Wikipedia ‘Brain Surgery’ Myth

There’s an excellent post on Techdirt rebuking the typical “Professor Bans Wikipedia” meme that seems to creep into the news cycle every few weeks. This time it’s Deakin University associate professor of information systems Sharman Lichtenstein:

If you are faced with the prospect of having brain surgery, who would you rather it be performed by – a surgeon trained at medical school or someone who has read Wikipedia?

My immediate reaction was, “What is this, a Holiday Inn Express commercial?”

Techdirt’s Mike Masnick has an excellent retort:

…no one would want a brain surgery based on someone who just learned how to do brain surgery from Wikipedia, but that proves absolutely nothing. No one would want brain surgery done by someone who just learned how to do brain surgery from Encyclopedia Britannica either — but you don’t see this professor freaking out and trashing Britannica, do you? Wikipedia is a tool, just like Britannica, and it’s not designed to be a reference on how to do brain surgery.

I hope we can all point to that blog posting every time this silly argument comes up, which seems all too often.

7 thoughts on “Wikipedia ‘Brain Surgery’ Myth

  1. You clearly misunderstood the article’s point about trust.

    Lichtenstein made serious and valid criticisms of how Wikipedia “crowds out valuable knowledge”. She accurately describes Wikipedia’s anti-learning model and the threat it poses to a whole generation of students.

    She highlights editor anonymity which is at the core of Wikipedia’s irresponsible ethic. Correctly noting that Wikipedia has also fostered a culture of elite uncredentialed and anonymous guardians of content, and a process which is actually less transparent and less egalitarian than genuine information sharing.

    Lichenstein also discusses Wikipedia’s total lack of accountability, and its propensity for biased content, which is easily gamed to all our detriment.

    These are accurate, informed criticisms. Please address them, not your straw man interpretation of what was little more than a metaphor.

  2. WR, I don’t misunderstand the point about trust, I merely think it was not well argued.

    Actually the more I look at the arguments she makes in that article, the weaker they appear. Most of her issues are ones that have been well addressed since in public debates with Larry Sanger and others, about elitism and anonymity. That makes me believe that her concerns are basic and that could be resolved with some quick perusal of the established writings and debates about Wikipedia that are well trodden.

    Some of Lichtenstein’s observations seem to be made in the absence of any knowledge of OSS principles found in projects like Linux and Apache, which have been resounding successes and have completely changed the software industry’s view about the efficacy, reliability, quality and usefulness of OSS created by nobodies across the Internet. Therefore I’d be interested if she had any background in reading Eric Raymond, Yochai Benkler or David Weinberger on these areas.

    From a quick perusal of her audited publications at Deakin, she has concentrated more on business and enterprise computing applications of ICT, and would likely find a study of the use of _wiki software_ specifically in the workplace quite interesting. It would probably be more useful than trying to tackle the entire “Wikipedia” community and question in one shot.

    For example, Lichtenstein’s work which garnered “Best Paper” at a 2006 conference was titled “Toward an Integrative Role for Intranets: An Interpretive Case Study of Intranet-based Dynamic Knowledge Integration in Socio-technical Networks” This would seem to be right up the alley of studying Wikipedia and wikis as the supporting STN that gird the community of encyclopedia writers. However, page 5 of the paper that focuses on the “Intranets at Case Companies” is so esoteric and nonspecific as to give me pause whether their research will address the real online dynamics of Wikipedia (talk pages, RC, Watchlists, AfD, mailing lists, IRC, 3RR, et al) in a future study.

    As a former prof., I know it is not fair to criticize prof. Lichtenstein before the reserch model has been crafted. But I do hope it will go beyond what I’ve copied below, which is the most specific mention of “Intranet” communications in the paper and gives me some concern about the depth of any type of Wikipedia analysis.


    “The intranet sites were maintained by three technical teams which worked closely together and with an external software provider to develop applications. Others in the company were prohibited from publishing although they could submit requests for publication to a technical team. Formal business processes were the main type of knowledge stored. The architecture of the official intranet pages promoted group-based content, leading employees to take little direct interest outside their own group’s intranet site.”

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