Wikipedia as a Research Tool

After some discussion of the morality of some politic figures, my friends at the Socrates Café picked morality as the next topic for discussion. As the next group leader,  I needed to provide some background that will open discussion on the subject. I have found that it helps to stipulate a definition  for openers.  After looking in three on-line dictionaries, I decided to use The Oxford English Dictionary’s.  Morality: Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong, or good and bad behavior.

Having defined the playing field, I then turned to Wikipedia to give me some ideas about how to structure the topic.  I was not surprised to see the first subtopic under morality was Philosophy because ethics, a branch of philosophy, provides tools for examining moral issues, but I was surprised to see Anthropology, Evolution, Neuroscience appear on the list before it reached Religion, the last subtopic. At first I took the organizing principle to be academic disciplines that address morality. But on a closer look, I couldn’t back that up.

Some of the subheads name disciplines—methodologies of study and a specific body of knowledge, like anthropology, but others refer to theories like evolution (the associated discipline would be genetics) and others still to institutions, like religion (the disciplines that shed light on institutions being history and sociology.) You might wonder, reader, what difference any of this make, If the categories aren’t parallel and the list isn’t exhaustive, then it becomes difficult for the reader to discern why certain items, sources, categories are on the list, but others they can think of are not. 

While I was toggling back and forth and pondering what I thought of the Wikipedia entry, a screen popped up, soliciting a contribution.  I just wanted to complete my task and was at first distracted and therefore annoyed. I tried to ignore the pop up, but then I felt guilty. I use Wikipedia all the time and have contributed to its upkeep only one. But before I got out my credit card,  I notice the url wasn’t actually from Wikipedia, though the name sounded similar.  When I went to its site and hit the about button, I discovered that it was an alternative encyclopedia, formed because its editors believe that Wikipedia’s entries are biased and in a consistent manner. 

Wikipedia does not hire a staff of scholars as did the old fashioned encyclopedias. It is crowd sourced. I don’t know if the founders of this alternative site had attempted to post and edit on Wikipedia and been refused or whether they simply felt Wikipedia leaned one way and they wanted to do the same in the opposite direction. However it came about, awareness of it’s existence has made me more cautious about encyclopedias as well as newspapers and TV. Alas many of its competitors charge in order to employ their scholarly staff while Wikipedia makes its articles available without charge.

A 2014 article in a recent Harvard Business Review claimed that the more edits an entry had received on Wikipedia, the more likely it became that it would rate as neutral in terms of politically charged words. It sounds to me that not only do we, its users, need to see that knowledge remains free by making financial contributions, but also that it remains unbiased and up-to-date by submitting edits in areas where we have expertise or even just critique.

HBR sourced the researched as the working papers of Shane Greenstein and Feng Zhu.