Monday, April 16, 2007

One Problem with Wikipedia—People on the Fringe

I have been a contributor to Wikipedia over the years, and frequently link to Wikipedia articles in my posts here. But like any Internet source, it has to be used with caution. Wikipedia has many problems, but I will focus on just one of them here. Because the content of Wikipedia is totally derived from the efforts of volunteer contributors, its coverage of events and people is often uneven.

For example, I was startled this morning to discover a lengthy Wikipedia article on Jean Keene, the “Eagle lady” of Homer, Alaska. Ms. Keene’s sole claim to fame is her obsession with feeding Bald Eagles on the Homer Spit. In my humble opinion, Ms. Keene is pretty far out on the lunatic fringe; see my earlier post about Jean Keene and the problems that her eagle-feeding fixation has caused for the town of Homer. Unfortunately, her wacky notoriety has brought her much (undeserved) publicity and attention: one of the most ludicrous (and most uninformed) things I’ve read is this headline from a Reader’s Digest article: “Each winter for 26 years, Alaska’s Jean Keene has been keeping these great birds alive.”

Now, contrast Wikipedia’s extensive coverage of Jean Keene with the pathetic accounts available for Louis Agassiz Fuertes and George Miksch Sutton (offered as but two examples), the former arguably the greatest bird artist this country has ever known, the latter an accomplished bird artist as well as renowned ornithologist.

Someday maybe I’ll tell you the story of my first-hand connection with Jewell, who is, like Jean Keene, a (former) resident of Homer, Alaska.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Artists get a special pass, Mr. Trapp. They are different from you and I.

As for the eagle lady, yes it's as bad as those darn cat feeders. Or almost as worse as those darn idiots that don't clean the house sparrows out of their martin houses.

For you PETA types out there, you may email me at

April 16, 2007 11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You date yourself. Fuertes and Sutton are only left to be remembered by a few. A new generation has emerged.

They draw, paint, consult psychics, and see Ivory Bills.

It's post-modernism, Mr. Trapp. We are going to have to learn to live with it until the new age of reason rises.

April 16, 2007 6:02 PM  
Blogger Ellen said...

I teach in a graduate program in Natural Resources. It boggles my mind that we would have to tell students that Wikipedia is neither a scholarly source nor reliable (I don't mean to single out Wikipedia, but unedited, unverified, essentially anonymous writing which of course can be found anywhere but that is mostly found on the internet and in vast quantities). But we do have to tell them that.

It also boggles my mind that someone managed to find your thoughtful post to be an excuse for raising the issue of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. I am so sick of the people who are obsessed with this issue (on BOTH sides). Go birding.

April 18, 2007 10:28 AM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Excellent advice, Ellen!

April 18, 2007 10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wikipedia is the most denigrated and at the same time most cited source in America today. So despite what academics say, all those anonymous sources must be doing something right. If nothing else, they are keeping professors honest.

BTW, what ever happened to the Ivory-bill issue? How come no one ever mentions it any more?

April 18, 2007 3:32 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Could you please cite the source for your statement that Wikipedia "is the most cited source in America today"?

Even if it is, that doesn't mean that the information cited is always accurarate or the most authoritative source of information on a given subject.

April 18, 2007 3:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could you please cite the source for your statement that Wikipedia "is the most cited source in America today"?


April 19, 2007 3:14 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

That's a classic response, anonymous at 3:14 PM!

April 19, 2007 3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Mr. Trapp, as you might have suspected, my comment to Ellen was a rather mild tweak at professorial stuckupiness. I used to warn people about Wikipedia. But now it seems that the reverse is the sentiment. And that amuses me just as much.

You can use wikipedia and be amazed at how really competent it can be. Then, sometimes and often on controversial issues, it can be misleading. And as you found, much information has not found someone with the knowledge or the desire to add it.

Lastly, I could not resist my one word response to your pointed question. It just was too good a chance to pass up.

So you have a nice day, Mr. Trapp. I enjoy your blog. You're not afraid of a few moderated anons. Not bad Mr. Trapp. Not bad.

P.S.- are you related to the von Trapps?

April 19, 2007 10:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post, as always, John--a few comments:
-Yes, in Wikipedia, there is an overly large emphasis on recent popular culture. Important people who died before the Internet age (Fuertes and Sutton, for instance), get short shrift. Wikipedia really needs more contributions from book-worms like us, and not just 20-something Internet junkies.
-As a previous poster said, controversial topics tend to be unreliable, with many from the lunatic fringe contributing. Less controversial topics tend to be pretty reliable.
-As a teacher, I always have to caution my students about reading any source critically. This is especially true of college textbooks. (When I was a researcher in toxicology and pathology, I quickly learned to ignore just about anything I read in a textbook--it was usually 20 years out of date, even if the book was published recently.) I could go on and on about the serious editorial and factual errors, plus plagiarisms, to be found in the modern corporate-produced, poorly-edited textbook.
-This is the big advantage of Wikipedia--sometimes errors get flushed out, and there is documentation of the process
-Please jump right in and work on Sutton and Fuertes. I started the Sutton article, but have not got very far with it. I figured that a short article was better than none. I've read several of his books, but have not got round to integrating stuff into a biographical format. I've not read a biography of him, if one exists, but the note in The Auk I linked to is a good start.
-I've scanned a lot of Fuertes' art, if you are interested in using it, see Wikimedia Commons.
-Some Wikipedia articles I've authored in the natural history area which you might find more complete:
-Alice Lounsberry
-Chauncey Beadle
-Common Poorwill
-Others linked here

I think, too, some of the criticisms of Wikipedia may be due to expectations that every article should be comparable to a printed article in an encyclopedia. It is a different medium than print. I adore David Attenborough's Life of Birds for its stunning imagery, but I don't expect it to substitute for an ornithology text. Wikipedia has many unique advantages as a medium, to wit:
-very low cost, allowing breadth of coverage--I think you won't find more information about Alice Lounsberry (above) anywhere else, in print or on the Internet
-breadth of coverage makes Wikipedia a good starting place for many topics
-ability to add detailed references, something lacking in print encyclopedias and most college textbooks
-instant accessibility worldwide
-collaborative authorship--see the history of the article on Beadle above--others added valuable, reliable information. Of course, this can be a curse when the topic is controversial, as others will add unreliable, or vandalizing information
-ability to add color images at virtually zero cost--color is still expensive in print media
-hyperlinking, an excellent communications tool, when used judiciously--see the "taxoboxes" Wikipedia uses for organisms--very handy

As always, I enjoy your thoughts...

April 22, 2007 9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I'm one of the two editors who wrote the Jean Keene article. I felt that we had addressed the controversy pretty well, but if you know of any other sources that address her "fringiness" please let me know. I think it's obvious she's hurting the environment, personally. A basic environmental course could tell you that, but if Wikipedia covered only the controversy and not her biography and popularity (even if unfounded), it would make a poor article indeed.

January 25, 2008 8:20 PM  

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