Saturday, August 18, 2007

Wikipedia Scandal Reveals the Naked Truth

Lots of my students, unfortunately, use the Internet as a substitute for good careful research. It's seductive and easy and quick. It forestalls long hours in the library. It often leads to shoddy research and worse papers.

I can tell you right now that some of the most popular sites which they use are not at all reliable sources of information. One of those is Wikipedia. The following article, sent me by my son who is a techy also reveals the dark underbelly of what can happen when you rely on sources of information from these sorts of User-driven websites.

When doing work in theology or Biblical studies or the cognate fields don't trust websites not recommended to you by your instructors or the experts in the field. Period.


ChrisB said...

Very interesting.

You said, "don't trust websites not recommended to you by your instructors or the experts in the field."

Someone from Biola -- I think it was Fred Sanders -- said the Wikipedia theology articles were some of the best on the web. He may well be right, but this shows that the Wiki-world is a dangerous place.

Layman said...

With Wikipedia, the more potentially controversial the topic the less trustworthy. Contributors to Wikipedia see it as a place to wage ideological warfare and try to get the upper hand by slanting articles.

You might find a great article there. Then the next day it is completely untrustworthy.

Ryan said...

"When doing work in theology or Biblical studies or the cognate fields don't trust websites not recommended to you by your instructors or the experts in the field. Period."

Understood, and warning taken. And I can see where various facts can easily be misrepresented on the internet. But the scripture seems to imply that I shouldn't blindly trust my instructors or the experts in the field concerning theology or Biblical studies either:

Acts 17:11: "Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so."

Though other sources including teachers and experts can challenge us concerning theology or Biblical studies, ultimately it is up to the individual to diligently search the scriptures which are the final arbiter of truth for us in this age.

Wouldn't you agree?

Carrie Ann said...

Seminary students are using sites like Wikipedia? Wow! I would never dream of using Wikipedia or most internet sources on any academic paper. I do enjoy using the library programs that allow you to find journal articles on the computer

Rev. Spike said...

Who could be surprised by this? Really, who hasn't been tempted to insert the line, "so and so is a blithering idiot" into someone's Wiki? I know I faced that temptation this very day.

Wiki is good for the word on the street and for getting discography info. End of line.

Ben Witherington said...

HI Ryan:

I quite agree that each individual Christian has an obligation to study God's Word of course. And I also agree teachers and scholars are not infallible or beyond challenge. Having said that it is simply not the case that a Christian who does not know the Biblical languages, can't deal with detailed historical, theological, textual matters, can't read a scholarly commentary is in the same position of being able to understand the Bible as those who can. The issue with that Southern Baptist pastor's seminary education is not his status, but that he had better training than the ordinary lay person and should have known better to say something that flatly contradicts NT teaching.


Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

What is especially revealing about that article is the number of major companies who reveal they have no business ethics at all, and certainly do not believe in free speech.

Jim said...


If that sort of dishonesty takes place on corporate wiki entries just imagine what folk do to the biblical studies pages.

Anyone recommending, or using, wiki as a research tool is using garbage.

Perceneige said...

I think the danger is not in the tool; it is on the way you use it. May I suggest it is true even for the Bible? At least, with wikipedia, there are counter-measures available, like this "scanner"...
Best regards.

Eric Rowe said...

You said, "When doing work in theology or Biblical studies or the cognate fields don't trust websites not recommended to you by your instructors or the experts in the field. Period."

I would change that to say:
When doing work in theology or biblical studies or the cognate fields, don't trust anybody, including your professor and textbooks and the works he recommends. Demand of every source that they convince you of their claims with solid argumentation and evidence.

If people bring this approach to Wikipedia they'll do just fine. But sending them to their research with some a priori list of works to trust and works not to trust seems like a bad way to develop critical thinkers. When students turn in papers littered with claims backed up by bad sources, the professor's red ink shouldn't say, "This is a bad source." It should ask, "How do you know this is true?"

Anonymous said...

I tried using Wikipedia for research, and even tried to help out here and there. My last attempt was back in April when I fixed a vandalized article on a Church Father. I gave up at that point. Most disturbing are the articles on Islam. Many are heavily guarded, with users often declaring taqfir (deciding who and who is not to be considered a "true Muslim").

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Eric:
I'm all for developing critical thinking, but it is simply not possible to question every source, and so there is a need to depend on reliable experts in the field, at least to get started. Assuming you can do just fine without anybody's help except your own brain reflects that most basic of human sins-- hubris. All of us stand on the shoulders of others who have helped us to learn. I agree however that going on to maturity requires developing your own capacity for critical thinking.



Leslie said...

Thanks a lot for that article, Dr. Witherington. Wikipedia's bias on various topics is so obvious sometimes, it's really not a surprise to see this. This simply confirms the suspicion.

Also, I propose a deal between people like you (the professors) and people like me (the students). You guys promise to be reasonable on the required number of sources, and we'll promise to do better about where we get sources from. I know, I know ... we should do it because that's how we'll best learn and such. sigh ;) But sometimes it's frustrating when you feel like the paper you're writing is 25-50% the words of other people, so you just want to cut your losses.

Anyway, my professors usually say I can only use a certain number of internet sources to begin with, so I guess the problem is somewhat academic for me at least. :)

Falantedios said...

How do you know that the Scanner doesn't catch the people trying to ADD truth to false propaganda articles?

It seems rather naive to assume that the original Wiki writer had nothing but crystal-clear motives of truth-sharing, no agenda beyond the betterment of mankind, and that everyone who comes along later must be attempting to cover up or distort the truth.

For that matter, how reputable is this Wikiscanner source? What is HIS agenda? Does he publish EVERY change discovered? Does he invent some now that people are listening to him? Just some thoughts.

in HIS love,

J. K. Jones said...

“…there is a need to depend on reliable experts in the field, at least to get started. Assuming you can do just fine without anybody's help except your own brain reflects that most basic of human sins-- hubris…”

Mr. Whitherington,

Excellent advice on a proven approach.

As a “born and raised” Southern Baptist, I have changed my views on this after reading “The Shape of Sola Scriptura” by Keith A. Mathison. Tradition and the opinions of experts are important.

I am reminded of the “nothing but the Bible” approach of my Grandfather, a Primitive Baptist Elder. For him, in practice, “nothing but the Bible” turned out to be “nothing but my narrow interpretation of the King James Bible.” Talk about hubris.

Thanks for the post. I plan to stop linking to Wikipedia on my blog.

“…don't trust websites not recommended to you by your instructors or the experts in the field.”

I am not an academic. I blog as a hobby, and I do not always have easy access to advice from professors or experts. It’s not academia, but I would like to be accurate.

Do you have additional advice for non-experts on choosing internet links in a blog format?

Matt said...

The wikipedia articles may have been the best on the web on a particular day and then not be the next. That is the danger of the wiki format. The professor tells you to go have a read of one and then it changes before you get to it. You end up reading it and think, "did he really think this was accurate?" because it may no longer be.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for the post. I would like to copy it and give it to my students, if that is OK with you.

Glen Davis said...

Do you have a list of Biblical/theological websites that you usually recommend? That would make an excellent follow-up post.

Mike W said...

"don't trust websites not recommended to you by your instructors or the experts in the field."
Except this venerable blog..of course

Ben Witherington said...

Blogs are of course not websites, and while I would applaud applying the same standards to blogs as to websites particularly educational ones, it is more realistic to treat them as more like chat rooms, not dictionaries or repositories of carefully edited information.

Allan you are most welcome to use this post and link.



Shaylin said...

Falantedios's point is well made, I think. Certainly most of the edits listed in the article are improper, but there are a couple of references to companies removing "negative comments." In order to conclude that the removal was wrong, we have to assume that the comments were accurate. Even things like Microsoft removing references to the Xbox 360 failure rate - are we sure that the removed references were accurate?

The article does provide a much-needed warning about being too trusting of certain websites, but we shouldn't assume that what we read in the newspaper is unadulterated truth, either.

Matt said...

The caveat about the use of Wikipedia is important as well as timely, as is the warning about indiscriminately using Internet resources as a substitute for research. At the same time, electronic resources such as the Christian Classics Ethereal Library or peer-reviewed journals published electronically such as the International Journal of Frontier Missions or Global Missiology can be a great boon to researchers and students generally, but especially to those who may be located temporarily (or even long-term) in a place where a good library may be hard to come by.

In His Grace,

Matt F

good friend said...

Jason fm India
what's true?some said wiki is best but some does'nt agree.I think it is good to take good ones.who can tell?

Theresa Coleman said...


I would like to suggest that you take this article with the same suspicion that you would treat Wikipedia. Most of the statements in this article are at best half truths.

I've edited Wikipedia for a while now and I will say that the capability to scan the IP addresses has been around as long as Wikipedia has been.

Also there are thousands of us that participate in vandalism patrols to limit the amount of "So-and-So is an idiot" -- most of these last 11 seconds (on average).

Third, yes, an employee at X company sniped Y company (thousands and thousands of times). That does not mean that X company approves of such behavior. Most employers are very aware of this and will and have blocked employees from editing from a work IP.

As someone has mentioned, it's all individuals editing. However, most scurrilous edits of controversial topics will be hashed out on the discussion pages before they go live -- and casual editors will be blocked from editing.

Personally, I have edited both your page and James Tabor's and have removed a lot of scurrilous and inflammatory language. The large problem is not snipers, it's the concept that truth comes from consensus. As Christians, this is a much larger problem...

And as someone who has worked on the theology articles, I would agree that they are very good content, albeit, content and truth by consensus.

If anyone has a problem with an Wikipedia article, the forum for that discussion should be the Wikipedia discussion page.

Theresa Coleman said...

I went and used the Scanner website and found that Asbury Seminary has edited its own Wikipedia page, the article on Gospel, Sam Brownback, Pax Americana, ORU, Rapture Ready and Sieg Heil among others.
Am I to jump to conclusions that Asbury has signed off on these edits, or shall I assume they were done by individuals.
(and many were elimated within a minute or so...)