Wikipedia: Fact or Opinion?

I’ve just concluded a writing assignment of a deeply technical nature. The assignment was in two parts, first of all dealing with the need for Solvency II in the context of life insurance companies and secondly, the factors that persuaded the Massachusetts legislature to implement a mandatory universal healthcare system, the first US State to do so.

By now, you are probably thinking “What?” or yawning. For the curious, click on the links above and they will take you to Wikipedia for a brief overview.

This assignment is not totally uncharted territory for me; I hold UK life insurance professional qualifications so grasping the general view and identifying the issues did not mean I was stumbling around in the dark.

My research took me first of all to Google – inputting search terms that related to the topics produced the usual, incredibly long list of results and in both cases, Wikipedia was featured on the top page of my queries.

Now this is one time when you really need to question the value of an online resource such as Wikipedia. Equally, you could be using some other voluntarily compiled reference work such as DMOZ, but my point is, you must question what you are being told by your source no matter who is providing it.

Wikipedia in this instance provided an excellent jumping off point for researching the Massachusetts healthcare legislation, and 90% is my guestimate of how much of the material presented was actually used by me to support my work. In particular, dropping down to the references at the bottom of the listing provided a wealth of additional source material that allowed me to directly access summaries from the lawmakers themselves. Far more valuable than the published press stories and reviews which are loaded with opinion rather than actual hard fact.

Turning to Solvency II and a new European Union Directive in the making, Wikipedia was almost next to useless. The entry has virtually no material, within the entry or the footnotes to help with getting the facts straight for publication to a target audience of senior insurance professionals across the globe. As I lurched around Wikipedia for more information, it became clear that some of the information that was available suffered from a very serious defect – in some instances, material was presented as factual whereas in reality, it was clearly opinion.

If you readership are looking for your work to help them reach a decision on a few billion pounds of investment and assets, be clear, they are the ones that will be exercising opinion, they are only looking to you for some facts.

Wikipedia seeks to counter criticisms that it is not a reliable, objective source of factual information (such as Brittanica or other encyclopedias) by use of NPOV procedures for resolving opinion disputes. In Wiki jargon, NPOV or Neutral Point of View policy requires that articles are written from an objective viewpoint with “no stand taken on the issue”. Therein lies the rub, as many contributors are opinionated, some deliberately and some inadvertently.

NPOV disputes abound on Wikipedia, often representing nothing more than childish sibling-type rivalry.

Wikipedia using the term “articles” for their product should also set some alarm bells ringing; articles are not encylcopedia entries. Remember how often Michael and I, along with the rest of the article writing world advise you to be opinionated in your writing? Don’t be fooled into believing that just because you see it in print it is in fact, correct!

Caveat Emptor is a Latin phrase which means “Buyer Beware”, and as a buyer of the information you are being sold, no matter what your research resource, always question what is being provided.

Wikipedia is a great resource, but as with everything else in life – check the small print!