Wikipedia-logo-en-bigAs a community-edited encyclopedia, Wikipedia has some pretty big strengths and weaknesses. A strength is, it’s rare not to be able to find any information about any given subject you want to research. But a weakness, as we’ve mentioned here before, is that you can’t be sure that information will always be completely accurate, especially if it concerns a controversial or extremely technical topic.

Alphr has an article covering a research paper comparing Wikipedia edit histories for controversial scientific subjects such as acid rain, global warming, and evolution to four relatively non-controversial subjects, including continental drift, heliocentrism, general relativity, and the standard model. The researchers determined that the more controversial articles received considerably more frequent and extensive edits than the non-controversial ones.

The researchers write:

Users should be aware that content in Wikipedia can be extremely dynamic; two students could obtain, within seconds, diametrically different information on a controversial scientific topic. Educators should ensure that students understand the limitations and appropriate uses of Wikipedia, especially for controversial scientific issues.

That doesn’t seem like an invalid conclusion. Even when I was in high school, it was understood that encyclopedias were not good primary sources. You looked up a subject to get an overview, then you went and dug up primary sources. Wikipedia makes it even easier to find the primary sources, given that it usually links to them at the bottom of the article.

The Wikimedia Foundation is less impressed with the study, noting that controversial topics by their nature generate more discussion and public attention. I can see their point, but can’t help feeling that an encyclopedia really isn’t meant to be a forum for “discussion.” (Though some would disagree with me.) It’s supposed to reflect what the current scientific consensus on a subject is. However, given that Wikipedia editors are, in fact, human and often opinionated, that can vary from moment to moment. And that’s not even getting into the Wikipedia community’s tendency to be hostile toward subject-matter experts.

Regardless, if you’re looking for information, Wikipedia is a good starting point, but it shouldn’t be your ending point. Especially if you’re talking about global warming.


  1. ikipedia cannot be trusted to provide facts to the reader. I learned this well enough for myself when I experimentally added 30 falsehoods to different Wikipedia articles. Not only did the Wikipedia community fail to discover 63% of my deliberate errors, but when I announced the results of the experiment and I began to undo my deliberate falsehoods, my account on Wikipedia was blocked — and another editor began RESTORING my errors, on the premise that a blocked user’s edits should be reverted on sight. It is amazing how idiotic the Wikipedia community actually is.

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