Wikipedia Can Be Unreliable: Known Errors Not Corrected

Source

When I’m doing research for an article I’m writing, or just want to satisfy my curiosity about something that caught my attention, Wikipedia is usually the first place I go. I do so because I’m confident I’ll get a good overview of the topic, and that the information I receive will be generally accurate. In my opinion, Wikipedia is one of the most valuable resources on the entire web.

But I’ve discovered that as good as Wikipedia is, you can’t trust it to be accurate when it comes to precise details on specialized topics.

Wikipedia sometimes provides information that is seriously inaccurate

I’m a writer whose articles often require in-depth information. Recently, I was researching aspects of the American Civil War that I already knew quite a bit about. But when I consulted Wikipedia on those subjects, I was surprised to find that some of the articles I read contained details I knew to be flat out wrong.

Worse, despite Wikipedia’s vaunted quality control process, this misinformation has remained uncorrected for extended periods of time. In one instance, the fact that an entire article was based on a historically inaccurate premise had been noted in a Wikipedia forum as early as 2004. Yet the uncorrected article has remained on the site, continuing to mislead unsuspecting readers, for more than a decade.

VIDEO: Is Wikipedia Credible?

I’d like to describe for you two instances in which I found historically incorrect information in Wikipedia articles. The first of these concerns a relatively trivial detail, while the other could contribute to the reader having a fundamental misunderstanding of the historical event it purports to describe.

NOTE: The links provided to the Wikipedia articles in question are to the archive.com copies of those pages as they appeared at the time of this writing.

Wikipedia is wrong about when chain gangs were first used in the United States

I had run across an article in the August 14, 1863 edition of the Richmond, Virginia Daily Dispatch concerning the use of chain gangs in that city. Not having realized that Southern states were using chain gangs as far back as the Civil War (1863 was the mid-point of that conflict), I wanted to find out when the chain gang was first employed in this country. So, of course, I went straight to Wikipedia.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the following statement in the Wikipedia article on chain gangs:

The introduction of chain gangs into the United States began shortly after the Civil War. The southern states needed finances and public works to be performed. [Emphasis added]

A Georgia chain gang in 1941
A Georgia chain gang in 1941 | Source

That is obviously incorrect! I already knew the chain gang was in use in Richmond during the Civil War, but I found another Daily Dispatch article mentioning the chain gang in 1860, the year before the war began. Some further research uncovered references to the use of chain gangs in Ohio in 1859, and possibly in California as far back as 1838 or even 1836 (it would take more research to be sure about that one).

The Wikipedia article cited one reference as the source of their statement that chain gangs were first used in the U. S. shortly after the Civil War. Clearly the writer(s) of the article didn’t do their own search of primary sources to verify that information.

That points out what I consider to be a significant flaw in the Wikipedia process. Articles can be written, checked, and edited, by people who may be fairly familiar with the topic, but who don’t have the in-depth knowledge required to pick up on inaccuracies in the sources they use.

Have you ever found inaccurate information on Wikipedia?

  • Yes - It sometimes gives information I know is wrong
  • No - The information I find there has always proven accurate
See results without voting

Here's my second example of faulty information in a Wikipedia article. It is, in my opinion, far more egregious than the first.

Wikipedia says Frederick Douglass supported Andrew Johnson!

Having written about Frederick Douglass’s relationship with Abraham Lincoln, I knew that Douglass viewed Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice President and successor after Lincoln was assassinated, with nothing but disdain. He considered Johnson a racist who was totally antagonistic toward the idea of equal political rights for African Americans.

So it was something of a jolt to read in a Wikipedia article that Douglass had been a delegate to a convention aimed at “unifying the country behind President Johnson” in the run-up to the mid-term election of 1866.

The subject of the Wikipedia article was the “1866 National Union Convention,” which was held in Philadelphia on August 14-16. Its purpose was to promote support for President Johnson and his very conservative, states’ rights-based Reconstruction program which aimed explicitly at denying African Americans the right to vote. Although the agenda of this gathering ran counter to everything Frederick Douglass stood for, the article lists him as one of the delegates.

The meeting Douglass actually attended was the “Southern Loyalists’ Convention,” held in Philadelphia starting on September 3, 1866, and which was called for the express purpose of countering many of the Reconstruction policies advocated by Johnson.

The author of the article admits to getting it wrong

It appears that because both conventions met in the same city within a few weeks of each other, the Wikipedia writer conflated the two together. In fact, in a comment on the Talk page for the article, the author admitted to fearing exactly that.

The Wikipedia Talk page is “a page which editors can use to discuss improvements to an article.” Here is what the Talk page for “1866 National Union Convention” says:

Talk:1866 National Union Convention

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

(Redirected from Talk:National Union Convention)

I fear I may have conflated two events--there may have been separate conventions in Philadelphia for pro-Johnson and anti-Johnson factions in the summer of 1866. I haven't been able to find a good summary of the situation--only passing references here and there--usually only in the form of so and so was a delegate to either the National Union Convention or the Loyalist Convention of 1866 in Philadelphia. I'm going to leave it as is for now, but also wanted to leave a note for anyone who might have more knowledge about this. older≠wiser 19:29, 30 Jul 2004 (UTC)

Conflation

The evident author of this entry has a separate statement that he/she fears he/she has conflated two events -- as indeed he/she has. There was a second convention in Philadelphia in the first week of September, 1866, which was attended by "Southern Loyalists," who supported the Radicals against president Johnson. That was a group that completely opposed the folks at the national Union Convention in August. The list of attendees in this article seems to have people from both events. I have deleted Ben Wade of Ohio and Frederick Douglass from this list, because they were definitely not at this Convention in August; I suspect there are other names that are listed there incorrectly.

David Stewart. 69.251.180.24 18:24, 22 September 2007 (UTC)

Note that an editor says he deleted Ben Wade and Frederick Douglass from the list of attendees. Yet in the article as it remains published on Wikipedia, only Wade’s name has been removed. Douglass is still erroneously listed as having attended.

Source

Known errors were never corrected in the published article

What is really disturbing about this is that the author of the article expressed reservations about its accuracy in 2004, but no corrections were made to the published article. Three years later an editor recognized the errors that had been made, and tried to make minimal corrections. For whatever reason, his changes were not fully reflected in the article.

The result is that after more than a decade, this article still contains what is known to be misinformation that could severely distort a reader’s understanding of the politics of 1866. There is no indication in the article, as published, that the information it offers is known to be false.

Why Wikipedia’s accuracy safeguards are inadequate

Wikipedia takes accuracy very seriously, and has built extensive safeguards into its process. Independent studies of the site’s accuracy give it high marks. For example, according to cnet.com, a comparison by the journal Nature of Wikipedia’s accuracy and that of the Encyclopedia Britannica found that “Wikipedia is about as good a source of accurate information as Britannica.”

Use Wikipedia With Caution!
Use Wikipedia With Caution! | Source

Yet, as the two examples I share here indicate, when dealing with specific details of lesser known or specialized topics, Wikipedia may provide information that is seriously inaccurate.

I believe the reason is that, with low profile subject matter, only a few people may be interested enough and knowledgeable enough to vet the information provided. When the subject is a popular one, many, many eyes will see it, and errors can be quickly corrected. But when the topic is specialized or not generally searched for, only a few people with the expertise to detect inaccuracies may ever see the article. Thus errors can remain uncorrected for long periods.

Wikipedia is highly accurate, but not totally trustworthy

My point in raising this issue is to warn users that when accuracy really counts, it’s great to start with Wikipedia, but you shouldn’t stop there. Rather than rely on Wikipedia as the final word on topics I’m researching, I use their references to track down original or highly authoritative sources. That way, Wikipedia provides great assistance in my search for accurate information, even when some of its own assertions may be faulty.

For me, Wikipedia is good, but not gospel!

© 2016 Ronald E. Franklin

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Comments 31 comments

Rota profile image

Rota 10 months ago

Great article. Interesting concept. I know I have definitely caught Wikipedia out when it comes to local knowledge. But at the same time I also use Wikipedia a lot. It's great advice that you give to use Wikipedia as a starting point - definitely something I do.


Cynthia Hoover profile image

Cynthia Hoover 10 months ago from Newton, West Virginia

Thank you! I have personally submitted corrections to false information on Wikipedia - that remains to this day false. Well written hub thank you for sharing it! I still use Wikipedia, though I take everything with a grain of salt and find an additional source to back up the information I find.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Rota. Maybe the same factors are at play with regard to local matters - too few people who have first hand knowledge ever see the article to make needed corrections.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thank you, Cynthia. As I say, I think Wikipedia is great as long as you understand its limitations and, as you say, take what it says with a grain of salt.


RandaHandler profile image

RandaHandler 10 months ago from USA

Great informative post!


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Randa.


MG Singh profile image

MG Singh 10 months ago from Singapore

This is good information though margin of error is small


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 10 months ago from American Southwest

"Rather than rely on Wikipedia as the final word on topics I’m researching, I use their references to track down original or highly authoritative sources." Good recommendation. I found out through a museum director who actually knew James Norman Hall, a WWI pilot associated with the Lafayette Escadrille, that "his" picture on Wikipedia is actually of another Escadrille pilot, Bert Hall (whose face, I have to admit, was more distinctive) It's hard enough to track down and correct textual errors, but how would anyone who didn't know one or both ever realize the picture was the wrong person? Makes you wonder how many errors of that type are out there which will never be known.


MsDora profile image

MsDora 10 months ago from The Caribbean

I've been advised way back not to use Wikipedia as a source, that it is not the first place to go. Thanks for citing all these proofs. Hopefully, readers will take heed. On the other hand, Wikipedia does seem responsible in citing its sources, so it may be wise to check those links for double reference.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thank you, MG Singh.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

aethelthryth, that makes you wonder how many other such photo faux pas (I couldn't resist that) are there on Wikipedia because nobody who actually knows the person has happened to see them. Great example. Thanks for sharing.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, MsDora. When I was writing for Yahoo Voices, they wouldn't allow Wikipedia citations at all. That alerted me to the need for great care in using them as a source. But, as I say, I consider Wikipedia a great place to get basic info on a subject as long as you don't put too much faith in it.


Authenticz profile image

Authenticz 10 months ago from North America

hey !! Hubber Franklin!! good job !! Wiki? Well I found some times not even accurate. In many references they don't use the Year of the publications. Some time they use online link as references, which might not be reliable. Many mistakes in presenting historical dates. For general info, its ok , for detail thing, it will screw your head and waste your time. Better go to library and you will have peace of mind.


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 10 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

I researched and wrote a nice page about saber tooth cats. There was more than one species of such, and one of them was purported on Wiki to be the largest cat that had ever lived.

I guess my article was pretty good because a PhD guy showed up to tell me I was completely wrong, that the Cave Lion was larger than the largest saber tooth cat. I don't know who's wrong and who's right on such a subject, all I could really say was something like, "Sir, I got my information from Wikipedia."

Of course they are sometimes wrong....then again, they reported that Anna Nichole Smith was dead ...at least a day before the rest of the world knew about it.

Then there is the issue with Neil deGrasse Tyson, who's Wiki page kept listing him as an atheist, and he kept having it changed back to listing him as an agnostic. Human errors, they will always exist along with human biases.

Now what REALLY chaps my hide is the people who think the SNOPES writers are the gods of facts!

Nice write.


Robert Levine profile image

Robert Levine 10 months ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

Some years ago, a friend of mine who was a graduate student in biology told me that a classmate of his used some diagram from Wikipedia dealing w/genetics for a paper, only to be told by her professor that it was wrong.

About the chain gangs, Ron, remember that California in the 1830s was not yet part of the United States. But your other examples prove you right many times over, of course.


recappers delight profile image

recappers delight 10 months ago

Wikipedia is a great place to find out what words you need to google to find more reliable sources of information. It tells you where to start, but nothing in it can be used in your bibliography and everything needs to be verified. For really reliable information, look for webpages that are produced by experts on the subject, by universities and other academic entities, and by government agencies.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Authenticz. Yes, it's the details that usually trip you up on Wikipedia. As I say, it's a good starting point, but don't believe everything you read there.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Wesman, you bring up a great point in the example of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Often people who have an agenda repeatedly try to insert their angle into Wikipedia articles. Even when quickly corrected, you might read that article in the interim between the insertion of the misinformation and when it's corrected. Thanks for sharing.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Robert Levine, I shudder at the thought of handing in a paper that relies only on Wikipedia for important facts. I think I've read that many instructors don't allow Wikipedia citations because they are not considered reliable. BTW, I was aware California wasn't in the Union in 1836, but if chain gangs were in use there at that time I would still argue that it invalidates the import of the statement in the Wikipedia article. Thanks for sharing.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Very good points, recappers delight. I agree that Wikipedia probably shouldn't show up in a bibliography. Thanks for sharing.


Authenticz profile image

Authenticz 10 months ago from North America

You right Ronelfran, without believing but observing is a good idea. But its true wiki sometime useful for general idea but not good at all if somebody depend on it for writing!!


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 10 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Real interesting article here, Ron. I've used it for research for a novel a decade ago and couldn't find the same piece of information the next day--it's been removed. So now I know it's really not trustworthy to go to research.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

That's a good point, Kristen. Because anybody can edit a Wikipedia article, the information is subject to continual change as edits are updated or corrected. So, it's quite possible to find info in a Wikipedia article that disappears soon thereafter, never to return.


lawrence01 profile image

lawrence01 10 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

Ron

I've often found thatsome articles onWikipedia tell me that the subject material hasn't been checked or that they think there may be issues so I usually try and find 'corroborating sources'/

Good article about an important topic considering how often we use it.

Lawrence


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 10 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Lawrence. As you say, what makes Wikipedia's accuracy such an important issue is the fact that most of us use it all the time. It's easy to slip into the mindset that by reading the Wikipedia article we "know" about that topic. Without checking "corroborating sources" we don't!


Authenticz profile image

Authenticz 10 months ago from North America

Hey Mate ! how is everything , are you coming up with a new hub soon? you know I saw some talk show people are using wiki reference. Its really strange. Nevertheless, wiki is a great effort for giving you relevant information and save your time initially, may be not always referable ,but one day will come wiki references might be more reliable and authentic, if its institutionalized with more formal and rhetoric ways.

Btw RonEFran I have written a new very big hub, mainly about history of International Mother Language Day as an institution in globe. Its really big, i invited forum advice , and splitting it might be a good idea but meanwhile hub authority featured it. Now I am in a dilemma. However you can have a look friend, if you have time. good luck mate


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 9 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Hi, Authenticz. Even with its faults, I think Wikipedia is a great resource that people will continue to use frequently. Thanks for sharing.


Jennifer Mugrage profile image

Jennifer Mugrage 9 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

Hi everyone.

About the agnostic/atheist error, I have heard that if you are the subject of the Wiki article, they won't allow you to edit it because it might be biased. So, if a disgruntled person writes a slanted article about your organization, no one currently employed by the organization will be allowed to correct it because they might be biased.

Regarding the more general problem of the difficulty of making edits, I have never tried to edit a Wiki article. But I have encountered this problem in another academic, catalogue type publication that was meant to be comprehensive. In the early stages, when they were gathering massive amounts of information, people just put in the best info they had at the time, which was sometimes from secondary sources. But later, when we discovered errors in that info, the vetting process to prove that this was wrong and to get our changes accepted was so extensive that we finally just gave up on correcting it.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 9 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Jennifer, I haven't heard about the prohibition on the subject of an article editing it. Since misinformation can come from anyone with an agenda, I'm not sure such a prohibition makes a lot of sense. The important thing is to catch and correct errors quickly, wherever they come from.


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 9 months ago from San Diego California

Wikipedia is only good for a generalized introductory overview to a subject. I use it to check dates and other obvious facts that are widely accepted, but I would never cite it for anything scholarly. Nice work.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 9 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Mel, I think you are right on target. Just today I wanted to get an introduction to a subject, and went straight to Wikipedia. But if I were to write about that topic, I would definitely verify from other sources anything I found on Wikipedia. Thanks for reading and sharing.

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