March 27, 2006
Andrew Orlowski, Nature, Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica
Journalist Andrew Orlowski writes articles for The Register. Orlowski, for reasons which are obscure, is not a big fan of Wikipedia. My view is that it's a useful tool, used in moderation (or rather, it requires moderation to be useful).
In December 2005, Nature published the results of a study comparing, via a blind trial, 50 selected subjects from the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia. Reviewers were not told which source the subjects had come from. Wikipedia ended up with 162 errors, Encyclopaedia Britannica 123, a 31% higher error rate for Wikipedia over Encyclopaedia Britannica.
You should obviously approach Wikipedia with caution, that much is evident. It's still a useful reference tool, though. The take in Orlowski's parallel universe was that:
"The McDonalds-ization of street food means you can go anywhere on the planet on get a terrible, bland meal of unhealthy junk food. Is the same thing happening to knowledge?"
No, Andrew, but it may have already happened to IT journalism ...
That was back in December. Britannica made some complaints shortly after the Nature article came out, and Nature released supplementary material addressing some of these complaints (see the original Nature link for that).
Then, on March 22, Encyclopaedia Britannica published an open letter complaining about the methodology of the Nature study and calling on the journal to retract the article. Nature responded with a note on their home page rejecting the complaints, and refusing to retract the article.
Orlowski gives considerable space in both articles to the Britannica complaints and snippets of letters from readers supporting his point of view, and makes the pount that Nature has made "grave errors" and "risk[s] its reputation" over the study. The second article is mainly made up of excerpts from readers letters.
I get puzzled by articles like this. First of all, this is not quality journalism. It's a blog, for which Orlowski gets paid (I wish I got paid for mine). Secondly, like a blog, it's nothing more than the author's opinion and a bunch of links. Researching his articles must have taken Orlowski about as long as it did for me to write this post (20 minutes).
Fortunately, people don't take Orlowski very seriously. He writes with such hyperbole and so little actual factual content that he's almost beyond parody (read the actual articles and wonder how you could parody them). There's no writing of his on the web that I can track down that has any actual original thoughts in it, so it's ironic that he has chosen to write about technology, an area for which you would imagine having an open mind and a flair for creativity would come in handy. My guess is that he didn't have the intelligence to make a career in technology itself, so he had to plump for commenting (badly) from the sidelines. Compare and contrast Orlowski's poor efforts with Guy Kewney.
Orlowski rounds off the first article with a snide and unfair comment directed at Nature about "junk science". I'll be content with labelling his brand of writing as "gutter press" journalism - there's a lot more truth in that than in his snipings at Nature.
I'll round off this nasty little post of mine with a quote from technology commentator Bill Thompson, writing about Wikipedia on the BBC website:
"We should not dismiss Wikipedia, but we should not venerate it either."
I agree with that. Orlowski probably would too, but then there wouldn't be much money in a gutter press journalist making an uncontroversial statement, would there?
Posted by daen at March 27, 2006 12:11 AM