Reporter proves self to be “citizendumb”

November 29, 2006

Adam Gaumont uses the word “citizendumb” to lampoon the Wikipedia fork, but I think the word has a certain meaning of its own. I may even start to use it myself:

Citizendumb (adj.), “sit-ih-ZEN-dum”; to report on Citizendium without an appropriate depth of knowledge or attempting to check one’s facts.

There, my very own definition, and I’d like to think that it’s a good one. Y’see, Adam write an interesting and fairly compelling article about the piece, but it really all falls down in the first sentence of the introduction:

In response to admittedly deserved criticism regarding its quality and reliability, the Wikimedia Foundation has announced that it will be launching Citizendium, a new branch of Wikipedia that will be expert-written as opposed to the current free-for-all format.

Unfortunately for this article, the very first sentence includes one of the most glaring and laughable factual errors I’ve ever seen written about Citizendium. The Wikimedia Foundation did not launch Citizendium, nor has it ever claimed to. I have a fair idea of how Mr Gaumont came to that conclusion, though.

Citizendium, or CZ for short, is the brainchild of Larry Sanger, the former Editor-in-Chief of Nupedia and one of the minds behind the evolution we now know as Wikipedia, and indeed proposed the idea of using a Wiki to build the encyclopedia. However, he left the project in February 2002, and has since become highly critical of the website and a number of its most major failings.

Sanger has not been affiliated with the Wikimedia Foundation in years, as subtly suggested by statements such as this, from a well-known essay from December 2004 entitled “Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism“:

I have since left the project.

Generally, Adam writes an interesting little article. He makes another major error, though:

As proof of this, a recent study by the science journal Nature found that, comparing similar scientific articles in Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica side by side, each resource had the same average amount of errors per article—and in that sense, that the two were equal in reliability.

Again, this is wrong, and possibly because of Adam’s unfamiliarity with the report itself. Getting our information straight from the horse’s mouth, we’re given quite a different picture altogether:

Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.

Adam’s quite correct to say that each article had the same number of serious errors in each article — which was not was he said — but is totally wrong to claim that “each resource had the same average amount of errors per article” — which he did say. In fact, Wikipedia has quite a few extra mistakes, which should come as no surprise. Indeed, from a little further down in the Nature article:

The most error-strewn article, that on Dmitry Mendeleev, co-creator of the periodic table, illustrates this. Michael Gordin, a science historian at Princeton University who wrote a 2004 book on Mendeleev, identified 19 errors in Wikipedia and 8 in Britannica. These range from minor mistakes, such as describing Mendeleev as the 14th child in his family when he was the 13th, to more significant inaccuracies. Wikipedia, for example, incorrectly describes how Mendeleev’s work relates to that of British chemist John Dalton.

Unfortunately for the credibility of his article, Adam appears to have misused his only source of evidence. In attempting to prove that Wikipedia is quite good enough as a resource and that Citizendium therefore has no place, he misuses an important report that actually demonstrated the website’s scope for improvement.

Whoops.

At this point, Gaumont steps away from major factual errors and moves on to his own opinion, which is where the meat of his argument lies. He claims, simply, that Citizendium will never be able to gain acceptance above and beyond that of Wikipedia and other sources of reference:

…as nearly every postsecondary instructor will tell you, Wikipedia ought not to be used as one’s sole academic reference anyway. It’s difficult to believe that this consensus will be quick to change even if this cleaner, more sterile version is introduced.

In response to this, I’d assert that postsecondary instructors would be more willing to accept any resource written and maintained by their own colleagues. The difference is fundamental and easy to understand: Citizendium, unlike its more open counterpart, is already developing into a much more stable, accurate and verifiable source of information.

Aside from this, Gaumont presumes that professors and teachers have a greater influence on their students than they really do. As unpopular as the site has become with many educators — but not all — Wikipedia remains the first and only source of information for millions of people worldwide. Its popularity continues to rise, despite the reasonable statement that it “ought not to be used as one’s sole academic reference”. If anything, Citizendium stands to build on Wikipedia’s already-impressive mindshare.

These things will all be revealed with time, but I honestly think that Gaumont has mis-identified the major problem that CZ needs to deal with; namely, the extraordinary amount of work they need to do before they can release a public version. As I said in a recent episode of Wikipedia Weekly, the pilot is stuck in a nasty vicious cycle that presents an uphill struggle for its authors:

  1. The website cannot be released until a sufficient number of users have signed up and contributed, and enough articles have gone “live.”
  2. The number of “live” articles and new users will only rise once the website has received significant positive publicity; ie, after its initial public release.

So until the day that Citizendium reaches a public edition, it’s stuck with a small core of users who need to produce a major encyclopedia in as short a time as possible. The logitistics are horrible, but I have no doubt that we’ll get there in the end.

Until then, claims about the site’s uptake in universities and schools will just have to remain on the shelf.

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