Wiki and Pseudohistory

10 November 2009

It is not uncommon to complain about Wikipedia as a source for poor information. Many of these complaints are justified. There is a lot of humbug, and it often happens that good articles are inadequately improved. At the same time, those who are complaining most, academicians, are the ones who ought to remain silent. After all, Wiki has filled the gap that the universities left open: they have the money, they are funded to serve society, but they rarely made available their knowledge where it matters – online, that is. There’s still no real online edition of, for example, the Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions (so I made my own version).

As long as the universities do not make something better, the real question is not whether Wiki is good or bad. It is simply a fact that for hundreds of millions of people, it is the main source of scientific and scholarly information. The real question is how we can make it better, how we can help “good knowledge” defeat “bad knowledge”. Here are two simple solutions, one for Wiki itself and one for academicians.

First, Wiki must start to compete fairly. To understand this, you must know that Wikipedia consists of three levels. The first one is the article you see (like this one); the second level is the page on which you edit an article (like this one); and finally, there is the real code, which normal users will not see. Now at this level, Wiki plays a nasty game. Let’s have a look at the code of two normal links to another website:

The “nofollow” command means that search engines will not follow a link. In other words, while you and I can link to Wiki, it does not link back. You help Wiki achieve good Google ratings, but it does not contribute to yours. This means that when a person writes an article and summarizes a better page, Wiki will be on top, and the better page will be lower on the scales. The nofollow command is, essentially, an anti-competetive practice. It ought to be abandoned, so that better sites can compete more fairly.

Second, open access. The universities have acquiesced in the fact that reliable information is usually stored on pay sites (e.g., JSTOR). As long as this is the case, political activists and other people who are not interested in truth – and there are many of them on Wiki – can refer to online sources and look credible, while bona fide scholars and scientists cannot offer links to publications. Real scholars and scientists are forced to fight with their hands tied, which means that bad knowledge inevitably drives out good.

How to proceed? Perhaps the WWWC can convince Wiki that it is abusing html. I am optimistic, because so far, Wiki has been seriously interested in improving itself. To achieve open access, however, we must expect something of a miracle. Granted, the solution is easy: academicians must simply start to refuse to publish in journals that do not make the research results decently available online within, say, a year. That ought to be simple, but it may be too difficult for those who have, until now, managed to ignore the information revolution we are witnessing.