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Wikipedia and lunatic charlatans

Posted 2014-03-26

I just love this story on Ars Technica by Megan Geuss: Wikipedia founder calls alt-medicine practitioners “lunatic charlatans”. It's about a bunch of alternative medicine proponents petitioning Wikipedia to change its rules so they can have more extensive coverage of their pseudoscience. But Wikipedia-founder Jimmy Wales won't have any of it: "No, you have to be kidding me." Trust me, you need to read the whole thing.

An interesting aspect of Wikipedia is that it wants to be an encyclopedia. As such, the rules are that all information in Wikipedia must be supported by secondary sources. This means that Philip Roth doesn't get to put information about his own book in Wikipedia, which seems counterintuitive to say the least. However, how useful would Wikipedia be if it were full of statements that are supported by nothing more than the authority of the author of those statements? By requiring secondary sources, you can always follow the trail back to the source of the information, which allows both Wikipedia users and Wikipedia itself to determine whether something is incorrect and fix the problem. Sources also have to be credible, which actually makes it hard for "lunatic charlatans" to get their stuff into Wikipedia.

It's amazing how well the whole system works—I don't think anyone would have guessed Wikipedia could grow to its current size and maintain any semblance of quality. But it did.

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