[ RadSafe ] Article: Reliability of Information -- (not radiation-related, but of interest)

John Jacobus crispy_bird at yahoo.com
Mon Dec 5 10:25:07 CST 2005

>From the New York Times, 


December 4, 2005

Rewriting History
Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar 


ACCORDING to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, John
Seigenthaler Sr. is 78 years old and the former editor
of The Tennessean in Nashville. But is that
information, or anything else in Mr. Seigenthaler's
biography, true?

The question arises because Mr. Seigenthaler recently
read about himself on Wikipedia and was shocked to
learn that he "was thought to have been directly
involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John
and his brother Bobby." 

"Nothing was ever proven," the biography added.

Mr. Seigenthaler discovered that the false information
had been on the site for several months and that an
unknown number of people had read it, and possibly
posted it on or linked it to other sites.

If any assassination was going on, Mr. Seigenthaler
(who is 78 and did edit The Tennessean) wrote last
week in an op-ed article in USA Today, it was of his

The case triggered extensive debate on the Internet
over the value and reliability of Wikipedia, and more
broadly, over the nature of online information.

Wikipedia is a kind of collective brain, a repository
of knowledge, maintained on servers in various
countries and built by anyone in the world with a
computer and an Internet connection who wants to share
knowledge about a subject. Literally hundreds of
thousands of people have written Wikipedia entries. 

Mistakes are expected to be caught and corrected by
later contributors and users. 

The whole nonprofit enterprise began in January 2001,
the brainchild of Jimmy Wales, 39, a former futures
and options trader who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla.
He said he had hoped to advance the promise of the
Internet as a place for sharing information. 

It has, by most measures, been a spectacular success.
Wikipedia is now the biggest encyclopedia in the
history of the world. As of Friday, it was receiving
2.5 billion page views a month, and offering at least
1,000 articles in 82 languages. The number of
articles, already close to two million, is growing by
7 percent a month. And Mr. Wales said that traffic
doubles every four months.

Still, the question of Wikipedia, as of so much of
what you find online, is: Can you trust it?

And beyond reliability, there is the question of
accountability. Mr. Seigenthaler, after discovering
that he had been defamed, found that his "biographer"
was anonymous. He learned that the writer was a
customer of BellSouth Internet, but that federal
privacy laws shield the identity of Internet
customers, even if they disseminate defamatory
material. And the laws protect online corporations
from libel suits. 

He could have filed a lawsuit against BellSouth, he
wrote, but only a subpoena would compel BellSouth to
reveal the name.

In the end, Mr. Seigenthaler decided against going to
court, instead alerting the public, through his
article, "that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible
research tool."

Mr. Wales said in an interview that he was troubled by
the Seigenthaler episode, and noted that Wikipedia was
essentially in the same boat. "We have constant
problems where we have people who are trying to
repeatedly abuse our sites," he said. 

Still, he said, he was trying to make Wikipedia less
vulnerable to tampering. He said he was starting a
review mechanism by which readers and experts could
rate the value of various articles. The reviews, which
he said he expected to start in January, would show
the site's strengths and weaknesses and perhaps reveal
patterns to help them address the problems.

In addition, he said, Wikipedia may start blocking
unregistered users from creating new pages, though
they would still be able to edit them.

The real problem, he said, was the volume of new
material coming in; it is so overwhelming that
screeners cannot keep up with it.

All of this struck close to home for librarians and
researchers. On an electronic mailing list for them,
J. Stephen Bolhafner, a news researcher at The St.
Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote, "The best defense of the
Wikipedia, frankly, is to point out how much bad
information is available from supposedly reliable

Jessica Baumgart, a news researcher at Harvard
University, wrote that there were librarians
voluntarily working behind the scenes to check
information on Wikipedia. "But, honestly," she added,
"in some ways, we're just as fallible as everyone else
in some areas because our own knowledge is limited and
we can't possibly fact-check everything." 

In an interview, she said that her rule of thumb was
to double-check everything and to consider Wikipedia
as only one source.

"Instead of figuring out how to 'fix' Wikipedia -
something that cannot be done to our satisfaction,"
wrote Derek Willis, a research database manager at The
Washington Post, who was speaking for himself and not
The Post, "we should focus our energies on educating
the Wikipedia users among our colleagues."

Some cyberexperts said Wikipedia already had a good
system of checks and balances. Lawrence Lessig, a law
professor at Stanford and an expert in the laws of
cyberspace, said that contrary to popular belief, true
defamation was easily pursued through the courts
because almost everything on the Internet was
traceable and subpoenas were not that hard to obtain.
(For real anonymity, he advised, use a pay phone.)

"People will be defamed," he said. "But that's the way
free speech is. Think about the gossip world. It
spreads. There's no way to correct it, period.
Wikipedia is not immune from that kind of
maliciousness, but it is, relative to other features
of life, more easily corrected." 

Indeed, Esther Dyson, editor of Release 1.0 and a
longtime Internet analyst, said Wikipedia may, in that
sense, be better than real life.

"The Internet has done a lot more for truth by making
things easier to discuss," she said. "Transparency and
sunlight are better than a single point of view that
can't be questioned."

For Mr. Seigenthaler, whose biography on Wikipedia has
since been corrected, the lesson is simple: "We live
in a universe of new media with phenomenal
opportunities for worldwide communications and
research, but populated by volunteer vandals with
poison-pen intellects."

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"Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction."
"John F. Kennedy, U.S. President and former Naval Officer 

-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

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