Death by Wikipedia: The Kenneth Lay Chronicles

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By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, July 9, 2006

The surprise death of Kenneth L. Lay last week did more than throw a monkey wrench into the government's plans to jail and fine the Enron Corp. founder. It further exposed the critical weakness of Wikipedia that prevents it from becoming the go-to source for Internet knowledge that it ought to be.

A little background: Wikipedia is an open-format Internet encyclopedia available to just about anyone who wants to write and edit an article. It was launched in English in January 2001 and now has millions of articles in several languages. "Wikiwiki," by the way, is Hawaiian for "fast."

Unlike, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia has no formal peer review for its articles. They may be written by experts or insane crazy people. Or worse, insane crazy people with an agenda. And Internet access.

Lay's death on Wednesday illustrates the problem, as chronicled by the Reuters news service, which watched the Wikipedia article on Lay evolve with alarming speed and wildly inaccurate reporting.

News organizations began reporting Lay's death around 10 a.m. Wednesday. According to Reuters, by 10:06 a.m., Lay's Wikipedia entry said he had died "of an apparent suicide."

Two minutes later, the article was "updated" to say Lay had died "of an apparent heart attack or suicide." Within the same minute, a Wiki author backtracked, and the article said the cause of death was "yet to be determined."

Then the yahoos began weighing in.

At 10:11 a.m., the Lay article concluded, "The guilt of ruining so many lives finaly [sic] led him to his suicide." (Is it the speed with which flamers type that inevitably leads to typos? Or is it a political statement, a willful rebellion against the bourgeoisie strictures of so-called conventional spelling? Or are they just idiots? Discuss.)

Somehow, one minute later, actual news managed to elbow its way into Wikipedia: "According to Lay's pastor the cause was a 'massive coronary' heart attack."

But the sanity was short-lived. At 10:39 a.m., a self-styled medical expert opined: "Speculation as to the cause of the heart attack lead many people to believe it was due to the amount of stress put on him by the Enron trial."

Finally, by Wednesday afternoon, the Wikipedia entry about Lay said that he was pronounced dead at an Aspen, Colo., hospital and had died of a heart attack, citing news sources.

What does all of this tell us?

That Wikipedia's greatest strength is its greatest weakness.

If the statement that "history is written by the winners" is too gross, it does speak to an underlying truth: All definitive encyclopedia authorship comes with the point of view of its times. It is unavoidable. As august and reliable as the Britannica is, one need only look back to 19th-century versions to see its Anglo-centric viewpoint and curious study of others that treated foreigners (say, Africans) as anthropological subjects rather than human equals.

An encyclopedia written from many points of view should, in theory, help eliminate that flaw. Further, as well-girded in research as encyclopedia authors are, there are countless experts on thousands of topics that know more than the Wikipedia authors; every topic has its fetishists, and thank goodness. If the goal is the ultimate compilation of truth-tested facts, Wikipedia could be a powerful tool.

To wit, I offer this week's obligatory "Star Trek" reference. A recent story in another publication that I won't identify (coughcoughnewyorktimescough) reported the upcoming Christie's auction of "Trek" props and costumes. The head of the auction made a couple of Trekiana mistakes that even I caught, and I don't own a rubber Klingon prosthetic forehead. (As far as you know.)

But here's the dread fear with Wikipedia: It combines the global reach and authoritative bearing of an Internet encyclopedia with the worst elements of radicalized bloggers. You step into a blog, you know what you're getting. But if you search an encyclopedia, it's fair to expect something else. Actual facts, say. At its worst, Wikipedia is an active deception, a powerful piece of agitprop, not information.

Some Wikipedia articles contain warnings that concerns have been raised over accuracy. But that's not the same as offering fact-checked data.

I'm a fan of Wikipedia and Wiki notions, such as "citizen journalism." I just want them to be better.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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