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An Accidental Wikipedia Hoax 189

Andreas Kolbe writes: The Daily Dot's EJ Dickson reports how she accidentally discovered that a hoax factoid she added over five years ago as a stoned sophomore to the Wikipedia article on "Amelia Bedelia, the protagonist of the eponymous children's book series about a 'literal-minded housekeeper' who misunderstands her employer's orders," had not just remained on Wikipedia all this time, but come to be cited by a Taiwanese English professor, in "innumerable blog posts and book reports", as well as a book on Jews and Jesus. It's a cautionary tale about the fundamental unreliability of Wikipedia. And as Wikipedia ages, more and more such stories are coming to light.
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An Accidental Wikipedia Hoax

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:30AM (#47565777)

    You will invariably come across some who think they know, some who know, some who pretend to know, some who know they don't know and some who just want to mess with you. It's still better than not asking, for fear of not getting distilled truth.

  • Citing Wikipedia (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wisnoskij ( 1206448 ) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:33AM (#47565819) Homepage
    Well there is your problem right there. This Wikipedia scare mongering creates a cloak masking real problems. You are never going to stop, nor should you, people form using the most comprehensive information source ever. Complaining about how it is not perfect is just hurting any valid points to be made. The point being, Wikipedia is not a source of anything, it is the product of a series of sources. So you do not cite Wikipedia, you cite the article it points to. If people had told me that back when I was in school, I would actually used that idea to get better sources, instead of just scoffing at the idea of not using Wikipedia (which was and continues to be a ridiculous idea).
  • by Trepidity ( 597 ) <> on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:35AM (#47565833)

    Especially if you are a professor you should know better. Wikipedia articles cite sources. Well, some of them do. If they don't, you should raise an eyebrow.

    If you see a statement in a Wikipedia article that you are thinking of repeating or relying on for something, look first to see: does it cite a source? In this case it did not. In that case, stop here, you should probably not trust the statement. At least not if it's something that matters at all. If it does cite a source, then things are better, but there is still one more step before you should rely on it for anything more than barroom trivia (like, say, publishing an academic paper): you should probably take a glance at that source and see if it really says that.

    Incidentally, this will help you use other reference works as well. There are a lot of errors in printed books as well, especially more popular books (those "Who's Who In the Roman World" type books are riddled with incorrect facts). The way to avoid being tripped up by them is to look for references first, and check references second. (How thoroughly to do so of course depends on what you're using the information for.)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:35AM (#47565835)

    Suitable for those who use knowledge as entertainment.

    Like Slashdot polls, if you use it for anything serious, you're insane.

    Even where it's supposedly fairly accurate, e.g. in mathematics, it's fucking awfully written - assumes too much for any non-mathematical person to read most of the maths articles, but so waffly and wordy and poorly edited that an undergrad will soon find even resources like Mathworld or MacTutor (for biographical background) way more efficient.

  • by Archangel Michael ( 180766 ) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:40AM (#47565887) Journal

    What happens is circular references with enough depth that it evades detection. A Points to B, B points to C, C points to D, D Points .... and eventually something points back to A.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:43AM (#47565905)

    Spot on... Wikipedia is only as unreliable as WE are. If we see an error and don't fix it, we're part of the problem.

    The fact that this went unnoticed and unchanged all this time shows a fundamental flaw in the process: not everything gets reviewed. If the majority of editors spent more time reviewing articles and less time reverting my edits in nitpicks over "policy," Wikipedia would be much improved!

  • A cautionary tale? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by FhnuZoag ( 875558 ) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:46AM (#47565929)

    This is not a cautionary tale about the fundamental unreliability of wikipedia. This is a cautionary tale about the fundamental unreliability of human knowledge. That Taiwanese English professor, those "innumerable blog posts and book reports", that book on Jews and Jesus - all of them accepted the account as given. That makes them *also* unreliable, together with the plethora of tertiary sources that might cite them. The fact that the untruth was initially added to wikipedia and not some other location is irrelevant. The real problem is the tendency of mankind to accept things as given without checking up on it.

  • by bluefoxlucid ( 723572 ) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:52AM (#47565991) Homepage Journal

    Take a look at Snopes once, huh?

    Every time somebody says something, it passes through the public mind. Sometimes it gets down five people and dies; others, it becomes an ever-growing ball of horse shit, and people start claiming that it takes 8 pounds of honey to build a honey comb that holds 1 pound of honey when, in reality, beeswax is pretty cheap in terms of hive storage economy.

    There are so many untrue things on Wikipedia just by way of almost everyone believing them--things that are printed in earnest in College textbooks and technical manuals, repeated by experts in field, and yet readily testable as not-true. These are just like Aristotle claiming heavier objects fall faster--and, 3000 years later, Galileo drops a grape and an iron brick at the same time, and both hit the ground simultaneously; did nobody think to check something other than a rock versus a feather? Today, we have the same.

    To make matters worse, anyone can purchase a domain name, set up a Web host or lease hosting, and publish anything they want with nobody able to edit it or mark it as suspect or inaccurate. Between word-of-mouth, books printed by whoever the hell wants to, Web sites with no validating authority, and forums where inaccurate posts aren't edited by moderators or community and are often supported by a circle jerk of clueless idiots, where do you expect to get any authoritative information?

    Wikipedia has the public access problem in a different scale: anyone can post anything on the Internet or in books or private magazines without contradiction; but, on Wikipedia, you get only as much contradiction as attention, amplified inverse to plausibility. That is to say: if what you post is not obviously wrong and not on a high-traffic article, it will probably fall through; if what you post is ridiculous or is on a high-traffic article, someone will notice the inaccuracy.

  • Bear Attacks (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jae471 ( 1102461 ) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @10:53AM (#47566007) Journal

    A former coworker once vandalized the list of fatal bear attacks (he added a friend of his to the list). Wikipedia has since been corrected, but not before the name Nick Ruberto (who is alive and well) appeared on several other lists of bear attacks (on some lists he appears as Nick Roberto, but all other details are the same.): []

    According to my ex-coworker, he received a one-year edit ban once discovered, which was increased to a lifetime edit ban when he appealed.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @11:14AM (#47566227)

    Criticism is not scare mongering. Also, someone motivated to work on Wikipedia is not going to be put off by critics. Pretending that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia on par with the Britannica is simply a profound misunderstanding of the concept of what an encyclopedia is. Wikipedia is at best a glorified blog on many topics of general and sometimes extremely vicarious knowledge. Admittedly, much of this accumulated stuff is quite well based in evidence and sources are cited. The rambling style and regularly frustratingly repetitive writing is almost impossible for me to read other than for a quick look-up of something. That's the kind of hilarious hodgepodge you get if you attempt to create articles on individual topics by a committee of several thousand people, most of whom are decidedly non-experts. And don't get me started on the infighting at Wikipedia, which ranges from the mildly entertaining to the nasty, ugly grandstanding and conspiracy theory laden drivel of collective nutjobbery.

    In summary: I like wikipedia for what it really is: a blog on vicarious knowledge, sometimes based on good evidence and sources. A sometimes interesting read. Not a real competitor for Britannica. There's room for blogs and encyclopedias in this world.

  • by eepok ( 545733 ) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @11:28AM (#47566385) Homepage

    I'm so done with this "Wikipedia has incorrect information and thus it's not worth anything" BS. The brilliance of Wikipedia is that if you know about something and can cite some high quality source, you can ethically edit an article. Some people edit articles imperfectly, but others will come by and improve.

    While we like to think that being absolutely perfect is the best option, it's impossible. Getting that last 5-10% of absolute perfection requires a massive amount of work (time, money, etc.). When striving for anything error-free, perfection becomes the enemy of good and we don't have the massive community within Wikipedia to actually add new articles and information. Instead of perfection, it's the agility of the Wikipedia community that brings the greatest value. They can add, remove, and correct anything-- and so can you. You just have to care enough to do so and do so with informative source material.

  • by Archangel Michael ( 180766 ) on Wednesday July 30, 2014 @12:32PM (#47567161) Journal

    Only if people follow the complete chain through.

I've noticed several design suggestions in your code.