It’s about time I got back to my list of nerds I respect. My first example was Batman, who, although definately fits the bill, is fictional and perhaps somewhat undermines my point that nerds can still be “cool”. Today I bring you the first REAL LIFE example of nerds that have created something that is considered “cool” in popular culture.
Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger – Founders and co-inventors of Wikipedia.
Now, Wikipedia gets a lot of flack from people. Because of its open content people feel it is vulnerable to contamination by vandalism or hoaxes and thus untrustworthy. This cynicism is fully warranted and, as a hard-core skeptic, encouraged, but one should not totally discount a source of information based on a few bad examples. All to often, I hear people dismissing Wikipedia all-out as a “worthless” source and should, in no way, be used when conducting serious research. This is actually far from the truth. When used correctly, Wikipedia can be an extremely helpful and powerful tool for researchers.
(As those of you who are not new to this blog have already figured out, I tend to write long articles and this will be no exception. I thank you for your patience if you read the whole thing. The reason behind this is that a) I like to be thorough and b) I write about subjects that I am passionate about and about which I have much to say. This article, while officially is about Wales and Sanger, is really about the topic of research. I love research. I think the internet is the greatest invention in the history of the world. And I HATE people who resort to asking other people questions when they could’ve easily looked it up themselves. Wikipedia (and similar sites) have combined all of these things together in a beautiful package that, when I first discovered it, gave me an orgasm er.. Nerdasm.)
In the now famous experiment by Nature, a small sample size of articles in Wikipedia were compared to analogous articles in the more trusted Encyclopedia Britannica. What they found was that the accuracy of articles and the number of errors contained within them were comprable with Wikipedia having slightly more minor or major inaccuracies. That experiment didn’t really show anything conclusive and is the subject of great contraversy but it tends toward showing that maybe the standards and practices of Wikipedia aren’t as laxidasical as people think. Another, more recent experiment, had experts rate the accuracy of articles within AND OUTSIDE their field of expertise (ie. In one group, a behavioral psychologist was asked to rate the accuracy on an article about behavioral psychology and, in another group, a professor of geology was asked to rate an article about, for example, particle physics). What this study found was that experts tended to rate the articles within their areas of expertise as acceptable or “credible” while rating the non-related articles as less so. The author of the study concluded that people tend to be very cynical about subjects they don’t know much about AND that Wikipedia isn’t really that bad.
While most people tend to think of Wikipedia editting as “some guy edits the page to whatever he wants and then it stays there” it’s actually quite a bit more organized than that. The “community” or more dedicated users/experts routinely review changes and edit accordingly. If they come across something that is not cited or is extraordinary or contrary to established facts (or is obviously vandalism) then they quickly change it back or flag it as contraversial. It’s the same peer-review process that many respected and recognized authorities have used for years. The community does admit however, that no matter what, there will always be errors that users should be aware of. The same goes for the entire research community as a whole beyond Wikipedia.
As mentioned above, even something universally recognized as the Encyclopedia Britannica has been shown to contain a number of factual errors. A number of reputable scientific journals, conferences and articles have been the victim of similar “vandalism” incedents such as The Sokal Affair and the SCIgen program. That’s why there is a peer-review process and articles are not published willy-nilly without thorough vetting. Sure, cases emerge where the reviewers/publishers come out with egg on their face, but those incedents are rare and notable BECAUSE of the sheer number of accurate, factual articles they stand out against. And no reasonable person would ever suggest that we completely discount the entire scientific community/methodology because of these rare examples where the system failed.
But I realize not everyone is reasonable. Some people, under the guise of being a skeptic, make sweeping statements that all science should be considered suspect and/or untrustworthy. I made mention earlier of being a “hard-core skeptic”. I do not want that statement and the previous few paragraphs to confuse you, dear reader, into thinking that I believe all science should be discounted because of these frauds. Quite the opposite. Those incedents, no matter how embarrasing, serve to strengthen (in the long run) the peer-review process by forcing reviewers to be extra cautious and thorough before accepting anything. Being the person who signed off on an article that turned out to be randomly generated by a computer program, or purposefully faked in an attempt to dupe publishers is NOT something you want to have on your C.V! It also serves as a means of “waking up” researchers to think more critically about what they read and do further research instead of just reading one article. One site that I know of that prints fake articles on purpose, for these very reasons, is Snopes.com. Because they investigate urban legends, they have published a handful of articles that are complete bullshit in order to demonstrate how easy it is to fall prey to these types of things. This serves as a reminder that maybe not everything we read is completely factual and you should always follow-up on research, lest you look like a complete jackass.
Back to Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger did a great thing. Before Wikipedia, research was either costly or reserved to physically going to a library and searching through long shelves of literature. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but for the average person, that much effort/time/money is generally off-putting resulting in the dreaded “asking the person next to you” syndrome. Oh my FSM, I cannot tell you how much I hate it when people do that. In fact, while I’m on this tangent, I would have to say that the absolute worst thing that has happened to the internet is Yahoo! Answers. What a terrible, terrible idea. I think that is what people who diminish the usefulness of Wikipedia THINK Wikipedia is like when in fact it is just about as far removed from Wikipedia as anything can be. Maybe I’ll save the rest of this rant for another article in the future.
What confuses me the most about people who are overly-critical of Wikipedia is that these are generally the same people that have no problem relying on whomever is in the same room as you when you have a question rather than looking it up. How can you chide people for looking up information on a site that you believe is merely written by some stranger while at the same time being lazy and asking a non-expert that happens to be physically close to you?
Wikipedia makes doing research fun and easy and allows everyone to benefit from everyone else’s effort on even the most obscure of topics like TV shows and small towns. It serves as a great starting point when doing research that, usually, has links to sources that are more “acceptable” for citing purposes. It (hopefully) will slowly convince the world that relying on the person in the room next to you to answer all your questions or quoting a single source is just plain stupid compared to quickly looking it up yourself. Yes, it has its limitations and should never be directly quoted, but it should not be completely dismissed and outright forbidden as I have seen done in the past by my educators.
So kudos Wales and Sanger!! Being nerds has led to the creation of something that even the most anti-nerd jock would agree is cool and something that us nerds can use to more easily increase our nerdiness.