Why Wikipedia's Fans Shouldn't Gloat

Even a biased, occasionally error-committing writer can be more rewarding than the report of a pseudonymous committee.


Why is the end of the print Britannica so sad? Why do so many people mourn it when they seldom read it and rarely bought new editions? (I received a set gratis when I wrote about futurism for the wonderfully edited Britannica Yearbooks of Science and the Future. Of course, we now know that thanks to science, the yearbooks had no future.)

A. J. Jacobs puts it well in "I'll Miss the Miscellany," in a New York Times Room for Debate page. There was a randomness in the old bound set that Wikipedia far surpasses in some ways but can't match in others. It was not just "a mounted moose head for the brainy" but a noble illusion:

The books gave comfort. A set of Britannicas sent the message that all the world's information could fit on one shelf. Hans Koning, the New Yorker writer, once called the Britannica the culmination of the Enlightenment, the naïve belief that all human knowledge could be presented with a single point of view. The Britannica marched along, neatly and orderly, from A to Z. It was containable, unlike the sprawling chaos of Wikipedia.

But there was another positive contribution of the old Britannica. It reflected the old-school cultural judgment that value is not determined only by the marketplace. Compare, for example, the depth of the Wikipedia entries for Fyodor Dostoevsky (5,542 words, 38 references) and South Park.(12,675 words, 215 references). It's true that the Britannica online academic edition article on Dostoevsky by Professor Gary Saul Morson of Northwestern is slightly shorter than Wikipedia's, but is different in kind. It may have fewer facts but it probes the writer more coherently and deeply. Here is the entire Wikipedia paragraph on Dostoevsky's literary legacy:

Some, like journalist Otto Friedrich,[37] consider Dostoyevsky to be one of Europe's major novelists, while others like Vladimir Nabokov maintain that from a point of view of enduring art and individual genius, he is a rather mediocre writer who produced wastelands of literary platitudes.[38]

The Britannica has instead a brief discussion of psychologists and novelists influenced by Dostoevsky's work, whereas Wikipedia's footnote to Friedrich references not a major critical assessment by Friedrich but a 41-year-old paywalled review of a translation -- instead of citing e.g., Joseph Frank, who thought enough of Dostoevsky to spend decades of his life writing the standard biography? Frank's masterwork is cited only four times in the references; most of the others are to older studies. Written by accretion rather than from a single author's interpretation Wikipedia has a neo-positivist mania for facts that devalues interpretation in depth, yet in matching Friedrich's review against Nabokov it also shows that it is far from neutral. 

The reason the Britannica remains far more browsable than Wikipedia is that even a biased, occasionally error-committing writer can be more rewarding than the report of a pseudonymous committee.

Image: AP.
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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