Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Skeptic's Guide to Wikipedia (Part 1)

Why Wikipedia Matters

Imagine, if you will, a Mr. Joe Blow. Joe's your typical guy, unversed in the complexities of medicine, who one day finds an odd rash on his neck. He shows it to a couple of colleagues at work. One of them recommends he goes in to have a dermatologist look at it. The other, however, argues that that would be a waste of money. It would be a lot cheaper for Joe to go to the alternative medicine portion of his local pharmacy. There are plenty of things there that could cure a rash like that. Maybe some Homeopathy would be all he really needs.

Now, Joe hasn't heard much about Homeopathy before, and he's getting conflicting messages from his colleagues on whether it's worth trying. So, when he gets home from work, he logs onto the internet and runs a quick Google search for Homeopathy. The first search result is from "Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Well, that sounds good, so Joe goes to read Wikipedia's article on Homeopathy. He starts by just reading the first paragraph:

Homeopathy (also homœopathy or homoeopathy; from the Greek ὅμοιος, hómoios, "similar" + πάθος, páthos, "suffering" or "disease") is a form of alternative medicine first defined by Samuel Hahnemann in the 18th century.[1] Homeopathic practitioners contend that remedies for diseases can be created by ingesting substances that can produce, in a healthy person, symptoms similar to those of the disease. According to homeopaths, serial dilution, with shaking between each dilution, removes any negative effects of the remedy while the qualities of the substance are retained by the diluent (water, sugar, or alcohol). The end product is often so diluted that it is indistinguishable from pure water, sugar or alcohol by laboratory tests but is still claimed to have an effect on consumers.[2][3][4] Practitioners select treatments according to a patient consultation that explores the physical and psychological state of the patient, both of which are considered important to selecting the remedy.

Now, what Joe takes from this paragraph depends a lot on his previous biases and knowledge. He might zero in on the part which says that homeopathic remedies generally are nothing but diluted water, and if there is anything left, it would just harm him. Or, he might focus on how it's been used since the 18th century and is argued to be able to cure his ailment. Or maybe he'll note from the last sentence that if he really wants it to work, he should be visiting a professional homeopath rather than simply picking something out from the drug store.

Each person will be different here. Many will only read the lead section, a few will read the whole article, while others might skip down to sections that interest them to read about it. But the net result is that Wikipedia is the primary source of information for many people in the current age of the internet.

Homeopaths realize this. So do Chiropractors, Creationists, Scientologists, and people who think Waterboarding isn't torture (or at least don't want others to think it is). You can see their incentive to go in and edit Wikipedia to be more favorable to their viewpoints, so that people who read these articles will come out with a positive view of their subject, and maybe then they'll go see a Homeopath to treat their ailments.

On the other hand, the pro-reality viewpoint doesn't have quite the same incentive to edit there. There's no direct benefit to us like there is for the anti-reality types. All we have to go on is the general incentive for why we do this: To help others avoid wasting their money or risking their lives. All of our reasons for blogging on skeptical topics apply also to Wikipedia. It's just one more place to reach an audience who's seeking information.

But most don't bother. In a conversation on Wikipedia recently, one notable skeptic described editing Wikipedia as seeming like "a long run for a short slide." Personally, I disagree. If we put as much effort into improving Wikipedia's articles as we did into blogging, I think it would have just as much, if not more, impact. The other problem he raised was that it just seemed futile. Well, maybe alone it is. That's why I'm making this post, so that perhaps as a group, we can make a difference.

So, I'm now encouraging all of you to start editing Wikipedia in order to bring its articles more in line with reality. I plan to make further posts on this subject, time permitting, in order to give you all a brief primer on Wikipedia editing and some brief tips that I've gleaned from experience. If you'd prefer to just jump in right away, though, then go here to start off, then register an account and get to work.

Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, February 01, 2008

My job in a nutshell

Any Unix-using programmer should get a kick out of the latest xkcd comic. Now if I can just find the butterfly key on my keyboard, I'm set...

Proceed with your information binge...