Can't say that I believe you're terribly off base there, Ron, about needing to watch where we eat... On first glance, your observation seems perhaps more compelling than it does after closer examination, though.
Let's start out by acknowledging you're right.
Then let's see what we agree you're right about. I'm quoting here what I believe to be the heart of your statement:
This isn't an isolated incident. If information was food, and Wikipedia was a grand buffet, there would be a whole lot of people coming down with serious cases of food poisoning. The fact that someone is always there removing the tainted food as quickly as they can isn't much reassurance to those suffering.
In other words, Wikipedia makes errors. It makes errors on a more than isolated basis. People who depend on Wikipedia for solid information are made to feel foolish by these errors because the errors are not spotted quickly enough. The constant review process and constant updating of text doesn't make people who've made errors as a result feel better.
I think that about catches the gist of your analogy and translates it into straightforward digital language. There is nothing in there that I disagree with, if my paraphrase of your analogy is correct.
What, however, are the alternatives that you suggest?
Error is a function of any attempt at communication, even on a level as simple as making typos or spelling errors, hippos or spelling terrors are certainly as much a possibility as my first attempt to communicate the thought. And possibly a better one, from some perspectives. Errors of this sort creep in all the time. We often catch them, often we don't. They certainly may escape uncorrected into print, where they may very well never be corrected at all, ever.
Not only can inadvertent errors creep into printed texts, but inadvertent errors of fact may creep into texts. These may be used as sources for scholars or later authors who go about building cases on the bases of inadvertent errors. Because these errors are published in printed sources such as journals and books, the corrections that may have appeared in later editions or issues could well never have made it back to the original publication.
There is not enough editorial power available to the publisher to stay on top of the text and the literature to keep the articles current.
There are issues in which the discussion is heartily politicized and certainly in the case of textbooks, this will affect which version of the facts will appear in print in books. The version of the facts that in most palatable in Texas, according to my friend who is a free-lance textbook editor, is the version of the facts that will most likely appear in grade school and high school textbooks of history and science, for example. This is because the State of Texas seems to have the largest single market of kids of the proper ages and they have very clear ideas about the facts they want their kids to learn.
New editions come out every few years, and the facts are re-confirmed. Do you think the facts will coincide with the facts that you might have learned if you've done a broad and in-depth study of the facts that fits the actual primary sources?
These are facts you will not see corrected, not even between different editions of the same book.
So when you look at Wikipedia you will see occasional major gaffes like the one that poor Mike suffered the other day, and which I wrongly held him responsible for.
You will also see that Wikipedia is able to make a very fast correction and set the record straight, and that not much gets past them for very long. For the most part, people actually seem to want decent information and are willing to work at keeping it there.
Beyond that, I guess, there is another thought that needs to be considered. That is that, while we are people who do need to do research on things, we have pretty much given up on doing go. The result is that we get impressed with ourselves when we do any research at all.
We have given up on being skeptical of our sources of information. If one or two sources say so, that doesn't make it so. Does that source fit with other pieces of information we have?
Like with the sources of information used to justify this current war, all information comes to the CIA with a grading about reliability. The source on the reliability of much of the information given—an agent named Curveball, who was working for the Germans—came with a warning from the Germans themselves that the man's information was judged to be unreliable. When we put together a research picture, we try to put together a picture out of the best information we can, but preferably not from a single source. And preferably with something of a skeptical eye.
What we have in Wikipedia needs to be graded for reliability. The fit of any one particular piece of information needs to be examined with that of other pieces of information with a practiced and skeptical eye in the same way that any other piece of information should be checked. I looked at the web for an hour and a half before I looked at Wikipedia to see if there was any hint of information anywhere. I had no idea where Mike had gotten his information from and I wouldn't have thought to look there for report of an tabloid type incident in the first place. If I had seen it there, I would have looked for sourcing on it anyway.
Mike is very trusting of authorities. He is a respectful man, and one of the best of respectful men. He believes in respect up the line and down the line, as those raised and led in the finest of military traditions. He has trouble believing that not everybody in power returns his full faith and trust.
Me, I try to listen very very hard to exactly what people say and exactly how they say it, because they will often say exactly what they mean, especially when they're joking. But now I've wandered far to far afield.
The advantage of Wikipedia isn't that their mistakes are fewer or less serious than other print or audiovisual media, but that their correction speed is much swifter and that their loyalty toward the truth seems to be much higher. It doesn't mean anything more than that. How often do you see corrected information displayed with the same prominence as the prior error the second the correction is made anyplace else? How often can you say that somebody attempts to acknowledge all the biases he displays and that asks for documentation about conclusions he can't quite back up yet believes true?
Happily yours, BobK