Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Wikipedia Science

Following the article in Nature comparing Science in Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britanica I felt the need to add my tuppence worth. I often consult wikipedia specifically on scientific topics as well as a google search and of course web of science when I am looking in to something I know very little about. Often the wikipedia article is the most informative for a quick overview and some starting references. I dont think its really relevant to compare with Britanica. Britanica aims for a very narrow coverage of science and aims at least to check its facts. Of course that does not mean that it is not sometimes wrong. Wikipedia aims towards a much wider coverage, so if you are looking for something obscure and someone else cares enough to write about it wikipedia is a good source. Also if something is controversial it is usually clear what the views of the different factions are from the talk pages.

Some things Wikipedia is the best source you are likely to find without a lot of trouble. For example Devil's Coach Horse Beetle (Staphylinus olens), pretty much the only thing written about this beetle is in one academic article and a thesis in the John Rylands library in Manchester. General books on insects have only a few lines.

Or in Differential Geometry the Cotton Tensor, what do you do if you cant find the a differntial geometry book from 1925 or the original article in Ann. Fac. Sci. Toulouse 1899.

And as for non-scintific and highly controversial issues Wikipedia is sometimes the only place on the web to see two sides of an argument. For example in Tibetan Buddhish there is a bitter controversy which of two teenaged boys really the reincarnation of the Karmapa, the head of one of the four main schools of that religeon. Supporters of the two rival factions have extensive websites detailing the merits of their claimants but on wikipedia the article on the Karmapa controversy attempts to put both sides of the debate, with sections for the claims by the supporters of each candidate. On the Talk page editors from both sides, as well as presumably neutral parties, try to resolve their dirrerences as what constitutes a "Neutral Point of View" on this acrimoneous argument. I have n't seen peace loving folk have such a bun fight since I went to the Vegan Society annual general meeing in the 1980s (and that was bad)!

Best of all, wikipedia gives an uplifting view of humanity. You put up a website and say "ok world write an encylopedia", and instead of getting the spam/ad/junk/porn infested usual world wide web of rubbish you get a really useful source of information. I find that inspiring.

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