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An illustration of a limitation of Wikipedia's utility

  1. Dec 6, 2006 #1

    Chris Hillman

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    Someone asked the following question in a post to the moderated newsgroup sci.physics.research, which is mirrored here at PF:

    Anyone quoting a Wikipedia article in any forum (whether a UseNet post or a PF post) should always link to a specific article and version.

    Fortunately, I happen to know where the quote comes from, but first let me stress an critical point: since anyone can edit (almost) any Wikipedia article at any time, they tend to be unstable, especially if they concern a topic currently in the news, and this can adversely affect their utility for those seeking relevant and reliable information on some topic of interest.

    As it happens, many months ago, I inserted some material into the Wikipedia article on "gravitational radiation" specifically because I had noticed several (then) new instances of the same confusion which prompted dharrington's recent question in sci.physics.research. One version which includes most of the material I inserted at that time is http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gravitational_wave&oldid=51809685. (Notice that this url links to a specific version of a particular Wikipedia article.) The list of examples of more or less idealized situations was specifically intended to address the confusion expressed by dharrington and many others before him. A more recent version (as I write this post) is http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gravitational_wave&oldid=92428181
    Comparing these two versions, you can see that someone removed much of the material I had inserted, and unfortunately the new version once again perpetuates the specific confusion which I had worked to prevent. (In fact, it makes some claims which are incorrect, but readers who care about such things will probably be able to spot these without my help.)

    This unfortunate episode is by no means unusual and I feel that it aptly illustrates why the slogan claiming that "wiki articles tend to improve monotonically toward a state of perfection" is fatuous nonsense, and indeed expresses a potentially dangerous misconception concerning the utility of Wikipedia as an information resource. It should also help to explain why anyone offering a link to a Wikipedia article should make sure to hit the "permanent link" button in the sidebar, so that they link to the specific version which they read.

    The answers so far offered in sci.physics.research also fail to point out what dharrington needs to know (unfortunately, now that s.p.r is populated mostly by non-physicists, who often want to discuss scientically dubious speculations but lack the background neccessary to discuss serious physics intelligently, it is much less valuable for serious students than it was even five years ago.) Fortunately, any good gtr textbook, for example Schutz, A First Course in General Relativity, will explain in detail the relevant points:

    1. Production of gravitational radiation is best studied (at least in elementary courses) in the context of the "quadrupole radiation approximation", which belongs to the domain of "linearized gravity", aka the weak field approximation to the EFE (which is highly nonlinear).

    2. According to the quadrupole radiation approximation, the strongest type of gravitational radiation from an isolated concentration of mass-energy occurs when the quadrupole moment tensor of the source of the field has a nonzero second derivative. The energy emitted per unit time, or power, is estimated by the "quadrupole radiation formula".

    3. In the older version, I listed sufficiently many examples to illustrate what these remarks imply in practical terms; unfortunately, these do not appear in the more recent version.

    (I should perhaps explain that I am no longer participating in Wikipedia because of my concern over its lack of any concept of "information integrity", much less effective mechanisms to protect good articles from being easily degraded, but see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Hillman for my former Wikipedia user page. I explained above why I no longer participate in sci.physics.research. The presence of dedicated and knowledgeable moderators at PF is an essential part of what makes this forum work! At least for now...)

    This survey article (an invited contribution to Living Reviews) might be a good place to start: http://www.arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0311082 See also the problem on the number of gravitons produced by a breaking light bulb in the problem book by Lightman et al.

    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 22, 2017
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  3. Dec 6, 2006 #2


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    It's true that wikipedia articles on technical subjects often have a lot of bad or misleading information. But the problem of people deleting correct info and replacing it with incorrect info can be at least partly lessened by making use of the "talk" page for a given article, I think--if you were to put a note there explaining the differences between your version and the other version, and why the other version is wrong, then other editors who weren't experts themselves would be more likely to revert the article to your version. Putting a lot of detailed citations for the statements you make also makes it less likely people will delete them.
  4. Dec 6, 2006 #3

    Chris Hillman

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    Oh my, oh my. Jesse, if you only knew how much time and effort I wasted in talk pages... maybe you should look at my contribs page (start at the beginning and work your way forward).
  5. Dec 6, 2006 #4


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    I see you did spend a lot of time on talk pages. A lot of that seems to have been on individual user's talk pages though, my suggestion was specifically about putting stuff in the talk page for the article itself so anyone editing the article in the future can see your arguments (you didn't have comments on the talk page for gravitational waves, for example). But it was just an idea, maybe your experience was that even on the articles where you did explain your edits on the article's talk page, your edits were no less likely to be removed. How about the suggestion of putting in a lot of footnotes, though? I think people are less likely to remove stuff that has a citation to some paper/journal/textbook, at least that's been my experience.
  6. Dec 6, 2006 #5

    Chris Hillman

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    It might be relevant to know whether or not http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Jessem represents the same individual as the PF member "JesseM". If so, unless you have been highly active there under another user name (have I perhaps encountered you at WP under another handle?)--- forgive me for being blunt--- I very much doubt that with less than a dozen edits you have nearly enough experience at WP to appreciate the nature, scope, complexity and magnitude of the problems I am refering to. I feel that several unexamined assumptions in your comments, which are counterfactual, largely vitiate the value of your advice, but I appreciate that you meant well.

    Wikipedia constitutes a much more complicated phenomenon than one can easily appreciate without having spent considerable time working collaboratively on the encyclopedia and in the community, as I have. Since I made thousands of edits, often very lengthy edits, you can't possibly acquire an adequate appreciation of my experience there in five minutes or even five hours of reading. Your assumptions about how I spent my time and how I came to my views concerning the problems of information integrity at Wikipedia could hardly be more wrong, although I think I can guess how you gained the impression you did. (You didn't follow my advice to read my edits starting from the beginning, did you? Well, never mind--- it wasn't very practical advice.)

    Unfortunately, due to harrassment from vandals I was unable to complete my essays on the problems of Wikipedia which I spent much effort working on in my former user space earlier this year, and I haven't had the heart to take them up again since. (I probably need more time to recover from my disillusionment.) Therefore, at this time, unfortunately, I cannot refer you (or anyone else) to essays explaining my views and the experiences which led me to those views at sufficient length to convey the scope of the problems I encountered.

    I hope you will be willing to wait for me to explain myself--- there's a lot to say and I guess I am not yet ready to try to start saying it.

    Actually, I am somewhat conflicted about saying anything here at all, because:

    1. I feel that only someone with experience comparable to my own can appreciate the nature, scope, complexity, and magnitude of the challenges it faces, or the systemic problems which have largely prevented the Wikipedia community from effectively addressing these problems. Note that last year at various times, depending upon how you count, I was in the top 500 most active users at Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php...Wikipedians_by_number_of_edits&oldid=44625336
    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php...Wikipedians_by_number_of_edits&oldid=80061210 . A rough underestimate of my activity can be found at http://tools.wikimedia.de/~interiot/cgi-bin/Tool1/wannabe_kate?username=Hillman&site=en.wikipedia.org [Broken] Note that these "edit counter" tools are more crude than they might appear; that is why only an edit by edit review will really give you a solid appreciation of my experience at WP--- a more accurate first impression might be obtained from tools which guesstimate how much a particular user, in this case User:Hillman, contributed to the articles listed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Hillman/Archive

    2. Precisely because of the dangers for society as a whole posed by rapidly increasing reliance upon Wikipedia as an information resource by students, teachers, journalists, jurists, policy makers, voters, and members of the public generally, when coupled with rapidly increasing magnitude, subtlety and variety of problems in ensuring the integrity of information (misinformation, disinformation) presented in Wikipedia articles, such editors and former editors have a duty to take the time and effort to explain their views at length. Neccessarily, at great length, in fact, because the problems are very extensive, very complicated, and very far from the experience of most citizens.

    3. I am concerned to avoid being driven out of Physics Forums, as I was driven out of Wikipedia. Since there is considerable overlap in the population, that risk may be unavoidable, particularly if I attempt to speak out as per 2.

    In short, I fear that different aspects of my "pedagogical mission" appear to conflict rather severely. I went to Wikipedia to try to write about topics which interest me and which I happen to know more about than most. That is in fact all I ever wanted to do there. Acquiring a new mission, that of attempting to educate people about how to recognize the limitations of Wikipedia and how to use it wisely while avoiding, as far as possible, being grieviously misled, has been an entirely unwanted consequence of my failure to make much progress with my original mission.

    When I find time, I hope to complete and update my unfinished essays and put them up someplace. Until then, I think it may be appropriate for me to point out specific problems in lieu of attempting to present the big picture (which is really, really big). I probably need some boilerplate suggesting that commentators shouldn't assume that I must simply not have any WP experience.

    Wikipedia has many passionately devoted adherents to the Wikipedia creed. I hope it will be clear from my activity at this forum during the past two weeks that I am extremely sympathetic to the goal of providing a free on-line up-to-date and reliable encyclopedia. It might help to say that I believe that few experienced Wikipedians who were aware of my concerns dismissed them lightly. My views are certainly not the only possible views on the rapidly evolving challenges facing the Wikipedia community, but I do not believe it would be plausible to glibly attribute them to lack of faith in the stated goals of the project, lack of effort, or lack of experience.

    Fair enough?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  7. Dec 7, 2006 #6
    This problem is not specific to wiki.
    Journalist and any other informlation consumer must rely on some source.
    There is no source that can be trusted totally.

    Nasa for example is a wonderful source of information. Nevertheless, it look often like advertisment for their programs. Specially their press release, for mars research for exemple.

    If you look at classical encyclopedies, their content for higly specialised topic is often very bad. Either wrong, or too conservative, or too concise. On wiki there is a real opportunity for specialists to offer their competence for free.

    But nothing is perfect and progress will be done hopefully.
  8. Dec 7, 2006 #7


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    No, that isn't me, I'm "Hypnosifl". I have around 900 edits on wikipedia, but only a certain fraction are on science-related subjects, and my contributions tend not to be particularly technical, usually just about trying to make summaries clearer or add some individual facts I happen to have read about somewhere. Anyway, even if that were me, I don't think my experience is all that relevant--I was just making some suggestions, not criticizing you for anything, and not claiming to know for sure that they would help.
    I don't think there were any "assumptions" there, since I expressed my suggestions, as well as my superficial impressions of your editing habits, in an intentionally tentative way.
    No, it wouldn't have been practical. But again, that's why I tried to express my observations in a tentative way, saying "A lot of that seems to have been on individual user's talk pages though" and "it was just an idea, maybe your experience was that even on the articles where you did explain your edits on the article's talk page, your edits were no less likely to be removed". So, if you want to clarify that in fact you did include a lot of citations or a lot of discussions on article's talk pages, you're free to, but as it is you're not explaining why you think my suggestions are obviously wrong.
    Sure, if you feel it would require a lot of time to explain I'd have no objection to your saying something like "I don't think those suggestions would help, but I don't feel like getting into a long explanation of the reasons here".
    Well, I would think most people who try to edit wikipedia on topics they have some knowledge of would have conflicted feelings about the site, I doubt many of the editors here are pro-wikipedia zealouts who would want to drive out anyone who questioned its value. Anyway, the only things that will get anyone banned from PF are trolling and repeatedly trying to argue for their own novel theories of physics, as far as I know.
    Sure. I hadn't meant to get into a general discussion of the value of wikipedia myself, I was just offering some possible ideas for ways to decrease the likelihood that other editors would remove valuable contributions to any given science-related article.
  9. Dec 7, 2006 #8

    Chris Hillman

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    An apology and an anecdote

    Hi, lalbatros and JesseM,

    Agreed! The most fundamental problem is larger than Wikipedia; some commentators have summed it up like this: the notion of "true information" may be in danger of being of being replaced by a notion of "good enough information", which would be a profound change, particularly for those with a scholarly turn of mind. However, discussion of this will have to wait until I can complete and put up my essays somewhere.

    JesseM, thanks for the disambiguation. I can see now that this minor (I hope!) kerfluffle is largely my own fault, and I apologize to PF. I made some poor decisions, ranging from the title to the structure of the initial post in this thread. On reflection, I should have either said nothing at all, or else should have simply emphasized the specific misunderstanding (in the s.p.r. post) about quadrupole radiation theory, rather than trying to explain why I see this episode as an example of the woes of Wikipiedia. My fundamental misstep was allowing myself to feel too much distress that words I had written had confused someone (because a third party had removed what came after, in the original version). I recall a true story:

    Picture this scene: a shy young Virginian gentleman known for his gift with words has been asked to write an important document on behalf of several million persons, has just presented his draft to a large gathering of semi-elected representatives, and they are starting to line out some of the most beautiful and inspiring language he has ever penned. A sympathetic older gentleman sitting next to him notices him wincing and consoles him with an anecdote: a hatter of his acquaintance once wanted to make a sign for his new business, and drew up a diagram showing a picture of hat with the legend: "John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money". Before hiring a sign painter he asked his friends to comment. The first man advised him to delete the word "hatter" since it was surely rendered redundant by the phrase "makes hats". The second advised him to delete "makes" since potential customers would care more about the quality of the hats than who actually manufactured them. The third advised him to delete "for ready money" because few customers would insist on purchasing a hat on credit. Then the fourth laughed at the phrase "sells hats", saying "they won't expect you to give them away, John!" At this point, Thompson deleted "hats" since the drawing of the hat made this redundant, leaving a sign with his name and picture of a hat. Short and to the point, but utterly devoid of any distinction.

    In case you didn't guess, the young Virginian was Thomas Jefferson, the older gentleman was Ben Franklin (who surely told the saga of Ben Thompson's sign better than I just did--- sorry, Ben!), and the document was the Declaration of Independence. One of the controversial passages expressed the author's heartfelt regret for the parting of ways, reading: "We must endeavour to forget our former love for them, and to hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, and in peace friends. We might have been a free and great people together, but a communication of grandeur and freedom it seems is below their dignity. Be it so, since they will have it: the road to glory and happiness is open to us too; we will climb it in a seperate state and acquiesce in the neccessity which pronounces our eternal separation!" Jefferson's colleagues insisted on deleting the "love" and retaining the resolute and righteous anger, which rather changed the tenor of the document. Perhaps this was the exact moment when the young nation started down the slippery slope toward becoming just a bit of an international bully.

    See for example A. J. Langguth, Patriots, Touchstone, 1988. (The story is told in many other histories of the American Revolution.)

    Thanks for not jumping all over me, Jesse! At Wikipedia, whenever I raised my concerns, I was often put in the position of defending my presence there, and I realized when writing that reply that I was feeling defensive. Just one more indication that I am not yet ready to tackle the problem of trying to explain my concerns (which in any case I need to do in some other forum).

    I don't want to get into this now--- I think we all agree this would be a mistake--- but it might help understand where I was coming from if I mention that I edited only physics/math articles, and I actually did, or tried hard to do, all of the things you suggested. I feel that no-one tried harder than I to introduce a reasonable number of carefully chosen citations, and no-one spent more time than I trying to use talk pages in specific articles to discuss specific issues as they arose. My efforts were rather disatrous (the wreckage is a matter of public record), but certainly not, I hold, for lack of trying. Like most members of the first Congress, I had little prior experience with collaborative authorship. Unlike them (presumably), I was quite unprepared for the political aspects of the wrangling in which I found myself engaged. I can't say that I entirely regret the experience because I certainly learned something from it (precisely what remains to be determined).

    OK, I hope this clears the air!
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2006
  10. Dec 7, 2006 #9
    Hi Chris,
    Are you aware of Citizendium? www.citizendium.org
    Perhaps you might find that an appropriate venue for some of your work on relativity.
    Jim Graber
  11. Dec 7, 2006 #10


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    i just want to reaffirm the frustration that Chris has referred to at Wikipedia. i am not even a physicist (an electrical engineer who does audio DSP for a living) but i occasionally have come to a pretty good idea of some of what the established physics community says about something from what i see at the sci.physics.research newsgroups as well as direct emails with the likes of John Baez, Michael Duff, and John Barrow.

    one example, i had been bothered by the fact that Gravitomagnetism was not primarily named Gravitoelectromagnitism (GEM) since that is the term by the primary physics papers in the field (Mashoon et al), but did not do anything about it (being just a dumb Neanderthal EE) until Chris wrote in the talk page, a list of improvements to the article, including that the name should be changed to Gravitoelectromagnetism. at that point, i went ahead and changed it, at which point a bunch of self-appointed experts (none of which would actually identify themselves as physicists) outnumbered us with the argument that there are many Google hits to "gravitomagnetism" and relatively fewer to "gravitoelectromagnetism" and we lost the majority vote. because there are redirects, it is a relatively minor thing, but these guys were actually wrong about the primary name to the content the article is about. but majority rules there, not factuality.
  12. Dec 7, 2006 #11


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    Chris, thanks for the additional explanation, it does help me see where you're coming from. If you ever do write up an essay or something about your thoughts on wikipedia and these sorts of collaborative projects in general, please let me know, I'd definitely be interested to read it.

    I've sometimes thought that a project along the lines of the "citizendium" page linked to above, with a special place given to experts in given fields (either articles written only by experts, or a special section of each article which would only allow edits from experts) would be a good alternative to wikipedia. The problem is that the number of qualified people in any given field who'd be willing to devote time to working on it would probably be vastly smaller than the number of people who contribute to wikipedia, so such a project might never really build the sort of critical mass needed to turn into a wide-ranging and regularly updated site like wikipedia. Maybe if someone were willing to pay experts to spend a few hours a week working on articles...
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2006
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