Charles Petzold

The Increasingly Useful Wikipedia

January 23, 2006
A rainy Monday in NYC

A couple days ago a friend called with a question about early versions of Microsoft C++ and Visual Studio. I didn't recall the history offhand but I began Googling until I found the answer in the site I probably should have started with: Wikipedia.

I used to scoff at Wikipedia — both the concept and the execution — but in recent months it's popped up numerous times in Web searches to provide coherent and useful information. Obviously, I'm not the only person who has been using Wikipedia more and more: It's also showing up higher on Google searches. Wikipedia is getting bigger and better at the same time.

A recent article in Nature reveals that Wikipedia has errors, of course, but so does the Encylopaedia Britannica.

One interesting phenomenon is that errors in the Britannica are sometimes carried over into Wikipedia, sometimes in a manner that verges on plagiarism. During research that lead to my online essay "Maxwell, Molecules, and Evolution" I discovered that Wikipedia perpetuated incorrect information published in Britannica concerning James Clerk Maxwell and the nebular hypothesis. (See footnotes 64 and 65.) I eventually traced this misinformation back to a book by George Gamow.

Reading critically, reading skeptically, judging sources, following citation trails — these have always been important research skills but they've become indispensable as information in many different forms has become easily accessible. (I certainly hope these skills are being taught in schools today!) While "truth" may be elusive, and discovering the truth enormously difficult, the pursuit of the truth is still a noble goal, and must not be surrendered to the lazy and politicized "truthiness" of much contemporary discourse.

In its attempt to assemble such a vast range of information in a consistent format, Wikipedia is now easily one of the most glorious beacons of knowledge on the web.