Wikipedia takes a lot of heat. People enjoy complaining about it. Some argue that it is biased one way or another, just ask Conservapedia. A more serious complaint concerns its accuracy: since anyone can edit it, mistakes, jokes and lies inevitably sneak in.
Personally, I love Wikipedia: I want to marry it and have its children. It’s a great resource. If you want to find out some information about…almost anything really, and you want to do it quickly, Wikipedia is a useful place to start. Yes of course one must look at it carefully and skeptically, and one would probably want to verify most information before relying on it. But, hey, what’s that there at the bottom of the page? Is it a list of footnotes and sources? Yes, it is! Yee haw! Wikipedia also does a good job of flagging problems, such as a lack of citations, apparent bias and the presence of weasel words.
So, if used with care, it’s a good resource. It’s not a good source, however. I discourage students from citing it in papers for a number of reasons. For one thing, the content is constantly in flux: information that was there when a student wrote a paper may be gone by the time someone else reads the paper. And, of course, dubious content may be hiding among the reliable and verifiable information.
There are other problems as well. A few years ago, I was looking for some basic information on Francis Beaumont (I think it was he; the entry has changed, of course). I found what I was looking for, but the entry sounded very strange. When I reached the end, I realized why: there was a notice saying it had come from an edition of the Encylopedia Britannica that was no longer in copyright. There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s not plagiarism, and it’s not copyright infringement. It is, however, very old and out-of-date information. If I recall correctly, the entry had been written by Algernon Charles Swinburne. More recently, I have seen entries that apparently “incorporate” material from works no longer in copyright. This is even worse. How would you cite such an entry? You should cite the original source, but which bits come from the original source?
Another problem is plagiarism. The internet is rife with plagiarism. You can find the same phrase/sentence/paragraph/passage/entire article repeated over and over and over, often with the same typos. It can be virtually impossible to track down the original. Oh, in some cases Blogger A will properly cite his immediate source (Blogger B), but chances are that that isn’t the original, and Blogger B simply copy and pasted from somewhere else, without mentioning her source. Quite frequently, the repeated passage can be found somewhere on Wikipedia. I have always suspected that Wikipedia is usually the ultimate source of the plagiarized versions. I still believe that it often is, but occasionally, Wikipedia may include plagiarized material as well.
Case in point: I have been reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln (I am doing this, dear Reader, so you don’t have to). I spend about an hour reading the book and noting the many dubious claims. Then I spend several hours looking up the dubious claims. Then I bang my head a hard surface for a bit. Then I sit quietly petting a cat until I feel calmer. During the looking-up-dubious-claims phase, I often find myself drawn to Wikipedia. It’s certainly better than the conspiracy sites that either believe and repeat everything in Holy Blood, Holy Grail or think that HB,HG is just a smokescreen for a different conspiracy. Generally, I have found Wikipedia a good place to begin, and I use the footnotes/list of sources to follow up what I find there. But when I looked up Catharism, I found this:
This is the passage in question:
The dualist theology was the most prominent, however, and was based upon an asserted complete incompatibility of love and power. As matter was seen as a manifestation of power, it was believed to be incompatible with love.
The Cathari did not believe in one all-encompassing god, but in two, both equal and comparable in status. They held that the physical world was evil and created by Rex Mundi (translated from Latin as “king of the world”), who encompassed all that was corporeal, chaotic and powerful; the second god, the one whom they worshipped, was entirely disincarnate: a being or principle of pure spirit and completely unsullied by the taint of matter. He was the god of love, order and peace.
According to some Cathars, the purpose of man’s life on Earth was to transcend matter, perpetually renouncing anything connected with the principle of power and thereby attaining union with the principle of love. According to others, man’s purpose was to reclaim or redeem matter, spiritualising and transforming it.
This placed them at odds with the Catholic Church regarding material creation, on behalf of which Jesus had died, as being intrinsically evil and implying that God, whose word had created the world in the beginning, was a usurper. Furthermore, as the Cathars saw matter as intrinsically evil, they denied that Jesus could become incarnate and still be the son of God. Cathars vehemently repudiated the significance of the crucifixion and the cross. In fact, to the Cathars, Rome’s opulent and luxurious Church seemed a palpable embodiment and manifestation on Earth of Rex Mundi’s sovereignty.
Oooh, deja vu! Hadn’t I just read that somewhere? Oh, yeah, here:
But the Cathars carried this dichotomy much further than orthodox Catholicism was prepared to…. For the Cathars a perpetual war was being waged throughout the whole of creation between two irreconcilable principles–light and darkness, spirit and matter, good and evil. Catholicism posits one supreme God, whose adversary, the Devil, is ultimately inferior to Him. The Cathars, however, proclaimed the existence not of one god, but of two with more or less comparable status. One of these gods–the “good” one–was entirely discarnate, a being or principle of pure spirit, unsullied by the taint of matter. He was the god of love. But love was deemed wholly incompatible with power; and material creation was a manifestation of power. Therefore, for the Cathars, material creation–the world itself–was intrinsically evil. All matter was intrinsically evil. The universe, in short, was the handiwork of a “usurper god,” the god of evil–or, as the Cathars called him, “Rex Mundi,” ” “King of the World.”
….According to some Cathars the purpose of man’s life on earth was to transcend matter, to renounce perpetually anything connected with the principle of power, and thereby to attain union with the principle of love. According to other Cathars man’s purpose was to reclaim and redeem matter, to spiritualize and transform it….
In the eyes of the Roman Church the Cathars were committing serious heresies in regarding material creation, on behalf of which Jesus had supposedly died, as intrinsically evil and implying that God, whose “Word” had created the world “in the beginning,” was a usurper. Their most serious heresy, however, was their attitude toward Jesus himself. Since matter was intrinsically evil, the Cathars denied that Jesus could partake of matter, become incarnate in the flesh, and still be the Son of God….
In any case, all Cathars vehemently repudiated the significance of both the Crucifixion and the cross….And…Rome, whose opulent, luxurious Church seemed to the Cathars a palpable embodiment and manifestation on earth of Rex Mundi’s sovereignty. (Holy Blood, Holy Grail, New York: Bantam-Dell, 1982, pp. 53-54)
This portion of the Wikipedia entry clearly seems to be a condensed version of the material in HB,HG (the parts in red appear nearly word-for-word in Wikipedia). If I found this in a student paper, I would call it plagiarism, and there would be consequences. I should note that the information is not wrong: it is one of the longest passages I’ve come across in HB,HG so far (close to two pages) that hasn’t contained questionable information. Still, the borrowing serves as an example of why Wikipedia should be viewed with skepticism.