Semyuel says:

    Guys, you are talking about entropy here. For example, when you go to restaurant to order some pizza, what you need to know about it? If it has cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, onion and meal, thats all. What does cook knows about pizza? Much, much more, he knows everything that is needed to prepare this delicious dish from scratch the scope of information abut the same subject is very different, the entropy of pizza is different. Similar thing we face about Wikipedia. For a student or regular citizen – this is a great resource of easily accessible knowledge, but scientists SHOULD NOT base his or her conclusions and theories on Wikipedia articles. The source of study for PhD professor should be works of other scientists and real experiments. If you are studying something at PhD level, you have to work out at least several different sources, talk about it with other scientists, do experiments, otherwise, you are not a PhD but a cheater.

  38. filipv says:

    [quote=ZapperZ]What makes one textbook different, or better than the other? It is the way the material is presented![/quote]

    Encyclopaediae are not textbooks. Never have, never will be. Their purpose and concept is different.

    [quote=ZapperZ]The idea that one can study a subject matter using Wikipedia is scary. [/quote]

    Is studying a subject matter from any other encyclopaedia less scary? If “no”, then why point your rage at Wikipedia specifically? Why the title isn’t “Why you should not use an encyclopaedia as your primary source”?

  39. filipv says:

    “Please note that, as I stated, and has been pointed out by several members, I’m criticizing the use of Wikipedia as the PRIMARY source of information.”

    By its very definition, all encyclopaediae are a tertiary source of information. Therefore, you objection about using Wikipedia as a primary source may just as well be addressed to *any* encyclopaedia, not just Wikipedia.

    Basically, you’re presenting a (flawed) argument against all encyclopaediae in general. Your argument is not Wikipedia-specific in any way.

    Also, the title “Why You Should Not Use Wikipedia As Your Primary Source” is fallacious. It’s a loaded question.

    In similar manner, you could write an essay titled “Why you shouldn’t run over people with a BMW 320”. Not only you shouldn’t run over people with any car (not just BMW) but also you’re assuming that the reader does run over people.

    I suspect that the author simply haven’t grasped the Web 2.0 paradigm and this is yet another “wikipedia is wrong because anybody can write anything he wants in it” rant.

  40. filipv says:

    IF "the errors in the various entries are only the SYMPTOMS of the flawed philosophy" THEN "Encyclopaedia Britannica" is also based on a "flawed philosophy" since there are as many errors there as in Wikipedia.

  41. hideelo says:

    I agree that it's imperfect, but to look up an equation, or something like that it's pretty good. The flip side is, don't take textbooks as gospel either almost all have some typos and unlike Wikipedia, it isn't constantly updated.

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