Wikipedia is a marvelous resource. This online encyclopedia contains vast amounts of information. It is free and it is available without leaving home. By comparison, the encyclopedias of my youth contained puny amounts of information. They were expensive, and therefore most people had access to an encyclopedia only if they traveled to a library. Wikipedia, which was created in January 2001, is expanding every day with information added by people throughout the world. Anyone can edit Wikipedia.
Following is a story about using Wikipedia.
Smugglers Notch is a charming mountain pass in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. It is fun to drive through the Notch on Vermont Route 108 in the summer (the road is closed in winter). But the road is too steep and the turns are too sharp and narrow for tractor-trailer trucks, which are prohibited. There are multiple signs on each side telling tractor-trailer trucks not to proceed. And yet, every year, tractor-trailer trucks get stuck. This spring two tractor-trailer trucks got stuck within 15 days of the road opening (news article).
In April 2017 I happened to read the Wikipedia entry for Smugglers Notch where I found this language:
Traffic patterns in the Notch have changed for 2017 as the state has modified the road to make it suitable for tractor-trailers, busses and large campers. Route 108 is now the preferred route for large trucks transiting Vermont.
This is nonsense!! In fact it is dangerous misinformation.
What to do? Wikipedia is an open collaboration platform, so I edited the article and deleted those two sentences. Easy peasy. I did not even need to create an account on Wikipedia.
I thought about this incident earlier this month when writing the previous post: Thinking About Libraries. In that post I pondered the reliability of digital information. There is a lot of talk about “fake news” these days, and most people now get most of their news online. How do we know that what we read online is true?
The short answer is that we don’t. One should always consider the source of the information that we consume. How trustworthy is the source? That is especially important to consider for news. Purveyors of news naturally wish to write articles and columns that people will find interesting enough to read. We, the people, are a main source of the problem with today’s “fake news.” We often prefer to read information that is “salacious but unverified” rather than verified, factual news. (Former FBI Director James Comey introduced us to the phrase “salacious and unverified.”) To a considerable extent, what we choose to read drives the “news” that other people will create for us.
Back to my Wikipedia story. There was a clue that the sentences about Smugglers Notch quoted above were fake: there was no footnote or reference for those sentences. One of Wikipedia’s core content policies is:
All material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source.
Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, which means that it is a collection of information that is already recognized and established. An encyclopedia is not where one publishes original research, or new information, or opinions. It is a good practice when using Wikipedia to consult the sources (i.e., the footnotes) and consider how trustworthy they are.
How does one edit Wikipedia? It’s easy. Click here for instructions. Anyone can edit unprotected pages; it is not necessary to create an account.
Changes made to Wikipedia articles are tracked. See the “View history” link at the top right of Wikipedia pages. Click here for the history page of the Smugglers Notch article. Below is a screenshot of this history page showing all changes in 2017:
The change on 12 April 2017 was me. I am identified only by my Internet Protocol (IP) address for that session: 126.96.36.199. Interestingly, the material that I deleted had been added less than 24 hours previously by an anonymous person at IP address 188.8.131.52. The timing was pure luck, but I wonder if the purveyor of that “fake news” was surprised by how quickly it was corrected.
I have written about Smugglers Notch on my other blog: The Switchel Traveler. See Smugglers Notch (2017) and LT Smugglers Notch to Johnson (2018). Follow the links for photos and video of a spring waterfall. Not fake news!