Stephen Dubner is the co-author of Freakonomics, a book that stands out for its ability to move past conventional wisdom and commonplaces to look at evidence that others either ignored or couldn’t understand. Dubner recently posted a blog entry about Stephen Colbert’s attack on Wikipedia.
On his show, Colbert edited Wikipedia to introduce deliberately false information into the article about his show, and then encouraged his viewers to do the same for articles about elephants. Many viewers took Colbert up on his offer.
Is that proof that Wikipedia is undependable, as Dubner suggests? In fact, all of the incorrect information was almost immediately removed, some articles were temporarily locked to avoid vandalism, and Colbert’s account was suspended. Wikipedia can be temporarily undependable, but (at least for any frequently-read article) it is quickly self-correcting — its biggest problem is the articles that are rarely read, where vandalism or errors can last for a longer time. Conventional encyclopedias have no (or extremely little) deliberate vandalism, but their information is usually out of date, they have significantly less coverage (a tiny fraction of Wikipedia’s), and unintentional errors can take years or decades to correct.
I’m a bit disappointed that Dubner was satisfied simply to repeat the obvious, commonplace criticisms about Wikipedia without any critical thought — that’s not the Freakonomics way.