Citing Wikipedia

A NY Times story last week noted that judicial opinions increasingly cite Wikipedia as a source of facts, although mostly for background or tangential information. A few courts, however, have cited Wikipedia as a factual source on more central questions. The article raises three principal objections to such citations. None, it seems to me, is persuasive.

First, the article notes that citations of Wikipedia are ephemeral because entries change. Someone looking for a source a year or more after the opinion cited it might find something substantially different. For example, the link above to the NY Times story will go dead after the Times removes it from its complimentary site, per its policy of charging for older articles.

Well, so what? As Larry Lessig points out in the Times story, it's easy to create permanent caches of any webpage at any given time for future reference by using Webcite. (Check it out. It's very cool.) Moreover, while Lessig's point makes sense for most web pages, it's not even necessary for Wikipedia, which includes a "history" feature for each entry, so one can look up an earlier version if needed.

The second objection is the obvious one: Wikipedia is the product of sometimes anonymous volunteers who may not have any special expertise. Therefore it's just not reliable. This would be a good objection if it were true, but it isn't. A 2005 study in Nature found that Wikipedia is about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica, although Britannica claims that the study was flawed (as detailed here.) Even if Wikipedia isn't quite as accurate as Britannica, over time it will become more so, as the market for Britannica disappears. (Can you imagine getting a young student a set of encyclopedias in the way that kids in my generation were given them as gifts?) Moreover, even right now there are undoubtedly hundreds of sources that are less accurate than Wikipedia that courts routinely cite. Take, for example, judicial precedents from many years ago that were based on information that is now hopelessly out of date.

A third objection is that once Wikipedia becomes a source for judicial decisions, litigants and lawyers will try to game the system by writing their own entries. This simply can't work given the open-source nature of Wikipedia. For example, a few days ago, in an effort to demonstrate the truthiness of knowledge, Stephen Colbert urged his viewers to edit Wikipedia to state that the population of elephants has tripled in the last ten years. (In fact, elephants are highly endangered.) This worked for a few seconds, whereupon the page reverted to the accurate version, and re-reverted each time a Colbertista made the change again. (You can read the changes in the History tab.)

The real objection to citations of Wikipedia thus appears to be a kind of doctrinaire epistemology in which knowledge only counts as such if certified by certified experts. But if the wisdom of a sufficiently large crowd turns out to be better, on average, than the wisdom of experts, then there is no good reason to insist on the latter.