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Prosecutor Loses Case For Citing Wikipedia 315

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the citation-needed dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "The Philippine Daily Inquirer reports on a recent case where the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) lost an appeal after seeking to impeach the testimony of a defendant's expert witness by citing an article from Wikipedia. In her brief, the defendant said 'the authority, alluded to by oppositor-appellant, the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders DSM-IV-TR," was taken from an Internet website commonly known as Wikipedia,' and argued that Wikipedia itself contains a disclaimer saying it 'makes no guarantee of validity.' The court in finding for the defendant said in its decision that it found 'incredible ... if not a haphazard attempt, on the part of the (OSG) to impeach an expert witness, with, as pointed out by (the defendant) unreliable information. This is certainly unacceptable evidence, nothing short of a mere allegation totally unsupported by authority.'"
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Prosecutor Loses Case For Citing Wikipedia

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  • so... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by conspirator57 (1123519) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:22AM (#33415400)

    who was actually correct about the facts of the matter?

    sight unseen, i bet Wikipedia.

    • by digitalunity (19107) <.moc.oohay. .ta. .ytinulatigid.> on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:25AM (#33415436) Homepage

      but I wouldn't cite it in court! What a moron.

      It's crowdsourced knowledge, which is likely correct in many cases but is still subject to errors and abuse from bored teenagers and people with an agenda.

      • Yup. Not even the WMF would have cited Wikipedia in a court of law. They don't recommend using it as the sole source of info for University, and they sure don't recommend that it be used to argue law!

      • by mysidia (191772) on Monday August 30, 2010 @12:16PM (#33416114)

        It could probably reasonably be cited, with support from other sources, for non-contentious info.

        However... to use an under-construction Wiki-based encyclopedia to try to impeach an expert is insane.

        Wikipedia is not an authority. If the expert is really an expert on the subject, then what they say is more likely to be correct than what Wikipedia says, because they are an expert in the subject they discuss.

        And not only is Wikipedia not created by experts... Wikipedia derides expertise, and scorns authority. It also sometimes includes blatantly false, crackpot info, sometimes even vandalism.

        Due to the wide range of people who edit it.

        Errors will eventually be corrected; however, it's not like a court can reverse its verdict next week because someone corrected the cited WP article.

        Not until courts reach the point where the opposition can look at the Wikipedia article, edit it to their liking, and have the witness "citation" automatically changed and taken into account, before trial ends.

        In that case, there could be a fun edit war between prosecutor and defendant over the definitions of certain things.

        If you change the definition of legal terms on WP, do courts automatically change their rules to match? :)

        • Summary not so clear (Score:5, Informative)

          by spun (1352) <loverevolutionary@@@yahoo...com> on Monday August 30, 2010 @01:10PM (#33416834) Journal

          The summary is clear as mud, but it sounds like the prosecutors made reference to the DSM. Why refer to the wikipedia article on it? The DSM itself is the authority on psychological disorders. If wiki quoted the DSM correctly, then it is likely correct on the matter. So why did the prosecutor cite wiki, and not the actual authoritative source that wiki cites? Stupid.

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by Muad'Dave (255648)

            ...the prosecutors made reference to the DSM.

            Diving Spaghetti Monster? What powers can he _not_ obtain?

    • Re:so... (Score:5, Informative)

      by mcgrew (92797) * on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:26AM (#33415454) Homepage Journal

      It doesn't matter which was right, what matters is you don't use an encyclopedia, any encyclopedia as a source to cite. If you try to cite wikipedia (or Britannica) in a college class, you'll flunk your paper.

      I don't see how anybody who's ever been to college (including someone like me who was in college long before the internet existed) could be ignorant of this. Encyclopedias are only a starting point; you don't cite them in your paper, or in court. You go for their sources for your real research.

      • Re:so... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by AndrewNeo (979708) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:30AM (#33415508) Homepage

        You go for their sources for your real research.

        Which, when using Wikipedia, should be easy, if the article is properly sourced. This isn't always the case, though.

        • > This isn't always the case, though.

          This one is.

        • Re:so... (Score:4, Insightful)

          by cgenman (325138) on Monday August 30, 2010 @02:01PM (#33417542) Homepage

          The language seems a little strange, but the article implies that they were using the DSM-IV as quoted in Wikipedia as a source.

          The DSM, for those who don't know, is basically the official manual of mental problems. Every clinician should have one. Here's the Wikipedia article [wikipedia.org] on it. The DSM is exactly where you should go to prove mental problems, as that is unimpeachably A if not The source.

          Not going directly to the DSM, but rather citing a wikipedia article about what the DSM says, is just sloppy. It would be like a judge citing a law by citing the wikipedia article about a law. Why not just go straight to the obvious and ubiquitous source is beyond me.

      • I had some professors tell me that Encyclopedic citations were ok so long as they were reputable sources and they aren't your sole source. Any time I had to do a background or historical piece in a paper I found encyclopedias to be useful as a way of citing a reputable summary. If you're piecing information together to make a new or novel argument then encyclopedias wouldn't really help, but in some cases they might be useful.

        But citing wikipedia? dumb. Just dumb.

      • Encyclopedias are only a starting point; you don't cite them in your paper, or in court. You go for their sources for your real research.

        Not only do I completely agree with you for the reason you specify, but also academic honesty really demands this approach. The encyclopedia has only aggregated information for you, the actual knowledge/article/paper actually came from someone else, not the encyclopedia. The original source for information should be the one getting the credit, not the aggregating service.

      • Re:so... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by hey! (33014) on Monday August 30, 2010 @12:25PM (#33416240) Homepage Journal

        I understand that the idea is to point students to original sources, but I happen to think that the mindless application of the rule that you can't cite encyclopedias is wrong headed. There are often bits of information that need to be sourced but aren't really worth looking up in primary sources or for which primary sources simply aren't worth obtaining to make a point. If it's OK to cite secondary sources, it should be OK to cite a reliable encyclopedia.

        For example, if I wanted to assert that Caspar Weinberger succeeded Eliot Richardson as Secretary of Health and Education and Welfare, is it really less scholarly to cite Britannica than to leave the assertion unsourced or to city Joe Blow's webpage (which is allowed)?

        Another example would be John Wilkins' book, published in 1668, entitled "An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language". I had reason recently to describe the contents of that book in regard to the applicability of web ontologies to scientific data sharing. Now I live in Boston, and there is so far as I know only one copy of that work available for public inspection within reasonable driving distance. Nonetheless the work is widely cited in secondary sources. I *should* take the car trip to Gordon College if I am relying heavily upon the contents of that work. If, however, my purposes are satisfied by citing secondary sources, there is no rational reason to prefer some individual author's account of the contents of Wilkins' book over Britannica's.

        It a bit silly that there are instances you can cite Joe Blow's webpage but not Britannica.

        In short:

        * where a less reliable secondary source than Britannica would be acceptable, citing Britannica should be allowed.

        * where a fact might reasonably go unsourced as "common knowledge" (e.g. Elliot Richardson's tenure at Dept. of HEW), then citing an reliable encyclopedia should be encouraged.

        * where it is reasonable to forbid the citation of Britannica, *other* secondary sources should likewise be forbidden, unless they are sources that have been peer reviewed in the field *as* reliable compendia of a discipline's knowledge.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by fredmosby (545378)

        It doesn't matter which was right...

        I thought the reason we had judges and juries was so that a non-biased third party could listen to the arguments from both sides and decide which one is right.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by BobMcD (601576)

        It doesn't matter which was right, what matters is you don't use an encyclopedia, any encyclopedia as a source to cite

        This, to me, seems arbitrary and stupid. I realize that we prefer original knowledge in our sources, but there are many, many areas of study where such a thing simply does not exist. If I were writing a paper on the Battle of the Little Bighorn [wikipedia.org], for example, I'd be hard pressed to find anyone alive that would be eligible as an 'expert witness' to that event. Any hope of original research died with the last survivor - quite a while ago.

        And if you're not aware, the official account is all kinds of messed u

    • Re:so... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by codegen (103601) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:34AM (#33415572) Journal

      sight unseen, i bet Wikipedia

      I think you would loose that bet. If you actually read the article (I know, I know, this is slashdot), you would find that it involves the psychological evaluation of a woman and her husband. At the trial, the expert who had done the evaulation was not cross examined, and in the appeal the OSG attempted to impeach the expert using general information from Wikipedia. Using an article from any general information source (encyclopedia britannica or wikipedia) to attempt to contradict a specific evaluation of a specific case by a recognized expert in the field is foolhardy at best and deserves to be shot down. In Addition, the court noted that the Solicitor General had access to government mental health experts that could be used, and failed to use them.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by davev2.0 (1873518)

      Because it is reasonable to assume an article written by amateurs is much more reliable than an expert witness, a practicing psychologist, who actually interviewed the people in question.

      /sarcasm

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Just Some Guy (3352)

        Because it is reasonable to assume an article written by amateurs is much more reliable than an expert witness, a practicing psychologist, who actually interviewed the people in question.

        Yes, it is. First, the "amateurs" who wrote the Wikipedia article are almost certainly people trained in its field, in the same way that the physics and computer articles are generally edited by physicists and computer people. Second, the Wikipedia editors have not been paid to testify on behalf of either party and are completely unbiased authorities with respect to this particular case.

        That said, the prosecutor is still a jackass. Wrong way: cite Wikipedia in court. Right way: use Wikipedia to bone up on t

        • Re:so... (Score:5, Insightful)

          by davev2.0 (1873518) on Monday August 30, 2010 @12:13PM (#33416084)

          No, it is NOT.

          The problem lies here:

          First, the "amateurs" who wrote the Wikipedia article are almost certainly people trained in its field, in the same way that the physics and computer articles are generally edited by physicists and computer people.

          First, The writers and editors do not have to be people trained in the field and this is acknowledge by Wikipedia in its disclaimer. Second, anyone can change almost any Wikipedia article to support a position, then site that version of the article.

          Those two facts render any and every Wikipedia article less reliable than the testimony of a doctor who has examined and interviewed the people at the heart of the case.

          To suggest otherwise would be to say that one is better off relying on Wikipedia articles to make medical diagnoses over one's doctor.

        • by schon (31600)

          the "amateurs" who wrote the Wikipedia article are almost certainly people trained in its field

          [citation-needed]

        • Yes, it is. First, the "amateurs" who wrote the Wikipedia article are almost certainly people trained in its field, in the same way that the physics and computer articles are generally edited by physicists and computer people.

          Going by my experience, I'm doubtful this is the case - I've tried to edit blatantly wrong or misleading articles in my field using my WP account only to have the changes reverted or removed in short order. After a half-dozen times of that happening, I have up. I wouldn't be surprised if this happened in other fields as well.

        • Re:so... (Score:4, Interesting)

          by DerekLyons (302214) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (retawriaf)> on Monday August 30, 2010 @01:18PM (#33416958) Homepage

          Because it is reasonable to assume an article written by amateurs is much more reliable than an expert witness, a practicing psychologist, who actually interviewed the people in question.

          Yes, it is. First, the "amateurs" who wrote the Wikipedia article are almost certainly people trained in its field, in the same way that the physics and computer articles are generally edited by physicists and computer people.

            Almost certainly and generally - very nice weasel words that hide stark reality, which is that you can't tell which articles were written by experts and which were written by 'experts'.
           
          And that's generally my problem with Wikipedia. Folks like you say "this group is generally written by experts" or "that group is usually written by experts", and imply that those articles are thus extremely trustworthy. But it never, ever, occurs to you to ask why in hell isn't the entire Wikipedia written by experts then?". Reviewing articles in fields that I am expert on, I routinely see errors of fact, of omission, of inference... How then am I supposed to trust the balance?
           
          Using the cited sources isn't much help - because if an article is flawed as outlined above, how are the sources going to be any better? GIGO.

    • 1. Actually, it probably doesn't matter.

      Let me explain. It's not the court's role to judge that. A bunch of housewives, plumbers, clerks and whoever else couldn't escape jury duty, not only isn't qualified to judge if an article on mental diseases is correct, it's not even their role to do that. They have to listen to some expert testimony and decide strictly based on what they've heard.

      Heck, even on Wikipedia basically that's why there's a "[citation needed]" tag. John Doe reading the article should just b

  • Ha (Score:4, Insightful)

    by StikyPad (445176) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:22AM (#33415402) Homepage

    The prosecutor was an idiot. Everyone knows you use the citations from the article, not the Wikipedia itself! :P

    • Re:Ha (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:40AM (#33415640)

      Your statement is completely true, but the smilie face at the end makes me feel as though you posted it as a joke, or feeling smug, by perhaps implying that following your solution would "cheat" the would-be checkers into believing the otherwise "unreliable" wikipedia information would suddenly become "reliable" by citing it's source instead of the article itself.

      In fact, the above statement is exactly how things are supposed to be, no joking or smugness. Wikipedia in and of itself is NOT a realiable source, does NOT try to be a reliable source, does NOT pretend to be a reliable source, and does NOT want anyone assuming it is a reliable source. It's the sources it cites which, depending on the circumstances, MAY constitute a reliable source. This is why any researches is supposed to do EXACTLY what you described, and it is not cheating or circumventing, but the actual legitimate way to do research when using Wikipedia.

      • by mobby_6kl (668092)

        I think the reason the OP put a smiley in there was because what usually happens is that one copies the facts/ideas from the Wiki article, and then just puts one or more sources in works cited, whether they actually support what they are supposed to, or not.

      • Re:Ha (Score:5, Informative)

        by Digicrat (973598) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:54AM (#33415822)

        Yes, but citing the source generally means you go out and read the source to base your claim on, or at least to verify that the summary is valid. The GP (based on the smiley), is speaking about cheating the system by citing the wikipedia source, without taking that extra step to actually verify for himself that the source validates the article (which isn't always the case on wikipedia, though they try).

      • I don't know if this deserves a "whoosh". But I read the :P as:

        1. go to wikipedia

        2. copy and paste the sources listed in the article

        3. ???

        4. Profit!

        Blindly using citations found in Wikipedia, or any other place, is not a good way of doing research. The citations may be bogus, or plainly unreliable. Of course, a lot of researchers actually do this, perhaps just not from Wikipedia.

      • by ejtttje (673126)
        I think the "joke" that GP is implying is that people will just list the wikipedia article sources as their own sources instead of following up and reading these sources themselves to verify the content.

        In other words, people will be lazy and still base things only on the wikipedia summary, and just pretend they got it from the cited source.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by John Hasler (414242)
        Wikipedia is not a primary source. No encyclopedia is. "Reliability" is not the issue. You never cite what A said that B said when you can directly cite what B said. Best evidence rule.
  • Well, the disclaimer was there....a lawyer of all people should have known what that means in the legal sense...
  • Don't these prosecutors have better things to do than try to keep people who want a divorce together by law?
    • I would quote the relevant portion of the article, but Slashdot has decided it's going to block clipboard pastes (?!?) so you'll just have to RTFA yourself...
    • Don't these prosecutors have better things to do than try to keep people who want a divorce together by law?

      If they're divorcing, they split assets. If the marriage is annulled, they do not. This may be a significant monetary difference.

    • by mrsurb (1484303) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:42AM (#33415682)
      An annulment is not a divorce. A divorce is the dissolution of a marriage, an annulment is a declaration that the marriage was invalid. This has all sorts of legal consequences. From TFA, "In annulment cases, the OSG enters an appearance in court to ensure there is no collusion between husband and wife when they seek to annul their union or to see to it that the nullification of a marriage is based on valid grounds."
      • Yes, I saw that "ensure there is no collusion between husband and wife", but I really don't understand it. If the annulment is disadvantageous to one party as another poster seems to indicate, then why would they be colluding?
        • by ultranova (717540)

          If the annulment is disadvantageous to one party as another poster seems to indicate, then why would they be colluding?

          Because they have nice kneecaps, and don't want anything bad to happen to them?

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          It might be advantageous to BOTH of them to declare the marriage invalid as opposed to a divorce. I'm not sure what circumstances might cause this, I imagine there might be some crazy loophole in tax laws, or if they're abusing marriage to get people overseas a visa or something like that.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by boxwood (1742976)

            the cricumstance that caused this is the fact that divorce is illegal in the philippines. So you either get an anulment or stay married.

  • by Borealis (84417) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:25AM (#33415446) Homepage

    If the only citation you can come up with is Wikipedia then either you aren't doing your job or the citation is suspect. I find no issue with the court's decision, I'd be more inclined to beat the prosecutor with a wet noodle for failing to find a more reliable source.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      I'd be more inclined to beat the prosecutor with a wet noodle

      You Italians sure have weird and delicious forms of punishment.

  • by barfy (256323) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:25AM (#33415448)

    While the Wikipedia site is *likely* to be true. Likely to have been written by an expert and an authority on the subject. There is absolutely no guarantee of it's verity or authority.

    For legal argument, the site would be an excellent place to start. It is easy to search, and the articles are written in quick scannable ways which would make research fast and quick. BUT, that research should *LEAD* to legally sound authority and more complete argument on any topic.

    It would be horrible, horrible for the law to place Wikipedia on the pedestal of authority, and it would be bad for the public which wikipedia only exists because of its structure.

    • by dkleinsc (563838) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:36AM (#33415592) Homepage

      In other words, a prosecutor should know that in court, if you need to cite the DSM-IV, you need to cite the DSM-IV, not a Wikipedia article citing the DSM-IV. I mean, it's not like somebody's life (or at least a significant portion of their future) is on the line or anything in a criminal trial.

      You probably also need an appropriate expert witness to explain why the diagnosis in question would apply to the behavior in question.

    • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:48AM (#33415748)

      It's even simpler than that, Wikipedia is the site that anyone can edit. That means that it's entirely possible for the prosecutor to log into Wikipedia, change an article so that it supports his arguments, add fakes cites out to hard to verify material, then take his research from there. Why any educated lawyer would think that you could use Wikipedia for anything more than the most basic of a starting point for research is beyond me.

    • by mpe (36238)
      While the Wikipedia site is *likely* to be true. Likely to have been written by an expert and an authority on the subject. There is absolutely no guarantee of it's verity or authority.

      It very much depends on the subject in question. In some cases you can be sure that the writings of "experts" and "authorities" are very likely to be untrue.
  • If it was printed? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by DoofusOfDeath (636671)

    To exactly what about Wikipedia did the judge object? If the attorney had cited a print edition of Wikipedia, would his argument sudenly be more persuasive?

    It seems to me that Wikipedia was just being more honest than most other sources in terms of its disclaimer.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Improv (2467)

      If that print edition is vetted by experts, yes. Otherwise no. Citing an encyclopedia is a bad idea. Citing a project like Wikipedia that isn't exactly an encyclopedia is worse. Wikipedia is great for a lot of things and the articles that get enough eyes usually coalesce into something that's reasonably reliable, but it's not as good as traditional research and education.

      See this for a bit of humour on the topic:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaADQTeZRCY [youtube.com]

      • Dr. Crispina Penequito, who testified that she had examined the couple and "concluded that both parties suffered from psychological incapacity." According to Penequito, the petitioner was suffering from an "anti-social reaction" under the classification of "sociopathic personalities" which is a type of "personality or character disorder." On the other hand, her ex-husband was diagnosed as suffering from an "inadequate personality," which falls under the "personality pattern disorder."

        Citing a comic book would be more authoritative than this "expert witness".

    • by mpoulton (689851) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:42AM (#33415672)
      No, a print edition would not be better. In order to use evidence to impeach an expert, the evidence must be recognized as more reliable than the expert's own opinion. The only ways to demonstrate this are to have the court independently recognize the inherent authority of the source ("judicial notice", uncommon in this context), or for the expert himself to acknowledge the validity of the source, or to convince the court that your source is more reliable than the expert. No encyclopedia would ever meet these standards. Ever. To even consider that it might is ridiculous.
    • by Asic Eng (193332)
      No, a printed version wouldn't have been good enough. The judge wanted an expert witness. It wouldn't have sufficed if the attorney had checked the sources for the wikipedia article, either - this still wouldn't have made them an expert of the field. Even if the information is readily available it can take an expert to make sense of it or to put it into context. (E.g. to know that the book was already out of date.)
  • But that's entirely because Legalese is it's own language.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:31AM (#33415530)
    ... firm and I've seen this done, uncontested

    I'm not sure what's sadder, that someone I work with has done this, or that the other side doesn't even understand how bad it is...
    • by thue (121682)

      > I'm not sure what's sadder, that someone I work with has done this, or that the other side doesn't even understand how bad it is...

      Perhaps if the fact taken from Wikipedia was unambiguously true? Just because you are in a court case doesn't mean you have to disagree on everything you can.

  • by JSBiff (87824) on Monday August 30, 2010 @11:46AM (#33415726) Journal

    So, I'm confused. Did they cite wikipedia, or did they cite the 'Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders DSM-IV-TR?' Because, to me, the latter sounds like it's an actual scientific publication from some sort of Industry Association of mental health professionals? I mean, if you go to Wiki, and Wiki cites an actual recognized publication, and you then cite that publication, does it make it any less valid just because you discovered that publication through Wikipedia?

    I just did some quick Google searching, and it appears that is a publication of the American Psychiatric Association. Is there some question as to the credibility of the APA when it comes to mental health problems?

  • I wouldn't have challenged the reference to Wikipedia at all.

    I'd have edited the artical to add the phrase, "Defendant did nothing illegal.", then showed the entry to the judge and asked for a dismissal with prejudice.

    Oh...I'd also add "neener, neener, neener Mr. Prosecutor." to it as well.

  • by cdrguru (88047) on Monday August 30, 2010 @12:05PM (#33415980) Homepage

    Well, that is after all the intent of Wikipedia, isn't it? Eliminating the idea of there being one "truth" apart from the opinion of the masses?

    While this might have some noble intent, you can't very well be surprised when those in authority reject the entire concept. The idea that people might actually take a crowdsourced knowledgebase and present it as "truth" in matters of law is laughable because this use is diametrically opposed to the intent of the founders and maintainers of Wikipedia. The very idea that there might be an "expert" in the world that knows more or has a firmer grasp of anything compared to the knowledge of the great unwashed masses is abhorrent to the concept of Wikipedia.

    What this means is that Wikipedia is "The People's Encyclopedia", created by "the people" for "the people." Fine, as long as its use is confined to "the people" it is probably suitable. But it does mean that using it as a reference in school, at law, science, government or any place where people actually believe in the concept of "truth" apart from the knowledge of crowds is forbidden.

    Sorry, you can't have it both ways. Law and government are very interested in "truth" as a concept and it is presupposed that there are in fact experts that know what this truth is. Wikipedia is built on the idea that there is no one truth at all and that all truths are equal. Hence the continual editing of articles because over time what is considered to be the truth changes with the whim of the crowd.

  • There's something screwy about this. The DSM-IV(TR) is *not* Wikipedia. Did the prosecutor actually cite Wikipedia instead of citing the DSM-IV(TR)?

    If this was a US case, I'd try to find the court documents (from the original case and from the appeal) on PACER. But TFA is from "The Philippine Daily Inquirer" -- this isn't even a US case???

  • I feel that they should not have -- they were lazy, attempting a short cut. I suspect that they still billed their full fee as if they had done a proper job.

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