Thursday, April 24, 2008

Wikipedia - Saint or Sinner?

A little while ago, we were discussing the fact that the Internet may be the greatest repository of knowledge Mankind has ever had ... but that so much of it is questionable. I recounted the story of the word Quiz (read it here). And before that, back in February, we discussed the ridiculous rumours of black magic and witchcraft surrounding the Harry Potter books that some took seriously. And there was the 'Fox Terrier Problem' of people simply copying from one source to another without ever verifying the facts.

Well, here's another one for you. Yesterday, while researching one of my new book projects I had occasion to look up some background material about mass murdering family doctor Harold Shipman. I read through the official inquiry documents. I read various on-line newspaper accounts. I watched some news footage on YouTube. I read a couple of books at the library. And then I checked Wikipedia and found this extraordinary paragraph:

'As a young child he was forced by his parents to go on regular family boating trips. Some psychologists suggest that it is due to this, possibly in combination with previously latent psychological issues, that throughout his life a regular boating theme can be seen, either through scrap books kept by Shipman or by his growing boat collection. In one of the more controversial murders committed by Shipman, that of Elizabeth Battersby, a small plastic boat was later found to have been surgically placed in her large intestine. Shipman's love of boats has been widely documented, most prominently after his suicide.'

This was attached to a footnote and hyperlink that took you to a piss-poor animated video on YouTube for a song called 'My name is Shipman and I like boats' by some gonk called MavLoronzo. Now, I accept that in a world of free speech, everyone has the right to post stuff like this on the world wide web. But not within the body of a supposedly informative article Mav! Thing is ... kids turn to Wikipedia to help them with their homework. People researching books use it (hopefully as a starting point - all references should be checked thoroughly of course). The joy of Wikipedia is that it is completely open source - anyone can update, add or edit the content - which makes it far more vital and current than any other encyclopaedia. But we all know the phrase 'Garbage in, garbage out' and what it means. As a resource, Wikipedia will only retain its value while the content is free from this sort of vandalism.

I've removed the paragraph from Wikipedia (because I can). But the damage may have been done. I'm sure it won't be long before some party bore corners me in a kitchen and tells me all about the plastic boat in Mrs Battersby's large intestine.

"You can have that for your next book."

Oh no I can't.


punk in writing said...

The internet sure has both pros and cons. I deal with these issues every day. Free speech is good, but sometimes it needs moderation, like what you did on wiki, to stay that way.

Stevyn Colgan said...

It is intensely frustrating. Wikipedia is superb but you have to stay sharp all the time. As Phil Lynott used to sing 'Don't believe a word'. God, I'm so old ...