Mark Gilbert's Blog

Science and technology, served light and fluffy.

Lazy Researcher = Bad

Eric Sink, founder of SourceGear, recently posted an entry on his blog titled On the Perils of Wikipedia.  The ending is quite humorous, and I encourage you to read the entire post, but what I’d like to focus on are some of the observations that he makes about Wikipedia:

I don’t know anybody who has lukewarm feelings about Wikipedia.  Folks either love it or they hate it.

My daughter’s school teacher hates it.  Wikipedia can provide no claims of accuracy.  There is no good way to be sure that the information is correct.  When it’s not correct, there is either no one to blame or no way to punish them.  All of these are crucial attributes of a traditional encyclopedia.

Eric goes on to say that he loves Wikipedia, even over a traditional encyclopedia.  He doesn’t forward these negative opinions himself, he merely acknowledges that there is a danger that he could read an incorrect or “vandalized” entry when he uses Wikipedia.

When I’m looking for something on the Internet, it falls into one of two categories: 1) some sample source code for whatever project I happen to be working on at the time; or 2) everything else.

If I’m looking for source code, then I usually have a specific problem or task that I am trying to work through, I’m hoping that someone has run into the same situation before, and I’m hoping that he/she has been gracious enough to show me how to do it.  (In fact, one of the main purposes of this blog is to be another humble provider of these pearls of wisdom; to contribute something back to the community)

Truth be told, I am making an implicit assumption that he/she isn’t just posting gibberish under the guise of a being a valid solution.  However, I personally verify his/her solution against my problem.  If it does the job, then I know that the source was accurate, even if it ends up being my only source.  If it doesn’t work, then their solution either wasn’t accurate, or was meant for a different problem than what I had, and so I go on to the next source and try again.  Either way, my assumption doesn’t cause me harm because it is within my power to directly verify the information.

If I’m looking for something other than code, my ability to directly verify it tends to go downhill rapidly.  In these cases, I don’t rely on any single source for the answer, and instead try to find several that corroborate each other.  If I was to accept what site X or blog Y said about something, made no attempt to verify it, and put it forth as simple fact, I would be a lazy researcher.

So where does all of this leave Wikipedia?  It is a source of information on the Internet.  Yes, there is a risk that the information on Wikipedia is not correct or not complete.  That same risk exists for EVERY site and blog on the Internet.  How do you know if a piece of information is accurate?  You can either directly verify the information, or look for other sources of information that can confirm or dispute what it’s claiming.

That’s what being a good researcher means.

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February 2, 2008 - Posted by | General

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