Today in my honors physics class I mentioned some whimsically chosen names for the fourth (snap), fifth (crackle) and sixth derivatives (pop) of position with respect to time. Few people know these terms, but the first and second derivatives names are quite common: velocity and acceleration.
As soon as I mentioned the names there was an outpouring of skepticism from students who doubted a science as serious as physics could also be whimsical. I thought the skepticism was great so I encouraged them to look it up and mentioned Wikipedia as one possible starting point. My students questioned the validity of Wikipedia. One even mentioned that “you are the only teacher who likes Wikipedia.” I’ve noticed that my opinion of Wikipedia does not exactly put me in the majority either.
The main complaint I’ve heard leveled against Wikipedia is that it has a lot of errors. I understand why people think that, but is there data to support this ascertain? At least one expert led study seems to suggest otherwise by claiming that the average scientific article in Wikipedia had four errors while the average Britannica article had three. I’ve read many of Wikipedia’s physics articles and have yet to find an error. Sadly, the same cannot be said about many of the high school physics textbooks I’ve read.
The other criticism I’ve frequently heard is that anyone can wreck havoc and vandalize Wikipedia. There’s no doubt that this is true, but how significant is it? Imagine for moment that we live in a medieval village where all hammers, crowbars & saws are controlled exclusively by a carpentry guild. Suppose a technological breakthrough allows all citizens access to these tools. Some might fear distributing these powerful tools which could be used to destroy. Fortunately though, we know that’s not actually what happens. For every destroyer multitudes more build.
I see Wikipedia in a similar light. Although some do vandalize, many more repair. And just like in the medieval town, Wikipedia has methods of limiting the damage caused by users who pollute.
How could Wikipedia be used?
I like Wikipedia because it is generally clear, deep, broad, well networked, and easy to use. I think we should encourage students to be skeptical of not only Wikipedia but also print sources and ultimately ourselves. This may not be practical for every discipline but we scientists are fortunate that the best test is rarely more then an experiment away.
If you’re interested, here is an interesting paper about teaching students to use Wikipedia properly and some insight into how Wikipedia works.
Are my thoughts on Wikipedia tragically flawed? Somewhat reasonable? Or just plain crazy? Please comment below (: