Sunday, December 20, 2009

How reliable is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a splendid idea. I often consult it, as do millions of others. But it seems that reliance on it alone can be dangerous.

I recently consulted Wikipedia about the phenomenon known as “Blindsight”. This is a condition in which subjects who become blind through damage to their primary visual cortex can apparently discriminate with high accuracy objects presented to their blind fields but are totally unaware that anything has been presented there. They are just able to discriminate, for example, whether a visual stimulus moves to the left or to the right but deny having seen anything.

That, at any rate is one version.

There are some, amongst whom I include myself, who have doubts about the phenomenon. I will not detail here the articles that I and others have written to express these doubts. But anyone consulting the article on “Blindsight” in Wikipedia would not even realize that this is a very controversial topic. They would instead have the impression that it is a well established and agreed-upon phenomenon.

But that is far from being so. It is a very controversial phenomenon. But the Wikipedia article doesn't give any hint that it is, or refer to any articles that have questioned the phenomenon. I hasten to add that I do not know who has written the article and have not bothered to look it up.

I suppose, and hope, that no scholar relies exclusively on Wikipedia or indeed on any single source. The danger comes more from, and to, those who, not being conversant with the literature on the subject, assume the validity of what is written and propagate it unquestioningly.

Blindsight is not the only article in Wikipedia that is misleading. There are others, some of them self-serving articles. It is of course the essence of good scholarship to allude to other findings or interpretations, even ones with which the author may disagree. Apparently, when some people think they can get away with it, they will not do so.This is perhaps less likely to happen in peer-reviewed articles.

On the other hand, unlike articles published in peer-reviewed journals, Wikipedia gives us the opportunity of modifying the articles and eradicating the errors. I am myself dis-inclined to do so. It would be too time consuming. It is sufficient to be aware of the danger in order to avoid the consequences. So I will continue to use and enjoy Wikipedia while being aware of its shortcomings.

1 comment:

Art said...

Though I generally share your view on blindsight I have to disagree.

The purpose of Wikipedia is to give the reader a compressed, text-book style knowledge. Scholars usually rely on other sources than this, same as they don't rely on textbooks in our specialty.

This educational purpose can not be fulfilled when the material is too deep and hermetic to understand for a layman.

My point is that Wikipedia merely copies some of the knowledge already being repeated by kazylions of textbooks, and it repeats also the same errors as are to be found in most of them (a good example might be the article on BOLD-fMRI signal). What is to blame is the nature of how the knowledge compression occurs. I, however, think that there much more benefits that the broad public can get of Wikipedia, than there are costs.

Best regards,