Why do people hate Wikipedia?

To celebrate the release of XNA Game Studio 2.0, I'm going to write about something completely unrelated.

I'm getting increasingly fed up with reading articles dissing Wikipedia. For some reason its very existence makes some people (who mostly seem to be academics) very angry. As far as I can figure out their main complaints are:

  • Anyone can edit it, and you never know what axe they have to grind.
  • It is just hearsay, not a primary source.

But here's the thing: I use Wikipedia all the time, and I love it. I can't remember the last time it failed to quickly and correctly answer my question. For instance here are three things I looked up recently:

  • While implementing NetworkSession.SimulatedLatency, I needed to figure out how long to delay each packet. A constant delay time is no good, because packets would still be delivered in their original order, which rather misses the point. I could have just added a random time offset, but remembering my high school statistics class, I decided the delay should follow the normal distribution (aka bell curve). Unfortunately, that was pretty much all I remembered about statistics. What actually IS a normal distribution? Fortunately, Wikipedia knew the answer: I wanted a Box-Muller transform. I read the article, understood the math, coded it up, unit tested the results, and it worked gloriously.
  • I recently watched the movie Perfume. I had read the novel many years earlier, but didn't remember much about it. Curious to see how closely the movie followed the book, I looked up the plot synopsis. While I was there, I found out the Nirvana song Scentless Apprentice was inspired by Perfume. Who knew?
  • After eating delicious cassava fritters at a hybrid Indian / East African restaurant, I was curious to learn more about the cassava root. Turns out it contains cyanide, which is broken down by heat, but can be dangerous if not prepared properly. That put me off my plans to cook some for myself!

This is a perfect 3/3 success rate, and better than my experiences with traditional encyclopedias:

  • The Encyclopedia Britannica probably does have entries on bell curves and cassava root, but would be unlikely to also satisfy my curiosity about a Nirvana song.
  • As a student, I sometimes used the encyclopedia in the library. It had maybe a 50/50 success rate in answering my questions.
  • Even if I could afford a paper encyclopedia, I don't have anywhere to keep such a thing.

So who should I trust? The academics who tell me not to trust Wikipedia, or my positive personal experiences with it? It occurs to me that the main criticisms of Wikipedia could equally well be applied to the critics:

  • Anyone can criticize Wikipedia, and you never know what axe they have to grind.
  • I count my firsthand experiences as a primary source (albeit for a limited sample size). As far as I'm concerned, the people who complain about bias and inaccuracy are just spouting random hearsay...

Comments (10)

  1. snprbob86 says:

    Academics just hate Wikipedia because they don’t understand it and it usurps their little private peer-review and academic publishing cartel. Independent studies have shown that Wikipedia is routinely more accurate than traditional encyclopedias. A good way to tell if an article is authoritative is to look at the *required* references at the bottom of the article.

    Wikipedia has more http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Wikipedia  😉

    Google is also about to try some Wikipedia-like shenanigans http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2007/12/encouraging-people-to-contribute.html

    I really like the idea because I just can’t stand downloading PDFs of papers for various rendering techniques. I rather see them as web pages in HTML with a comments section 🙂

  2. MSDNArchive says:

    Hi Shawn,

    Don’t forget there is also the Encarta Encyclopedia, which you can also access on the web (click on the MSN link when looking up a word in Live Search). Encarta is definitely a trustworthy source with carefully vetted material and it nicely integrates with a whole series of MS products, as you know.

    See this article on normal distribution:


    The Encarta article on cassava also mentions the potentially poisonous properties of that root, by the way: http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761556291/Cassava.html

    I’m not saying Encarta can answer all my questions. But neither can Wikipedia and they don’t always focus on the same range of topics. Encarta also offers a whole range of services for math and language students (among others) which you are not going to find in Wikipedia, of course.


  3. miguez says:

    What is puzzling to me is that the most cited issue people see with Wikipedia is that editing is universally allowed.  They fail to see this is the site’s greatest strength.  Human knowledge, after all, is a shared asset, and a result of all individual knowledges put together.  That means a couple of different things:

    – Instead of being an opinion of one person, who researched the opinion/experience/history of a handful of other people, any Wikipedia article is the opinion of one person (the last one to edit it), but reviewed by thousands, if not millions, of other people.

    – A false or inaccurate article cannot stand for long, as it will be picked up by someone and quickly corrected, for the vast majority of people acessing Wikipedia want to see it succeed, and cannot let a bad article survive.

    In summary, Wikipedia is like a group of friends recalling how last night’s party went.  If one exaggerates or gets a point wrong, the others will be quick to correct him/her so that the group memory is as accurate as it can be.

  4. Diego Santos Leao (serge_leao@yahoo.com.br) says:

    Firstly: this answer does not mean I’m against wikipedia: I use it all the time and I think it is usefull, but not trustworthy. My "rant" is about poorly organized information in general.

    Shawn, I’m Brazilian and I was very surprised to hear that cassava (or "mandioca" for us) can be toxic. Almost every barbecue here is served with mandioca, not to mention the everyday consumption of it. We should all be dead by now!! Well it turns out it _can_ be… but only if you eat the "bad type" (the one you are not suposed to eat or plant for direct human consuption). Sweet casavas are not "toxic"… well not as much as apples, probably: http://chemistry.about.com/b/2007/09/12/yes-apple-seeds-and-cherry-pits-are-poisonous.htm

    The affirmation in the english version of wikipedia that "(…) A dose 40 mg of pure cassava cyanogenic glucoside is sufficient to kill a cow" is absolutelly deceptive. 40 mg of cyanogenic glucoside from ANY source can kill a cow. The english article leaves the reader absolutelly scared (and badly informed), quoting extreme cases like Konzo (which in it’s own article wikipedia explains that "(…) during food shortage, war and other severe disruptions of life in poor rural cassava growing communities the population have to make short-cuts in normal processing.") like something normal.

    Even when toxic, the toxic root is rock solid and like the name says, bitter. You would never eat it without cooking. Following is an scientific article proving that one of the most common subproducts of bitter cassava is absolutelly safe: http://artigocientifico.uol.com.br/uploads/artc_1166151172_39.pdf.

    The wikipedia article goes on and says that "Forms of the modern domesticated species can be found growing in the wild in the south of Brazil". This is like saying "Americans can be found on Texas"… well, yeah, but they are all over US too! The same with mandioca: it is growth all over Brasil (literally). The south is not even the best place for planting them.

    To sum things up, don’t just believe in information you find anywhere. It can be truthful, but the way it is displayed and written is also very important for you to avoid wrong conclusions. Sometimes reading wikipedia is not enough and can let you believing in something very stupid.

    PS: I’m not from a cassava exporting corporation, and your post never hurt my business XD.

    PS-Again: Well, maybe the guys in "Lost" guys could have problems with casava, but I guess there have even bigger issues there. And they don’t have internet, so… well, bad example.

    # verbose mode off #

  5. Liam says:

    People seem to hate wikipedia because they assume that since anyone can edit it, it must be a bog of vandalism. Ironically enough, I have yet to encounter ANY vandalism on a wikipedia page. I’m serious. I have never lookd up a page only to find it vandalised. I’m sure vandalism happens, but thanks to the wikipedia nerds who dedicate their lives to patrolling it, vandalism is removed almost immedietly from even the vaugest pages.

    The advantage wikipedia has vs closed encyclopedias are the massive abundance of articles for almost everything. At the moment of this post. wikipedia has 2 Million more articles than the runner up encyclopedia, Microsoft Encarta at the time of its closure had only 65 Thousand articles vs wikipedia’s approxamite 2.5 million articles at the time.

  6. Al says:

    The argument against Wikipedia assumes that there are other "better" sites for information.

    Unfortunately, that argument ends up meaning that you can use any other site "other than Wikipedia."

    The reality is that all sites have flaws, inaccuracies and biases. Wikipedia is better than most, but

    your professor will let you cite "joe's blog site," but not Wikipedia.

    Most people are clueless.

    I usually use Wikipedia, but then cite one of Wikipedia's many references as the source so that the

    Academic Nazi's don't get upset.

  7. Susan Peabody says:

    I used to love W. Then, one day, I tried to submit an article. It was simple and factual. I wrote it and copyrighted it. They not only declined it, they accused me of plagarism and nothing I did or said for the ensuing year moved them. Now, I am on some kimd of black list and whatever I say is deleted with a threat not to post again. If you google my article on other websites there is proof over and over again that I wrote this article. They ignore this. I have never been treated like this before by so many people who won't even engage me in a conversation with an editor. The artticle was entitled "The Amvivalent Love Addict" a concept and term I created in 2004 and donated to LAA.

  8. Dan says:

    The denigration of Wikipedia is often by trolls who resent when there is a valid informative source of information that refutes their biased rants. They have to declare that wiki is 'junk' or 'biased' in order to maintain credibility. It's like a dittohead slamming Rachel Maddow. Sure she has a point of view but she doesn't deliberately spread lies like Rush Limbaugh does.

  9. cristina says:

    I don't hate Wikipedia. I don't trust it, though. I'm a member, anyone can become a member and edit AFTER POSTING A LINK. Links might be false. I have found…not false information on Wikipedia, but certainly incomplete info. Wikipedia is NOT a sure source.

Skip to main content