Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Professors thoughts on wikipedia

  1. Aug 23, 2011 #1
    Today was my first day in astronomy. My professor, going over the general syllabus and what we'd be doing during the course, asked about good and bad sources for learning.

    Naturally, the responses for good materials included textbooks, science articles, etc.

    Bad sources were 'the internet' and wikipedia.

    I thought that was the answer he wanted to hear.

    Wikipedia! He said, why is it a bad source?

    "because anyone can change it" answered a girl. Again, the answer he wanted to hear.

    "That is correct. And that is why Wikipedia is the best source."

    A textbook is written by 5 or 6 people very knowledgable in the subject, edited by many more, published.

    A wikipedia article is constantly updated by thousands of people. It will always be up to date.

    Anyone can edit it, this is true. But how many people do you think mess up wikipedia pages for poops and giggles? And how often do they do it? How do their numbers compare to the people who love the subject and take care of the article's validity?

    Out of the thousands of Wikipedia articles out there about astronomy, I have seen one with incorrect information, which is as of now corrected.

    I could point out many errors in our textbooks, as could your other professors for your other classes.

    Wikipedia suceeds our textbook in this class. Read the chapter, refer to wikipedia if you'd like to know more, seriously"

    (paraphrased, of course.)

    I feel like its been beat into my brain so bad that wikipedia and the internet are terrible things, but according to him that's an 'elitist' attitude and that the best information is constantly made available to use and contribute by all.

    I kind of liked what he was saying! What do you guys think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 23, 2011 #2


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I agree with your professor. Wikipedia is awesome. The idea that information is more likely to be wrong because anyone can change it is pretty silly. If you need to be sure that the page wasn't recently vandalized, all you need to do is to compare it to previous versions.

    There's obviously a lot of incorrect information available on the internet, but I have never found it hard to distinguish between good information and bad information. If you're not sure if what you found is good or bad, compare it to some other source, e.g. Wikipedia, and if you're still not sure, ask about it where knowledgeable people hang out. If only I knew such a place...:rolleyes:

    By the way, there are plenty of mistakes in peer-reviewed journals too, and they never get fixed. In physics, you can find uncritical references to questionable material 40 years after its publication.
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2011
  4. Aug 23, 2011 #3


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Generally, Wikipedia is a good resource for non-controversial and established material. On some, more controversial, pages there are some crackpots pushing their own agenda. However, the problem is you need to have a fairly good grasp on the subject matter to be able to identify incorrect, misleading or plain crackpot information, which doesn't make it an ideal source for learning, particularly for controversial topics or those which are "crackpot magnets" such as relativity, particle physics, string theory etc.

    That said, many lecturers at my university will often refer students to wikipedia for further reading that is not directly related to the course. I have also referred students to wiki pages for general questions such as "what is an eigenvector". However, if your seeing material for the first time and want to seriously learn it, I would always recommend a textbook or monograph. In my opinion, Wikipedia can be thought of as a compliment to traditional texts, but should never be used in isolation.
  5. Aug 23, 2011 #4
    Lol smart guy then.

    Many HS teachers hate it because they aren't as educated. My profs directed me to wikipedia plenty of times.
  6. Aug 23, 2011 #5
    Here is a clear example of an error in wiki in an area with some discussion.

    Seems peanuts to some but fundamental for others and it would be sad if you learned the wrong thing from this.

    I guess I should go and correct that article.
  7. Aug 23, 2011 #6


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    It's not as bad as some make it out to be, but I feel the same way Hootenanny does. The problem I'd have is obtaining information about a subject with which I'm not familiar. How am I to know whether or not some crackpot inserted erroneous information 2 minutes before I visited the page? It's usually just safer to find a peer reviewed journal through the university's database.
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2011
  8. Aug 23, 2011 #7
    Just check the history and/or discussion pages to find out if an article is controversial. If there are lots of edit wars and arguments going on, it's a controversial topic. If you've got some experience dealing with crackpots in general, it's usually fairly easy to tell which side of the discussion is reality based, and which is imagination based. If you can't tell which side is which, assume the article is unreliable and find a better source.
  9. Aug 23, 2011 #8
    If it's important enough for you to check the university database, it's important enough for you to check the wikipedia history page.
  10. Aug 23, 2011 #9


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I understand that the post history can reveal suspect edits, but the information itself would still need to be verified. In a subject with which I'm unfamiliar, I'd rather just cut out the extra step and use an established source.
  11. Aug 23, 2011 #10
    Everything on wikipedia is supposed to be sourced, so you can check the sources on info you find suspect.

    I had this one really arrogant philosophy professor who hated wikipedia because it is democratized learning. He was apparently nostalgic for the days when philosophy and knowledge were only the privilege of the elite, and felt that somehow wikipedia cheapened philosophy. He was really, really irritating. Also, you had to parrot what he said to do well on your papers.
  12. Aug 23, 2011 #11


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    a good wiki author cites credible sources. A good wiki reader refers to the sources to verify content.
  13. Aug 23, 2011 #12
    While it's true that wiki contains a lot of errors, this doesn't mean that it's a bad source necessarily. Whenever I want to learn a new math topic, I always check wiki first to see an overview of the information. Then I check wiki's reference for a decent textbook.

    The dangerous thing with wiki (and with all sources of knowledge) is blindly accepting information. One should never believe something just because wiki says it, or just because your textbook says it. Always be critical.
  14. Aug 23, 2011 #13
    It is what it set out to be and provides what it set out to provide. For a free encyclopedia with the coverage it offers, it is what it is supposed to be.

    There are no secrets about its errors and sources. Yet it does a pretty good job for what it was meant to be. And it's not going away anytime soon, so there is a limit to the goal of any criticism about its accuracy. Now compared to what I get anywhere else on the Internet or the library or my neighbors, I'm happy with what I've gotten out of it.
  15. Aug 23, 2011 #14
    There are some legitimate concerns, but a lot of old professors like to bash the internet and wikipedia simply because they are unwilling to adapt and accept new things.
  16. Aug 23, 2011 #15
    Believing an encyclopedia is more accurate than Wikipedia is predicated on the assumption that tighter control results in greater accuracy. Believing Wikipedia is better rests on the assumption that since most people (>80%) are honest, more editors means greater error detection and therefore accuracy.

    Same goal, two entirely different approaches. Both work.
  17. Aug 24, 2011 #16


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Yah this seems almost trivial to me. Wikipedia has sources, read the sources if it is for something important.
  18. Aug 24, 2011 #17


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    If something isn't sourced, though, one shouldn't just assume that it's common knowledge within the field. And while I'm not suggesting that anyone here is endorsing the mindless use of Wikipedia, I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility that misinformation is much more likely to spread through a wiki page than an article in a scientific journal.

    In the end, it's not Wikipedia's fault, but it doesn't hurt to be cognizant of its weaknesses.
  19. Oct 3, 2011 #18
    Same here. I do check the sources, however, and not just that something is sourced, but the sources itself. I've found some sources which have nothing to do with the statement, or which say something quite different that what was claimed in the article.

    On the other hand, Wikipedia has many times the content of an encyclopedia. Neat stats: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Statistics

    With 3,757,862 articles, and a rampant AfD (articles for deletion) section, they do a pretty good job of keeping the truly ridiculous from finding its way in.

    I clicked refresh a few times and found there's about 3 page edits a second.
  20. Oct 3, 2011 #19
    I usually use wiki as a jumping off point. I can quickly and easily find at least some information on just about any topic on wiki. I can then use the sources and information there to search for more and better sources.
  21. Oct 3, 2011 #20
    Any general information from a good encyclopedia has been copied to Wikipedia by now.

    I generally find Wikipedia pretty good on most accounts. Only problem is that 'around the borders' of very specialized knowledge, there's just a lot of mess generated; i.e., badly structured, incomprehensible or incorrect content. This is normally information which is not in an encyclopedia, but in the heads of overspecialized professors.

    If it were up to me, I'ld vote that every professor should spend a day a month updating Wikipedia information. What other widely shared source of information, or advertisement for a field, is there? It's the best thing the Internet has ever constructed so far.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook