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Britannica hits back at junk science

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Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the Wiki

When Nature published the news story in December, it followed weeks of bad publicity for Wikipedia, and was a gift for the project's beleaguered supporters.

In October, a co-founder had agreed that several entries were "horrific crap". A former newspaper editor and Kennedy aide John Siegenthaler Snr. then wrote an article explaining how libellous modifications had lain unchecked for months. By early December, Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales was becoming a regular feature on CNN cable news, explaining away the site's deficiencies.

"Nature's investigation suggests that Britannica's advantage may not be great," wrote news editor Jim Giles.

Nature accompanied this favorable news report with a cheerful, spin-heavy editorial that owed more to an evangelical recruitment drive than it did a rational analysis of empirical evidence. It urged readers to "push forward the grand experiment that is Wikipedia."

(Former Britannica editor Robert McHenry dubbed Wikipedia the "Faith based encyclopedia", and the project certainly reflects the religious zeal of some of its keenest supporters. Regular Register readers will be familiar with the rhetoric. See "Wikipedia 'to make universities obsolete').

Hundreds of publications pounced on the Nature story, and echoed the spin that Wikipedia was as good as Britannica - downplaying or omitting to mention the quality gap. The press loves an upbeat story, and what can be more uplifting than the utopian idea that we're all experts - at whatever subject we choose?

The journal didn't, however, disclose the evidence for these conclusions until some days later, when journalists had retired for their annual Christmas holiday break.

And this evidence raised troubling questions, as Nicholas Carr noted last month. Many publications had assumed Nature's Wikipedia story was objectively reporting the work of scientists - Nature's staple - rather than a news report assembled by journalists pretending to be scientists.

And now we know it was anything but scientific.

Carr noted that Nature's reviewers considered trivial errors and serious mistakes as roughly equal.

So why did Nature risk its reputation in such a way?

Perhaps the clue lies not in the news report, but in the evangelism of the accompanying editorial. Nature's news and features editor Jim Giles, who was responsible for the Wikipedia story, has a fondness for "collective intelligence", one critical website suggests.

"As long as enough scientists with relevant knowledge played the market, the price should reflect the latest developments in climate research," Giles concluded of one market experiment in 2002.

The idea became notorious two years ago when DARPA, under retired Admiral Poindexter, invested in an online "terror casino" to predict world events such as assassinations. The public didn't quite share the sunny view of this utopian experiment, and Poindexter was invited to resign.

What do these seemingly disparate projects have in common? The idea that you can vote for the truth.

We thought it pretty odd, back in December, to discover a popular science journal recommending readers support less accurate information. It's even stranger to find this institution apparently violating fundamental principles of empiricism.

But these are strange times - and high summer for supporters of junk science. ®

Related link

Britannica's Reponse to Nature [PDF, 846kb]

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