10 questions for Jimmy Wales

Time.com submitted questions from readers to Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales. One answer is similar to my reminder to anyone using Wikipedia (or, for that matter, other wiki-based resources like like SmallBusiness.com): “Wikipedia is a gateway to facts, not a source of facts.”


How can I persuade my teachers to allow me to use Wikipedia as a legitimate research source? —Kaitlyn Grigsby, Medina, Ohio

Wales: I would agree with your teachers that that isn’t the right way to use Wikipedia. The site is a wonderful starting point for research. But it’s only a starting point because there’s always a chance that there’s something wrong, and you should check your sources if you are writing a paper.

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  • What secondary source ISN’T a gateway to facts? Actually, Wikipedia is a fantastic source for facts (look up Curling in the Winter Olympics if you want to see what I mean, or the FIFA World Cup if you want to be completely overwhelmed); unfortunately, it’s an even more spectacular source for opinions. And just as unfortunately, well-intentioned folks like the American Library Association perpetuate the myth that there are other secondary sources that are more valuable sources of fact. If you want to get right down to it, the telling of history in particular has always been subject to a need for triangulation, and that’s extended to the sciences as well in the various interpretations of the origins of the universe and of life, which, of course, must of necessity portray themselves as true and all others as false.

    Let’s get on with the business of teaching our kids how to assess what they see and hear rather than simply letting it wash over them with the loudest and most dazzling audiovisual sources being declared right simply because they’re loudest and most dazzling. Or the most authoritative-sounding. I love librarians and teachers, but really, do we want them to be the ones declaring what sources are right and the kids just buying it? In that scenario, truth would be defined radically differently in say, New York City, than it is in Nashville… oh, wait…