A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Monday, July 23, 2012

Wikipedia-philia - How to use (and not use) Wikipedia

I have a confession to make - I have an obsession. A constant fixation that keeps me awake at night; a dark habit that perpetuates itself, growing ever stronger with each indulgence. Yes, dear reader -I am a Wikipedia addict.

Despite the fact it has consumed an obscene amount of my time since 2005, I am entirely unrepentant. I'm even kind of proud. Through constant clicking from one article to another, I have garnered copious volumes of information on a subjects from medieval history to quantum field theory , often at the expense of sleep. On the plus side, it has made me a formidable force at table quizzes.

But this post isn't a JUST going to be a love letter to what may be one of the most valuable resources of the 21st century. There's a creeping quasi-intellectual cynicism about Wikipedia - an assumption that such a collaboration is inherently untrustworthy. This isn't strictly true, but using Wikipedia (or actually, any source) correctly requires a modicum of savvy, so allow me to try and give you "The Golden rule of using Wikipedia"

You know your Wikipediphilia is out of hand when it starts interrupting your porn viewing...

We've all been there; in the middle of some internet argument, someone will link to Wikipedia and with nary a glance at the article, the opposer will retort in haughty tones that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone and is 'obviously' unreliable. This is despite the fact that even in 2005 Nature concluded it was at least as good as Encyclopedia Britannica , and a series of other studies have validated this conclusion. Yet while checks continue to improve, the odd nefarious or deluded individual can conceivably introduce outright bunk into an article. These incidents are usually rectified quickly, but never the less, it is good practice to validate whatever you read. The golden rule for Wikipedia, or indeed any encyclopedia or source is simply

  • ALWAYS follow the citation sources for an article, given in the little blue brackets to check two things; (I) that the source itself is reliable and (II) that the source is in agreement with the tone of the article. 

In essence, this is all you need to know about using Wikipedia correctly; if the citations are reliable, and the material supports the conclusions in the article, then it is fine. But never skimp on this crucial step. There are a few subtle other points and Wikipedia themselves have an excellent article on how to use Wikipedia for research that is well worth a read but CHECK YOUR SOURCES in gigantic capital letters is the take home message.

The converse of this is not to be a total cretin when someone links you to a Wikipedia article; I have lost count of the amount of times I have linked someone on Twitter to Wikipedia article, usually because they have utterly wrong about something which the very first paragraph would put them right on, to which they reply something condescending about expecting a higher standard of evidence.

Let me be perfectly clear - if you're that person, you're an idiot. If I linked you to a Wikipedia article, it was solely because all the information you needed on the subject or whatever particular delusion you were labouring under was CONTAINED WITHIN THAT ONE LINK. When you reply something dismissive, all you're doing is telling me you're a pseudo-intellectual who lacks the cognitive capacity to read and check what you're reading is correct. Wikipedia isn't the research source; it's a damn useful way of putting a wealth of information about a topic in one place.

Wikipedia is one of those projects that reminds me there is still some shred of hope for humanity - that people give their free time to collect, share and index human thought is inspiring. Experts maintain many of the articles, with the net effect of improving discourse and understanding. I've tried to contribute in my own small way as an academic by adding to articles pertaining to my doctoral and research areas, and I know many scientists who have done the same. Wikipedia will make us better critical thinkers in a more democratic manner, and better informed people as a result. Let's resist denigrating it and see if for the wonderful and free resource it truly is.

If you would like to donate to Wikipedia please follow this link 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The bad science of Youth defence and abortion myths - and why I'm impressed with the youth of Ireland

 A little thought about my recent Irish Times piece on the Irish Abortion debate, how Ireland just might be joining the 21st century and a thank you for the overwhemingly encouraging reaction that restores some faith in humanity to your cynical and deeply misanthropic author..

Regular readers of my blog might get a strange sense of deja vu if you happened to cast your eyes over my  Irish Times column on Friday June 29th entitled "Facts still sacred despite Ireland's spectrum of conflicting views an abortion". The reason for this nagging sense of familiarity is because it is essentially a more formal version of a blog post I did on abortion last year. So why tackle it again ? Perhaps because these charming posters have started to pop up all over Ireland for Youth Defence's latest super expensive exercise in manipulation and guilt tactics...

Oh boy... here we go. Again. Thank you so much, youth defence

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