Would you trust Wikipedia?

Jul 19th, 2013 | By | Category: International

The BBC website reports on ‘edit wars‘ on Wikipedia. The open encyclopaedia has many topics on which deep disagreement between contributors leads to edits being made by one person, reversed by another, reinstated by the first person, and so on.

Perhaps the edit wars perform a useful function in drawing attention to the fact that material on Wikipedia may not be authoritative, that, in many cases, it might be more a reflection of personal inclination than the result of systematic and independently verifiable research.

Our children attended a school in south Dublin, Saint Columba’s College, something that prompted an interest in who else might have been past pupils.

Brian Faulkner, briefly prime minister of Northern Ireland, had been among the school’s alumni.  Wikipedia states, “He was the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland to be educated on the island of Ireland”.

Check the list of the prime ministers of Northern Ireland and then check their biographies,and Wikipedia reveals that Craigavon went to Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh: Brookeborough went to Winchester College; O’Neill and Chichester-Clark were Etonians.  Maybe the claim about Faulkner was correct.

Brian Faulkner would have been the only prime minister of Northern Ireland to be educated on the island of Ireland if the list had not included John Andrews, brother of Thomas Andrews of Titanic fame.  His Wikipedia entry says he was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Belfast is definitely on the island of Ireland!

Which claim is correct?  The suggestion that Faulkner was the first Northern Irish premier not to go to school in Britain, or the detail that John Andrews attended the school many people simply call “Inst”.  The claim concerning Faulkner contradicts the detail of Andrews’ education. Given their specific nature, it would seem likely that Andrews’ details are the correct ones.

How do we assess the liability of online information?  Perhaps there were mistakes in the printed word, but the fact that books came with a price and that people paying the price would quickly challenge an unreliable writer, not least through the letter columns of newspapers, created some kind of quality control.  Publishers were sensitive not only to the laws of libel, but also to the court of public opinion; book buyers, particularly the buyers of academic and professional books, would be disinclined to buy the works of an unreliable writer. ‘Prime ministers of Northern Ireland’ is a fairly narrow field, but if the writers of those Wikipedia entries have not even verified their own material and cross-checked what others have written, what standards are applied? As one who uses Wikipedia as a first port-of-call, partly because Google tends to give it first listing,  questions arise as how which Wikipedia subjects have authoritative coverage and which items are like those in the edit wars, just one person’s word against another.


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