Update: corrected Encyclopedia Britannica link.
A lot of people — publishers, the press, public figures, and bloggers — spend a lot of time agonizing over Wikipedia, and the general conclusion is either (a) Wikipedia is dangerously untrustworthy (from its detractors), or (b) Wikipedia is great, but don’t trust everything you read there (from its supporters).
Here’s a different perspective: don’t trust anything you read or hear anywhere, guys. If you have the stomach for it, take a look at the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article for NEGRO, remembering that this edition was published within living memory, 48 years after the American Emancipation Proclamation, and 104 years after the end of slavery in the British Empire, in what was probably the world’s most authoritative and trusted reference source. What do you think the odds are that our grandchildren will react with the same disgust and disbelief when they look back at how our mainstream media and other publications covered the issues of our day, from their almost total ignorance of Iran (guys in black with long beards and nuclear bombs) to their glorification of war (support our troops, too bad about [non-first-world] victims) to their lazy republishing of the spin and just simple lies from the press releases of just about every public-interest pressure group (from the environmental to the gun lobby, from the gay rights movement to the fundamentalist Christian movement).
If the occasional (and rare) error or vandalism in Wikipedia finally teaches people that they are responsible for verifying everything they read, that will be a good thing. Wikipedia is still usually my first source for information, but nothing is ever my last source. Overall, however, because Wikipedia has an international authorship, I find that the information in it is generally of a much higher quality than I can get from the mainstream North American publishers or media (and I’m not talking only about Fox News).
Is the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica link wrong? It currently points to Oleg Tkachenko’s blog…
Thanks for catching that — I’ve corrected the link.