Why Does Wikipedia Suck on Science?

Wikipedia is, by all measures, one of the great accomplishments of the Internet Age. I'm willing to say it stands alongside Google, eBay, GoogleMaps, IMDB and Wired.com as among the greatest resources on the Web (ok, that last one is self-serving).

But boy, does it suck when it comes to science topics.

Here's my beef: Wikipedians are at their best when they are able to use their knowledge, be it bonafide expertise or particulates of trivia, to fill in the blanks for our collective intelligence. There's nothing like needing to know who Henry V was (versus Henry IV) and being able to find the answer in less than 50 keystrokes. Or pinpointing just when the first Anthrax attack happened in 2001. Or getting a good sense of whether Francis Fukayama is a neocon or a brilliant maverick (mutually exclusive??).

But I find that when it comes to science topics, I often find Wikipedia more of a hinderance than a help. Curious about just what epigenetics is? Figure you really should know what mitochondria do? Don't count on Wikipedia - odds are their analysis is too pedantic for you, as it is for me.

Now I'm no Wikipedian come lately. I wrote the first story in Wired Magazine on Wikipedia about four years ago, back when it had a paltry 150,000 entries in English (it boasts 1.8 million and climbing now). But it's an interesting problem that seems to arise when you task experts to write on an expert topic. When you're open sourcing Linux with programmers, the fact that they're all speaking the same language - or writing in the same code - is a benefit. But when you're creating a quasi-open-source project for, well, everyone, it may just happen that the expert langauge necessary to define a topic will progressively escape the comprehension of the non-experts who are the main audience for said project. It's not quite forking, to use the open-source term for when a project gets split and "forks" into tangential projects. It's more like oyster forking - the creation of a highly specialized tool that only some people can grasp.

Here's what I think is going on: On Wikipedia, contributors are expected to contribute their knowledge. But on science, there's a oneupmanship going on, and a topic will be honed to an ever-greater level of expertise. That's great for precision and depth, but horrible for the general user, who is often brought to Wikipedia through a top hit on Google. Clay Shirky and others have written about the "the expert problem" on Wikipedia, usually meaning the lack of expertise and a need for experts. That may be true in some contexts, but that isn't the problem I'm talking about. That complaint is that Wikipedia needs experts to bring entries up to snuff; I'm more concerned about bringing entries down to a level that's actually clear and useful for the layman.

Look at that Epigenetics entry, for instance, which comes up first when you Google the term "epigenetics". Here's the first sentence:

In biology, while the subject of genetics focuses on how organisms can inherit traits by inheriting genes from their parent(s), which encode information for cell function as sequences of DNA, epigenetics is sometimes used to refer to additional methods of biological inheritance that do not directly relate to the inheritance of collections of genes, or soft inheritance.


Now I'm sure that's accurate, but it's way too rich for my blood. A better primer can be found at the backgrounder from Johns Hopkins that ranks as the number three hit:

There is far more to genetics than the sequence of building blocks in the DNA molecules that make up our genes and chromosomes. The "more" is known as epigenetics. What is epigenetics? Epigenetics, literally "on" genes, refers to all modifications to genes other than changes in the DNA sequence itself. Epigenetic modifications include addition of molecules, like methyl groups, to the DNA backbone.

That, I get. It's the same on so many other topics. Here's the first line for the entry on fluid mechanics:

Fluid mechanics is the subdiscipline of continuum mechanics that studies fluids, that is, liquids and gases. It can be further subdivided into fluid statics, the study of fluids at rest, and fluid dynamics, the study of fluids in motion. Modern applications use the computational approach to develop solutions to fluid mechanics problems; the discipline concerned with this is the CFD, Computational Fluid Dynamics.

Sorry, you lost me at "continuum."

And here's the beginning of the Mitochondrial DNA entry:

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is DNA that is located in mitochondria. This is in contrast to most DNA of eukaryotic organisms, which is found in the nucleus. Nuclear and mtDNA are thought to be of separate evolutionary origin, with the mtDNA being derived from bacteria that were engulfed by early precursors of eukaryotic cells.

Thank god for the NIH, which helpfully has a page (the fifth result from Google when you search for "mitochondiral DNA") that starts with this:

Mitochondria are structures within cells that convert the energy from food into a form that cells can use. Although most DNA is packaged in chromosomes within the nucleus, mitochondria also have a small amount of their own DNA. This genetic material is known as mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA.

Thank you, big sprawling federal bureaucracy!

Now given that there are, as I said, 1.8 million articles on Wikipedia, there are bound to be dozens - if not thousands - of exceptions. For instance, on the basic science entries - biology, cancer, volcanology - Wikipedians have created useful, thoughtful, and readable dispatches. And sometimes there's been the laudable foresight to add "introduction to" pages, such as those for quantum mechanics and quantum physics. But increasingly, I find myself skipping over a Wikipedia result on Google not because I'm worried about the validity of the information there - I don't share that concern and think it's way overblown - but rather because I'm worried it's just going to be a bunch of formulae I can't parse and jargon I can't unpack.

This is, in many ways, the opposite of the tragedy of the commons - it's the tragedy of the uncommon, meaning topics that the common folk just don't get - and thus can't help in editing the entry on. What happens when you get something written by a bunch of geniuses? Well, something written by a bunch of geniuses.