INFORMATION PLEASE

By EDWIN D. REILLY, Jr.

For The Sunday Gazette

 

It is a natural human inclination to be curious, to want to know things, and to learn about certain things in depth. To research a simple fact, such as the height of Mount Everest, for example, we can just consult an almanac, or much more quickly, Google. Either would tell you that its height is 29,000 feet (plus or minus 30). But to learn more about its geologic history and the continual attempts to climb it, an encyclopedia would be better. Let me tell you about a very remarkable one, and a free one at that.

           For years, the gold standard for encyclopedias has been Britannica, but its most comprehensive edition contains only 120,000 entries. As of March 1, the free encyclopedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki reached one million! There are now Wikipedia websites in over 200 languages, the ones following English with the most articles being German, French, Polish, and Japanese. How all this was achieved in just over five years is in itself a fascinating story.

           “Wiki” has no association with the word “wicked,’ unless, of course, you wish to use that term in its counter sense of meaning good and effective, as in a wicked curve ball. A wiki (the Hawaiian word for “quick”) is a web-based software program that allows multiple users—thousands or even millions perhaps—to modify or at least post comment on the contents of a website. What is remarkable and surprising about Wikipedia is that comprehensive articles of amazing erudition can be created and maintained by legions of people who do not have to prove any special credential, even their age, in order to participate. Whatever else they are doing, they are not acting like monkeys at a typewriter.

Wikipedia is described in great detail in the July 31 issue of the New Yorker and was the subject of a syndicated op ed piece in the Sunday Gazette of the same date. The “September” issue of The Atlantic contains another long article. The project was started by one Jimmy Wales and is monitored by a five-person staff in small quarters in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The encyclopedia is supported through voluntary contributions and allegedly carries no advertising. I say “allegedly” because it does contain, for example, specific articles on Budweiser and Samuel Adams beer and on Pall Mall cigarettes. But to qualify for inclusion, these articles must follow NPOV, a wiki acronym for Neutral Point of View. Unlike Fox’s laughable FAB (Fair and Balanced), Wikipedia articles really are. The articles I just cited describe the history of the manufacture and marketing of the products mentioned with no suggestion that anyone should buy them.

Wikipedia is also free of pornography, although there is a scholarly article on the topic. And there are clinical discussions of certain practices that I do not want my grandchildren to read, articles that I am sure would never appear in Britannica. Nor does Wiki prohibit highly detailed articles that tell how to make Molotov cocktails and nuclear weapons. Its articles are not attributed except through use of pseudonyms. Whenever a new article is posted, hundreds of Wiki fans pounce on it to correct its alleged errors, grammatical or otherwise, or to add to it or rewrite it if it is not indeed NPOVian.

If the original author so chooses, he or she can “revert” an article to what was originally written, only to have an antagonist re-revert it. And so it goes, ad infinitum. Every article that I read in research for this piece had been edited within the past few days, and in one case just five hours beforehand. The most edited article is that of George W. Bush. It has been modified over 14,000 times, twice as much as the article entitled simply “Jesus.” As measured by attraction of editors who can’t resist putting their two cents’ worth in, Jesus just barely edged out Adolph Hitler, followed by Michael Jackson and Britney Spears (whoever she is).

There are Wiki articles on Schenectady and all of our large local towns. A year or so, when I first read that of Niskayuna, I edited its statement that the town occupied only one square mile. The actual number is 15.1 square miles, the number that has now been allowed to stand. The unknown original author may have taken the smaller figure from some source that pertained to what was once called the hamlet of Niskayuna, a small section near the Colonie line at the east end of town that once contained Dennison’s store with its quaint rural post office. I miss them.

Herman Melville must also have been referring to that hamlet when, in Moby-Dick, he wrote of a sailor who "had been originally nurtured among the crazy society of Neskyeuna (sic) Shakers where he had been a great prophet; in their cracked secret meetings having several times descended from heaven by the way of a trap door." We couldn’t have done that while I was Town Supervisor without violating the open meetings law.

After I read the New Yorker article, I set out to test the claim that Wiki articles are truly NPOV, written from a neutral point of view. I figured that the acid test would be the articles on abortion and the National Rifle Association (NRA). By golly, each is a masterpiece of presenting both sides, even the many sides, of the controversies that such subjects engender. Must reading.

I have yet to find an article about physics, mathematics, or computer science whose accuracy I question. They seem to be meticulously researched and documented with copious footnotes, many of which are links to supportive online material. I find the links to politicians, past and present, to be quite fascinating. How in the world, I wondered, could one write NPOVian articles about Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush?

Well, a multitude of editors has tried hard, but the Wiki gatekeepers feel the need to label Hillary’s article with the warning label: “This page is about an active politician who is running for office, is in office and campaigning for re-election, or is involved in some political conflict or controversy. Because of this, this article is at risk of biased editing by both supporters and opponents.”

            Similarly, the President’s article carries the cautionary note: “Due to recent vandalism, editing of this article by anonymous or newly registered users is disabled.” Vandalism? By the would-be editors, or by the subject? Perhaps ambiguity is necessary so that even Wiki warning labels be certifiably NPOV.

 

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion pages.