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Does Wikipedia Suck on Science Stories? 400

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the knowing-your-audience dept.
An anonymous reader writes "An editor from Wired writes on his blog that Wikipedia sucks for science stories — not because they are inaccurate, but because of what he calls the 'tragedy of the uncommon': Too many experts writing about subjects in ways that no non-expert can understand. Would this be the dumbing-down of Wikipedia — or would it be a better resource for everyone?"
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Does Wikipedia Suck on Science Stories?

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  • by zoomshorts (137587) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:26PM (#19096407)
    Quality of knowledge is important. Readability is second.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MarkByers (770551)
      Exactly. If you want a 'Beginners Guide to Physics' go to the children's library. Wikipedia is something that the authors of the beginners guide can use to make sure that their facts are right (but unfortunately too few of them do this).
      • by smallfries (601545) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @01:12PM (#19096865) Homepage
        No, I'm afraid to say you're completely wrong.

        Wiki is meant to be authoritive - that means all the way from a beginner's entry to the subject to the accurate detailed facts about the topic. This thread is a false dichotomy. Wiki should not have to lean towards one extreme or the other - the only reason to do so is because of lack of space. Remember "wiki is not paper" [].
        • by tloh (451585) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @01:34PM (#19097047)

          Well, to be fair, science is hard. It may not be a bad thing that getting the most out of wikipedia requires a "layperson" to put a bit more effort into it. Language use can certainly be tweeked for better readability in a few wiki articles, so I agree, to some extent, with the points raised by the blogger.

          But sometimes the goal of disseminating good information runs counter to the goal of convincing the public. Just yesterday, we had an armchair scientist wannabe ranting and raving about ideas [] as if he's an expert here on /. when in reality he is complete clueless. The guy was so completely bewitched by a slick british documentary on global warming (of the "alien autopsy"/"moon landing hoax" variety) that a full day of arguing with those who know better only succeeded in showing everyone how stubborn he can be.

          I may be treading on a tangent with the direction I'm taking with this comment, but I think it is important to distinguish writing laymen style for understanding versus writing laymen style for pursuasion. I think it is critically important for resources like wikipedia to maintain scientific discipline and accuracy at whatever the cost and not pander to political or ideological motives. This includes simplifying dificult ideas to fit a non-expert's conceptual grasp. If resources like wikipedia become too diluted, people will get the dangerous idea that real science as done by scientists is somthing of trivial complexity or arbitrary objectivity. Nutjobs and crackpots would be able to use Wikipedia in ways completely counter to it's purpose. The best thing that Wikipedia can do for the layperson is act as a conduit for anyone sufficiently motivated to really learn the material by link hopping or following the references cited by contributors. Other wise, a simple "authoritive" exposition might just end up missleading or missinforming the intended audience.

          I think your advocacy of doing away with length requirement is a noble attempt at the solution to this problem. However, with many complex ideas, voluminous information often ends up being convoluted and confusing. Think about it: in an article on modern file systems or database design, do you *really* want to delve into the finer aspects of sorting algorithms?

          • by Mr Z (6791) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @09:22PM (#19100417) Homepage Journal

            Before I start, I pretty much agree with you, and would like to throw my 2 cents into the ring.

            Science and math are hard, which is precisely why you shouldn't throw unnecessary roadblocks up on the path to understanding.

            For instance, I sometimes have to look up some mathematical construct for whatever reason. If I find it on Wikipedia, many times the entire article is fairly short and laden with a bunch of mathematical symbology. While all that may be obvious to a mathmetician, it's entirely a foreign language to me. I came to the English language Wikipedia. Would it hurt to describe topics in English rather than compress whole paragraphs down to 3 symbols I haven't seen in 10 years?

            This is quite different than writing brain-candy documentaries such as the ones you complain about. Those are just sensationalistic pablum using science as a backdrop.

            As for your comment:

            Think about it: in an article on modern file systems or database design, do you *really* want to delve into the finer aspects of sorting algorithms?

            That's what factorization is for. None of that information should be in-line in a filesystem article, but if you really wanted to cover the topic competently, you ought to link to articles on relevant classes of data structures and algorithms. For instance, it makes no sense to define and describe B* trees (such as HFS uses) in the article, but it makes complete sense to mention that on-disk directory structures include various tree structures []. It might also make sense to include a survey table of popular filesystems and structures they use. Or, even save that for filesystem-specific articles.

            As Wikipedia is more a reference than a textbook, it doesn't make sense for it to try to teach algorithm design, but it does make sense for it to compare the merits of various sorting algorithms at a high level, and perhaps compare the cost of various actions on a sorted data structure (key insert, key removal, etc.).

            As an engineer, I often have to explain complex topics to people who are highly technical, but not experts in the specific area I'm operating in. For example, many people are competent programmers, but not experts on the specific nomenclature and behavior of a cache hierarchy. A competent programmer in most cases only needs to know to keep their working set "small enough for the cache," and not, for example, the difference between an inclusive vs. exclusive cache hierarchy or the difference between an LRU and Pseudo-LRU replacement policy. But, if I'm writing a comprehensive reference (or worse, writing a useful errata description), I sometimes need to convey these concepts to interested non-experts. Is it better for me to explain it with a terse equation, or with a couple paragraphs of standard English that goes light on the jargon? The complaint is that Wikipedia often tends towards the former.

        • by Mr. Underbridge (666784) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @01:37PM (#19097093)

          This thread is a false dichotomy. Wiki should not have to lean towards one extreme or the other - the only reason to do so is because of lack of space

          Depends on the topic. At some point, for a given entry one needs to make an editorial decision, whether to make the content high level or low level. For instance, some mathematical topics simply require calculus to fully understand. Do you dumb down the article to conceptual level so that a relative layperson might understand it or not?

          Most well written articles start out general and conceptual for a summary, and then have technical portions that are, well, technical. I think that's a good format - the layperson reads what is effectively an 'executive summary'; the expert keeps reading.

          Another option is to have a sort of 'moron babelfish' with parallel entries for a given story, with a link that replaces the 'hard parts' with less technical sections.

          • by JebJoya (997050) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @02:08PM (#19097353)
            As some of you may know, I'm a mathematician, and I have to say that there can be space on a particular topic for a mix of high and low level content. Taking, for example [], the Wikipedia Article on Julia Sets, we see a fairly readable intro which admittedly uses the words "complex dynamics" and "holomorphic function." Now, the average reader who doesn't know what these are will skip over these, perhaps picking up on "complex" and "function," depending on how advanced a mathematician they are. However it goes on to say that "informally consists of those points whose long-time behavior under repeated iteration of f can change drastically under arbitrarily small perturbations" and that the behaviour of the function on J(f) is "chaotic." Now, for the user who is reading this with some vague interest, this description should be reasonable. Wikipedia cannot be aimed at people with absolutely no knowledge in the area - how would this article be written? "A Julia Set is a kind of Fractal which is made from some Function..." and then we kind of peter out of ideas for the layman?

            One of the articles that the article itself points out as a bit rubbish on the layman readability front is []. As a mathematician, I've always had an issue with Biology, but I can still pick out some phrases which give me reasonable information to what a Mitochondria is: "In cell biology, a mitochondrion" tells me it's a part of a cell, "Mitochondria are sometimes described as "cellular power plants," because they churn out energy for the cell", the cell structure part gives a nice image of a mitochondria, and the mitochondrial functions section gives me more information on the energy conversion and its other uses. I would say that this article is a good example of a Wikipedia article being readable to the layman (with a basic degree of Biology knowledge, otherwise why would they look at it) with enough information for the expert.

            In conclusion, I don't agree with the original article's sentiment, and believe that Wikipedia Science articles are, in general, readable enough to laymen, and have enough information for experts.

          • by Fred Ferrigno (122319) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @02:33PM (#19097539)

            Depends on the topic. At some point, for a given entry one needs to make an editorial decision, whether to make the content high level or low level. For instance, some mathematical topics simply require calculus to fully understand. Do you dumb down the article to conceptual level so that a relative layperson might understand it or not?
            This is the false dichotomy. You do not need to make that choice on a wiki. You can have different articles on the same subject or different sections in the same article for different audiences. Witness Evolution [] and Introduction to evolution [].
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by hedwards (940851)
          You can't have it both ways. Either it is an authoritative source or it is simple enough for your average lay person to read the majority of the articles and understand.

          There is a reason why most authoritative literature is typically in large tomes that are dense and full of technical terms. It is impossible to write and article on DNA which is authoritative without getting into technical terminology and sometimes difficult to understand chemical reactions.

          As soon as you start to talk about complicated issu
          • by anaesthetica (596507) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @04:03PM (#19098219) Homepage Journal
            Yes, you can have it both ways. Wikipedia is not paper, it's not a limited resource, or constrained for space.

            You write an overview intro section explaining what the topic is, how it relates to other topics, why it's important/relevant, and how it is applied to things.

            After you're done with the layman explanation, feel free to dive into complex jargon, LaTeX proofs, and every other academic obscurity you can muster. But don't completely dismiss providing any utility at all to the layperson. Not only is that elitist, it's contrary to the very purpose of an encyclopedia--to be a tertiary source of knowledge suitable for general readership.
        • by MoxFulder (159829) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @01:59PM (#19097297) Homepage
          Bingo. Here's one particularly good quote from "Wiki is not paper" (emphasis mine):

          The purpose of a normal encyclopedia is to provide the reader a brief overview of the subject, while a reference book or text book can explain the details. Wikipedia can do both. Because Wikipedia is not paper, it can provide summaries of all subjects of interest and also provide exhaustive detail on those subjects, conveniently linked, categorized, and searchable for readers who want more detail.

          Ideal Wikipedia articles ought to include introductory material for lay people and detailed information for specialists who want more. In fact, if you look at the Biology or Physics articles which have been chosen as Featured Articles [] (based on a consensus that they are of very high quality), you will find that these do an excellent job of achieving this goal; they target a broad audience AND provide depth.

          Of course, since Wikipedia is effectively unlimited in space, and is growing rapidly, not all articles are up to that high standard yet. The important thing to me is that it seems to be quickly and consistently improving.

          Frankly, I don't understand what the Wired article has against the mitochondrial DNA and fluid dynamics articles... I am not a specialist in either and had no problems understanding either one. I found them pithy, precise, and concise. The other thing his excerpts omit is the fundamentally cross-linked nature of wikipedia: if you don't understand a word like "continuum" (which the author complained about), you can just click on it and get a more thorough explanation on Wikipedia. With related information so easily accessible, it's less important to define every single related term in an introductory paragraph.
        • Unfortunately, the "wiki is not paper" guideline is, in my opinion, one of the most often-forgotten guidelines by the Wikipedia editors and Wikipedians generally. I can't even begin to count the number of unnecessary merges and deletions that I've seen, which seem driven by people combating what they perceive to be a "waste of space."

          I really like Wikipedia. I like the concept, and I like the execution insofar as I think it's probably the best effort anyone's done so far on a sort of "universal library." Un
      • by sumdumass (711423)
        Well given the quality of contribution like ones from the acclaimed tenured professor living in mom's basement in KY who is so good at what he does nobody notices him enough at the university hundred of miles away to ever had heard his name, I'm not sure it is even worth fact checking unless it is being used as a second opinion for an over and more complete understanding.

        Sarcasm aside, Are you suggesting that Wiki which was billed as on online encyclopedia should only benefit scientist in the field or peopl
      • by thepotoo (829391)
        WTF, no. Wikipedia is great for people to quickly get information on something. Need to know the formula for the synthesis of such-and-such chemical? Wikipedia to the rescue.

        I hope to FSM no one is actually using it to create textbooks, as errors in these places would seriously kill your credibility.

        I don't have a problem with the articles on Biology and Chemistry topics (Bio major), but I often have trouble understanding stuff like the particle physics pages. If someone wants general info on a subjec

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        If you want a 'Beginners Guide to Physics' go to the children's library.

        Anybody who wants to can add a layman's introduction onto the beginning of the article. Preferably clearly marked as such, and preferably written by someone who understands the in depth article completely.
      • by anaesthetica (596507) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @03:59PM (#19098169) Homepage Journal
        You've got it backwards. Wikipedia shouldn't be cited or referenced. It's a starting point. It would be better if the Wikipedia editors (and I'm one of them) took a clue from Beginner's Guide to Physics and wrote a comprehensible explanatory overview of the topic citing that book along the way.

        I think the best analogy here is commenting in one's code. It's rather unfair for me to write a thousand lines of complex perl, completely undocumented, and then hand it off to others to maintain. Is it their fault when they don't know where to start, and have to essentially decipher everything I've done in order to figure out what the code does? Absolutely not.

        Writing a math/science article on Wikipedia follows the same logic. Write it with expert knowledge and academic-level accuracy, but for god's sake, explain what's going on to people who don't know the subject inside-and-out already.
    • by Eudial (590661) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:31PM (#19096475)

      Quality of knowledge is important. Readability is second.


      Personally, I think that using wikipedia as a tool of learning a subject is unfair to you, the one doing the learning: You're doing yourself a big malfavor in not buying a proper book, or attending a class in the subject. Wikipedia should not be a cheap substitute for a proper education.
      • by anaesthetica (596507) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @01:43PM (#19097149) Homepage Journal
        I can't help but think that you're missing the point of an encyclopedia. An encyclopedia is expressly made for non-experts so that they can get a general idea of what a subject is all about. It's a tertiary source--digested primary and secondary sources served up in a non-threatening, approachable manner.

        Wikipedia oughtn't be an expert-level source right off the bat--the average joe should be able to look up something, and with a high school level education at least have the basics of something explained to them before the Wikipedia editors go batshit crazy with Math LaTeX markup writing impenetrable proofs all the way down the page.

        I've tried, on occasion, tagging excessively obtuse math/science articles with {{importance}} or {{technical}} in an attempt to get editors to explain what a formula or theory does and why it's important in layman's terms, but they've been not only recalcitrant, but downright hostile.

        And before you say that I should get an education or learn more about wikipedia, I am a PhD student and an admin on Wikipedia (disclaimer: I am not Essjay).

        This is one of the systemic problems with Wikipedia. Just as the English wikipedia has certain systemic biases due to its contributors' backgrounds, the science and math articles suffer from a sub-systemic problem, insofar as their articles are written principally by and for a self-selecting group of experts.

        If people want an expert resource, use Google Scholar and look up actual journal pieces. Wikipedia is a place for tertiary knowledge before expert knowledge. This is not to say that expert knowledge should be refused, it's merely to point out that having only expert knowledge does next to nothing to further to goal of building an encyclopedia.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by jbengt (874751)
          I think the submitted article has got it wrong.

          I've read (or, tried to read) some Wikipedia articles that were way over my head. But TFA lost me with it's first example of epigenetics. I never had biology past freshman high school level, but I found the quoted paragraph to be easy to understand.

          Now some subjects, like fluid dynamics, are inherently hard. The fluid mechanics article includes tough math, especially if you follow the links, and you wouldn't expect most to fully understand. But that shouldn
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by MolarMass (808031)

      While I definitely agree that the quality of knowledge is the most important aspect, I think that readability is nearly just as important.

      General understanding of science suffers because it is not accessible (meaning understandable) by the layperson. This is not always because topics require a great deal of background knowledge to understand, but because it is explained poorly or in ways that only somebody familiar with a topic will be able to easily follow.

      What use is knowledge if people who will bene

    • Disagree (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Relic of the Future (118669) <> on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:39PM (#19096551)
      Disagree strongly.

      I'm an idiot about music theory, so I figured Wikipedia would be a good place to start. But there are so many show-offs trying to one-up each other by trying to sound overly academic, that it took me hours, and way to much cross-referencing, to get a good handle on the subject.

      It's an ENCYCLOPEDIA, it's meant to get you started; if you want detailed knowledge, you should go to a detailed source. I'm shocked and insulted that the first 3 replies to your post said, more or less, "if you need something simpler, buy a kids book". What ever happened to "all the knowledge of the world"? Whatever happend to "an educational resource"? And they've been doubly stupid since it's not like Wikipedia is running out of room; we can have the extra-technical information if someone wants it--on a seperate page, or futher down on the page--but the top of the article should describe, in a simple way, what it's about, in a way that anyone who's graduated from elementary school, with no expert knowledge on the subject, should be able to understand it.

      Readability first. Details second.

      • by MythMoth (73648)
        Ok. Fair point, reasonable argument.

        Wikipedia is publically editable. What did you do to fix the problem?
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by DevStar (943486)
          The point of an encyclopedia is to get experts to write accessible entries for the lay person. It's no so that someone who just learned quantum physics could change the entry on it to something they understand (which would probably be wrong).
      • Make it readable (Score:5, Insightful)

        by wurp (51446) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @01:05PM (#19096781) Homepage
        I have a BS in Mathematics, and quite frankly most of the time I find Wikipedia useless as a reference for Mathematics. This is because I don't understand/remember the terminology they're using! Let me repeat that: I have a BS in Math, and Wikipedia's math terminology is beyond me. (I should point out that I got my degree over a dozen years ago, though.)

        As an example, I just looked up the Wikipedia entry on Group Theory []. The first paragraph is comprehensible, but virtually information-free. The second paragraph uses technical terms that I would have to look up for them to mean enough to be informative.

        From there on out it looks to me as if everything would only mean anything at all to someone who already has a very good handle on just what Group Theory is.

        Now, if you skip down to the definition of a group, that's what I remember from my graduate Algebra course and it is more or less readable. Why the hell couldn't that be up top? Moreover, why couldn't the main article for Group Theory essentially be a non-technical rendition of that definition, along with some non-technical examples of where Group Theory is used?

        There could be a second Wikipidia article, maybe "Group Theory, Advanced" that reads more like the current main article does.

        I've seen some people pointing out that Wikipedia would have to offer some misinformation to be more readable, and that's sufficient reason to not be readable. That's horse crap. Suppose it turns out physics is too complicated for humans to understand accurately without two decades of study. Should we then not teach anyone newtonian gravity, because to avoid misinformation everyone needs to get two or three PhDs to understand it completely?

        Read Feynmann's Lectures on Physics. He states up front that he's going to lie to the students a little, so he can present to them some useful tools for solving problems before he complicates it. His audience is physics students at MIT. If Feynmann can simplify things so MIT physics students can get started, Wikipedia can simplify things for their audience of random idiots on the web.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Dun Malg (230075)

          If Feynmann can simplify things so MIT physics students can get started, Wikipedia can simplify things for their audience of random idiots on the web.

          To be fair, that was one of the most impressive aspects of Feynman's genius, and one which he worked very hard at. To quote Wikipedia , "His principle was that if a topic could not be explained in a freshman lecture, it was not yet fully understood". To expect the vast teeming majority of Wikipedia editing schmoes out there to display the genius of Feynman is really expecting too much.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Coryoth (254751)

          As an example, I just looked up the Wikipedia entry on Group Theory. The first paragraph is comprehensible, but virtually information-free. The second paragraph uses technical terms that I would have to look up for them to mean enough to be informative.

          Heh. You think that's bad, try looking up fibration [], pre-sheaf [], sheaf cohomology [], adjoint functor [], or topos []. Compared to the category theoretic material, a lot of the math articles are positively comprehensible. There are efforts underway, within the WikiprojectMathematics [], t try and make things more accessible. For instance the manifold [] page is relatively low level, and tries to give a general explanation of the ideas, with the technical details left to more specific articles like differentiable manifold []

      • by rsw (70577)
        "All the knowledge in the world" != "readability first."

        Wikipedia contained all the information you wanted, just not in a format that you liked because it required you to learn lots of things.

        Guess what? There's a lot to music theory. If you want a dumbed-down version of it, YES, go get a dumbed down book. Wikipedia's purpose is to contain _all_the_knowledge_, not "happy eddie's music primer."

        I'm sorry that your education required so much damned learning.

      • by mstroeck (411799)
        If you expect to get a "good handle" on a topic like music theory in less than a few hours of study, you are clearly delusional. Science won't get any easier just because our attention spans are getting shorter.
      • but the top of the article should describe, in a simple way, what it's about, in a way that anyone who's graduated from elementary school, with no expert knowledge on the subject, should be able to understand it.

        For some topics, that's really a waste of space in the article. Some topics require some background to make any sense at all. You can't write a meaningful article about something like Hilbert Space ( []) without using the jargon of the field. Sure, you could w

      • One way to address the question of how to make Wikipedia articles more accessible to a wider audience is to create text boxes that summarizes the whole article in ordinary language. E.g. for "Black Hole" it could be a box "Black Holes Unpuzzled" that explains the basic concept and its imnplication for physics in 2 simple sentences, when the whole article takes a more academic stance.

        There could be special guidelines, and automatic monitoring tools could verify that only a controlled, simple vocabulary is

    • by Kamots (321174) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:41PM (#19096571)
      mm... readability is important too, however, readability isn't what the author really seems to be attacking...

      A lot of the article's complaints are focused around wikipedia providing you the technical terms that are *necessary* for you to know if you wish to explore something in-depth. Basically they're focused around wikipedia working at providing more than simply a very high level overview of something.

      Yes, if you want that cursory ten thousand foot overview I can see it being somewhat intimidating; however, usually when technical term is mentioned there's a link to the appropriate wikipedia page, so if you don't know what that means you can go find out.

      The reason that I love wikipedia is that I can start by looking for general information, then drill down to the level of detail that I want. If wikipedia doesn't have all the info I need, then I at least go away knowing what the technical terminology is, and can use that to hit up other sources. If we followed the recommendations of the opinion writer, wikipedia would, at least to me, lose a large portion of it's worth.
    • by kimvette (919543)
      Not exactly; if one person knows the subject, what the hell is the point of writing about it in a publicly-accessible encyclopedia if no one else can understand the subject matter?

      It does not require dumbing down the articles, but defining terms, linking to glossaries or peripheral articles, or maybe including an incomplete summary section expressed in laymen's terms. Those who are more interested in learning more details will read the entire article, refer to the glossary as necessary, and follow up by rea
    • by Zadaz (950521) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:46PM (#19096619)
      When I was about 8 my family bought a complete set of World Book encyclopedias. And sure it didn't cover everything, and nothing after 1978, it did offer good basic information that an 8-year old could read and a 50-year old could appreciate.

      Fast forward a few decades. The other day I went to wikipedia looking for some basic information on my new dental crown []. While I did (eventually) find the information I was looking for, it's full of sentiences like:

      "The alloy used for PFMs is of a different variety for those used for FGCs. "

      "Because the sprue former stuck out a little bit from the investment material, there is a communication between the outside and the investment pattern."

      "When using a shoulder preparation, the dentist is urged to add a bevel; the shoulder-bevel margin serves to effectively decrease the tooth-to-restoration distance upon final cementation of the restoration."

      I'm not a moron, I can do the additional research and figure out what all of the words mean in this context, but damn, I wish I had my old World Book encyclopedias.
    • by bcrowell (177657) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @01:11PM (#19096853) Homepage
      Readability isn't opposed to quality. Actually, WP has a policy that all articles are supposed to be written for the general reader. It's just that the policy is often ignored when it comes to science articles. Some of my favorite horror stories:
      1. Kepler's laws [] ... highly mathematical, and includes a ton of irrelevant mathematics (e.g., analytic geometry equations that belong in the conic sections article); the math is way too heavy, and starts way too soon
      2. photon [] ... completely unintelligible to the general reader, and makes the mathematics even less intelligible by defining lots of unnecessary notation, and presenting various equations in more than one notation
      3. special relativity [] ... violates WP policies by splitting off the nontechnical stuff into a separate article
      Of course, people will tell me that if I thought there was a problem with these three articles, I should fix them. Actually, I tried in all three cases. (And in #3, if you look on the talk page, people have been commenting for years that it was inappropriate to split the article.) Also, note that in all three cases, the articles include external links to web pages that do a better job of explaining the topic for the general reader, so it's not just that these topics are inherently impossible to explain simply. (Special relativity, despite its reputation for being a difficult subject, can actually be developed with nothing more than simple algebra. In fact, Einstein wrote a popular-level treatment that did exactly that.) The problem is that most science geeks are not good at explaining science to nonscientists. I do it for a living (I teach physics at a community college), and it's hard. A lot of the people working on these articles appear to be young grad students who have no experience teaching the subject, and just haven't learned to communicate with people who don't have the same background.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ceoyoyo (59147)
        You're right.

        I'm about to finish my PhD in an interesting program. Technically I'm part of the Electrical Engineering department but I'm also in the Biomedical Engineering program. Most of the EE students sit at the university and talk to the four other EE students and professors who understand what they're doing. Naturally sitting through their talks is an exercise in futile frustration.

        On the other hand, the biomed students find themselves forced to talk to all kinds of people from radically different
    • No. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by VirusEqualsVeryYes (981719) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @01:13PM (#19096871)
      You couldn't be more wrong.

      Remember: what's the purpose of Wikipedia? Is it a simple repository of articles intending to include every esoteric detail known to the sub-sub-subfield? No, it's an encyclopedia. Encyclopedias are not a compilation of research papers, they're a compilation of summaries. Summaries, by definition, do not include everything. The quality and completeness of knowledge are worthless if they can't be spread to others. Science does not advance because of discoveries, science advances because of the spread of those discoveries.

      Wikipedia can provide the best of both worlds. It itself is a compilation of summaries, providing basic understanding, but to those who want or need more, there are links at the bottom to more detailed explanations, more thorough information. A Wikipedia with every detail possible would turn away people who want to understand something new simply because of the ridiculous principle that if one is to learn something, one must (futilely) attempt to learn everything at once. Imagine, for example, if someone went to Wikipedia to learn about the immune system, and came upon this:

      Antigen (peptide) is presented by MHC class II on an APC to a CD4 TH cell with a TCR that recognizes a particular MHC classII/peptide complex. The TH cell is stimulated to undergo clonal expansion. If it encounters a B cell with the same class II/MHC peptide complex on its surface, it stimulates that B cell to clonally expand and produce soluble antibody...
      [taken from my bio class notes]

      Yeah, it's informative. Great. But who wants to try to understand that if all they want is a basic understanding? Having an article written this way will turn away people who would otherwise learn something. That defeats the purpose of the encyclopedia. That defeats the purpose of Wikipedia.

      Leave your elitist "learn everything or you're inadequate" shit at your graduate research lab. Not everyone is willing, or has the time, to wade through what is otherwise white noise to get to the relevant info. Forcing mundane details down the throats of interested parties is doing a disservice to the spread of science.
    • by catwh0re (540371)
      Everything seems difficult until you know how to do it.
      Science and physics are no exception, so if you can't understand it, then read the basis of the article, usually indicated somewhere in the wikipedia article due to it's ample sub-linking and reference points.

      P.S There will always be someone who doesn't get it, and such to lower the standard to. Don't try to please everyone, as complicated physics is simply not for everyone. Definitely not for the Paris Hilton types of the world.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by BufferArea (794172)
      When you present knowledge in a readable form, the quality of the knowledge is intrinsically tied to its readability. The point of putting knowledge in a written form(or presenting it in any form to another person) is to communicate ideas. If its not readable its pointless. That being said, it is not that these wikipedia articles are unreadable, just that these particular ones are unreadable by the intended audience. The intended audience is not versed in theory and terminology, those that are already eithe
  • by superwiz (655733) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:33PM (#19096497) Journal
    Because it is wiki, any initial story that is written in too esoteric terms can be further edited by people less in the know and more able to eloquently explain. So by the very nature of the media is better than either peer-reviewed or popular scientific literature in terms of how well the content gets distributed. How well the inaccuracies get caught is a whole different ball game.
    • by malsdavis (542216)
      But what does that have to do with the problem highlighted by the article?

      It seems to be more based around the common issue of reader competence and the fact that different many unrelated editors inevitably produce articles which are not coherent in this way. The problem remains that the only way Wikipedia articles can become suitable for a range of readership levels (as the editors inevitably write for) is to make the articles large and bloated.

      As the article states, there is no way this problem can be dir
      • Sure it can be fixed; it's real simple, too:

        New policy: the first paragraph of every article should be written so a 14 year old could understand it. The rest? Do what you want.

    • Because it is wiki, any initial story that is written in too esoteric terms can be further edited by people less in the know and more able to eloquently explain their own misconceptions.
      Fixed. I imagine that some science articles will vacillate between an inaccurate state and an esoteric state.
    • Because it is wiki, any initial story that is written in too esoteric terms can be further edited by people less in the know and more able to eloquently explain.

      Sure, someone else can come along and edit / revise an article for better readability. But it's actually not true in a practical sense that "anyone" can edit, because more often than not the Editor Nazi that has decided that he / she / it "owns" the article will simply revert the edit and make some pithy and slightly insulting comment about "discus

  • by Toe, The (545098) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:34PM (#19096499)
    In a well-written Wikipedia article, the big words are wikilinked. When one doesn't understand something, one clicks the links for further understanding.

    This has always been the promise of hypertext, but it is only fully realized in Wikipedia. I couldn't agree less with the premise that Wikipedia is unaccessible.

    Additionally, as the article notes, there is also Simple English Wikipedia. []
    It doesn't have 1.7 million articles, but... of course not. There aren't that many concepts in "simple English."
    • From the Simple Wikipedia:


      Ocean refers to the watery area between continents. Oceans are very big and they connect smaller seas together. It is okay to speak of the ocean as a single body of water because all named "oceans" are connected. Oceans are made of salt water. There are five main oceans. They are all huge.

  • by digitalderbs (718388) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:34PM (#19096505)
    Dick Feynman's position, for example, is that you can't learn modern physics without the math. Analogies can only go so far, and there's a reason a person requires a PhD to understand some subjects.

    Is wikipedia really only source for the lay person? I never thought so.
    • by mce (509)

      One does not require a PhD to understand things, one obtains a PhD by understanding and (ideally but bot necessarily) advancing them.

      Any PhD worth his or her salt will admit that the PhD itself is just a piece of paper.

      • agreed. At least in the physical sciences, the PhD (1) gives you the time to master a particular subject, (2) gives you the resources to master that subject with funding, (3) gives you the opportunity to exchange with experts in the field. More importantly, I believe the PhD teaches autonomous thinking. From my experience, bachelor's degrees are mostly textbook knowledge and PhDs are not. While there are many PhDs that really aren't experts in their fields, I have yet to encounter a non-PhD with the skills
    • by rubycodez (864176)
      but the thing is Feynman came up with so many very good ways even non-physicists could get a handle on processes without math - e.g. Feynman diagrams and some other analogies. To *deeply* understand modern physics one needs the math but the very powerful underlying concepts actually don't. A two-slit experiment with the right instructor can go a long way to understanding probability density functions, for example. Or an aluminum wire with oxide coating to demonstrate quantum tunneling, in the right hand
    • by ceoyoyo (59147)
      SOMETIMES you need the math, and only if you want a really deep understanding.

      Feynman himself was one of the masters of explaining complicated concepts in more accessible terms. That's the mark of someone who really understands a subject. Einstein was another. When I was a kid my father told me to go read Einstein's little blue book on relativity. I figured he was nuts -- relativity was supposed to be hard to understand, and surely EINSTEIN's book would be the most complicated of all. It isn't. It's a
  • *sigh* (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pytheron (443963) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:34PM (#19096509) Homepage
    rather than dumbing down articles, accept that:-

    1. There are going to be things beyond your ability to understand.

    2. Certain things require learning and research to understand

    Wikipedia is just a reference point. If you don't understand the reference, follow it up !! Research !
  • Science is hard? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tomstdenis (446163) < minus distro> on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:34PM (#19096511) Homepage
    You have to use the "big words" [re: ideas, terms, vocabulary beyond a 6th grade level] to be practical. I mean try explaining something like the makeup of the ATP cycle using words an 11 year old would know. Try explaining calculus with rudimentary algebra [e.g. basic linear systems], etc.

    I don't think it would be useful to severely dumb down all of the articles. Maybe they just need more "see also" or reading guides?

    • You have to use the "big words" [re: ideas, terms, vocabulary beyond a 6th grade level] to be practical.
      No if you can't explain the concept in relatively simple terms, for example the rechargeable battery metaphor for the ATP Cycle, then you probably dont understand it as well as you think yourself.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ceoyoyo (59147)
      I used to teach calculus to students who knew only basic algebra, and weren't very good at it. It's not that hard. If you can't go from basic algrebra through limits to calculus you don't really know what calculus is.
  • by Flying pig (925874) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:37PM (#19096533)
    Literally means, I believe "surrounding children", meaning that it is supposed to represent a body of knowledge that can be used to give children an all-round education. Correct me if I am wrong on that.

    The problem with Wikipedia and science seems to go deeper than that it is too technical (not pedantic as the writer suggests, but too technical.) I have come across several articles where the commonest meaning of the term under discussion is not even mentioned because the author thinks that a term from his (I am betting it is almost invariably a his, that isn't a failure to be inclusive) discipline is the only or original meaning of that term. That's because it is nowadays so easy to get a degree in science without any kind of general education. It is that production of overly narrowly focussed graduates that I think is the problem for Wikipedia.

    Advertising my own university, Cambridge still insists on a fairly general foundation science course. This does not seem to disadvantage its graduates. Unfortunately corporatism doesn't want good generalists because they might threaten the scientifically ignorant business graduates that run companies. They want Taylorised science and engineering graduates who fit into a neat little hole. The outcome is sufficiently obvious, and the results can be seen in Wikipedia.

    • by Toe, The (545098) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:44PM (#19096599)
      Once again, Wikipedia comes through. []

      The word encyclopedia comes from the Classical Greek "(munged)" (pronounced "enkyklia paideia"), literally, a "[well-]rounded education," meaning "a general knowledge." Though the notion of a compendium of knowledge dates back thousands of years, the term was first used in 1541 in the title of a book by Joachimus Fortius Ringelbergius, Lucubrationes vel potius absolutissima kyklopaideia (Basel, 1541).

      It is debatable if well-rounded means comprehensive or just general as opposed to specific.
      • Don't quote me but I would guess that well-rounded means a liberal-arts set.
        A small amount of everything even if most won't be useful.
        Or at least that sounds good.
  • Dumbing Down (Score:5, Insightful)

    by drooling-dog (189103) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:38PM (#19096535)
    Unfortunately, you usually can't "dumb-down" a subject without misleading people. You could, e.g., equate chemical bonding with atoms "holding hands" and such, but that doesn't do anyone any good. The advanced reader gets no useful information, and the naive ones don't get anything meaningful that they can build on, either.

    People get turned on to science when they realize they understand something for the first time; I don't think that reducing everything to cartoon characters quite does the trick for anybody.
    • by ookabooka (731013)
      People get turned on to science when they realize they understand something for the first time; I don't think that reducing everything to cartoon characters quite does the trick for anybody.

      I don't think thats the point at all. I think there are certain things that need to be changed to make the wiki more accessible to everyone. Have you ever tried to look up something like "euler's totient" to see what it does or how to apply it? You are flooded with links to even more complex mathematical constructs and
    • by Yokaze (70883)
      > [...] You could, e.g., equate chemical bonding with atoms "holding hands" and such, but that doesn't do anyone any good. The advanced reader gets no useful information, and the naive ones don't get anything meaningful that they can build on, either.

      On the contrary. The whole education is based on dumbing down. You could start with "holding hands", if it is approriate, but usually one starts with negative electron planets in orbits around a positive atomic core. The latter is only a little bit more sop
  • Wired? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by misleb (129952) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:39PM (#19096553)
    Oh my god. You know Wikipedia must be bad if an editor from Wired, of all the trashy pop-sci magazines, is complaining. What's next? An editor from People Magazine complaining Wikipedia sucks for objective information about celebrities?

  • by Hypharse (633766) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:40PM (#19096559)
    This is a problem across all academics, not just wikipedia. I write research papers and I get criticized by those above me if they don't "sound" sufficiently intelligent. They won't say it publicly, but privately they will readily admit that the more confusion you add to the paper by using big words and clumping them together in obtuse ways will make the paper seem more professional. Also adding mathematical equations that a purposely very abstract and hard to understand are good, rather than bad. It drives me nuts personally, as I agree with the author of this article that the simpler something is to understand the better it is, especially when you are trying to TEACH someone that thing.

    It is not just a science problem either. Look at literature where some of the literary works are written in such an obtuse way that people just consider them genius works because they can't understand them.

    I have often thought of making it a lifelong goal to change this and simplify the way they teach many "difficult" subjects. However, the current way is way too ingrained into every part of academics that it would take a miracle to accomplish it.

    • Wikipedia != academia

      encyclopedia article != journal submission

      People should keep that in mind when editing.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by scapermoya (769847)
      I don't know what kind of university you are at, but that certainly doesn't hold true at major science institution. You can't impress PhDs with 'abstract' and 'hard to understand' math, they don't believe in those descriptors.
      • by Hypharse (633766)
        Many PhDs are not geniuses. Once you step outside their little realm of expertise they can often seem no more intelligent than a smart undergrad. It's the old adage that they know more and more about less and less. Often the paper you are writing is going to be judged (for various reasons) by someone who is not a professional in your own specific field. These are the people that my superiors are aiming to impress because it can be the difference between publication/patent disclosure/conference submissio
        • You may be right about the fact that PhDs are getting more and more specialized these days, but there isn't much of an alternative. Less than two hundred years ago (maybe even less?), it was entirely feasible to be well-versed in the whole of human knowledge. These days, we simply know too much. I have professors that I work with that decry the politics of journal submission, etc. Hell, I have had papers rejected for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me. But I still have trouble believing that fi
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by misleb (129952)

      This is a problem across all academics, not just wikipedia. I write research papers and I get criticized by those above me if they don't "sound" sufficiently intelligent. They won't say it publicly, but privately they will readily admit that the more confusion you add to the paper by using big words and clumping them together in obtuse ways will make the paper seem more professional.

      While it is debatable that this is how they think unconsciously, I seriously doubt that they are "readily admitting" what y

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I used to make fun of a friend for the same kind of thing. I joked that there was a requirement that every paper written by anyone in her major include the word "problematize" at least once. I can't remember what the other words on the list were anymore now that it's been a few years, but there were some "good" ones. The scary part is that they really did show up (unnecessarily) that often.
  • The article claims that Wikipedia articles like the one on Epigenetics are not accessible to the layperson. But... what's going to cause someone to look that up? Wouldn't they already have some sort of context that leads them there?

    By comparison, look at []

    I find that extremely accessible while not being dumbed down in any way. It in an enormously informative article, and leads one to wonder and thirst for more. That sounds like an awesome teaching tool to me.
  • dumb (Score:4, Funny)

    by larry bagina (561269) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:43PM (#19096591) Journal
    if thy want dumbed down science stories, I suggest they check out this [] site.
  • by Animats (122034) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @12:43PM (#19096595) Homepage

    Dumb Wired writers, expecting instant gratification. Wired used to have reporters who actually went out and covered real stuff. Then they laid off most of the reporters and kept the "editors". Now they're just wannabe pundits. Saves on travel expenses.

    That Tired writer isn't coming across as someone who spent long days digging something out of library stacks or public records. Or travelling around asking people questions to find out what really happened, like a real reporter. This is a lightweight. If you want a children's encyclopedia, you can still get World Book [].

    Wikipedia has many problems, of course. Most of the good articles were in the first 500,000 created. What's coming in now is mostly junk - "State Route 92", "Star Wars Furry Adventure #6659", and similar crap. Wikia offers some hope for an amusing reason. Wikia took over Wookiepedia, the repository of Star Wars fancruft, which generates most of Wikia's traffic. They're monetizing the fan base. Over time, maybe all the popular culture stuff can be moved to Wikia. That would be a win.

  • by Yath (6378)

    There are several problems with Goetz's analysis. First, (s)he underestimates the difficulty of making explanations both simple and correct. Secondly, Wikipedia varies on any metric you'd care to apply to it, and simple clarity is no different. There are a vast number of easy-to-read, simple articles on difficult subjects, and cherry-picking a few that bother you doesn't change that.

    And finally, Wikipedia does such a vastly better job of explaining science than anyone else, that I suspect Goetz's expecta
  • Americans just suck at science. I'm an undergrad at what is considered to be one of the best science universities in the world, and many (not all) in the science majors aren't up to snuff. Science education in K-12 blows in America, so they can't succeed here, and it will eventually hurt us.

    ...back to finals....
  • I say we send one doctorate from every field to 40 Eridani A after it is discovered to be habitable. There they can edit The Great Wiki []. and fill it with all the information in every field in all it's technical glory. Then we would have the ultimate source of knowladge forever perserved incase there is all out nuclear war/anarchy/Christianity on Earth.
  • Lets start from the beginning: I'm not a biologist or a biochemist, so the article 'mitochondrion' that he complains about shouldn't be too easy for me. Looking at the version of the article he complains about []:

    In cell biology, a mitochondrion (plural mitochondria) (from Greek or mitos, thread + or khondrion, granule) is a membrane-enclosed organelle, found in most eukaryotic cells.[1] Mitochondria are sometimes described as "cellular power plants," because they convert NADH and NADPH into energy in the f

  • I recently did some research on Wikipedia on the Roman Empire. I ran into repeated use of the term "don the purple" when describing the accession of Roman emperors. Yet I NEVER found a description of what "the purple" really meant. Was it the crown? Was it a robe? Was it just an abstract term used with no direct object being referenced?

    I asked about it on a talk page, and instead of somebody actually telling me, they said it should be obvious, and complained that I was nitpicking.

    I know that when I edit articles in subjects I am knowledgeable about, I try to REMOVE 'jargon' when at all possible. If the jargon is an essential part of the article, then I make sure to explain the meaning in layman's terms, or link the jargon-esque word to an article that explains what it means.

    Encyclopedias are *NOT* research journals. They should explain the subject in terms that someone who is wholly unfamiliar with the subject can understand. Yes, 'dumbing down' may create times when an article is technically inaccurate, but such inaccuracies in the name of simplicity should be noted, with a link to a more technically accurate, if less readable, explanation.
  • I was so disappointed after Discover magazine was dumbed down in 1985 and Scientific American in 2001. Wired has always been dumbed down. When you read those magazines today, all of the articles have literary and visual fluff.

    I'm sorry if paid journalists are finding it too difficult to copy and paste from wikipedia, but a science is about accurate information, not creative writing contests.
  • Dumb it down?!?!? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Secret Rabbit (914973) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @01:17PM (#19096903) Journal
    I'd like to know just how someone would explain what a metric space is to a layman and still have the explanation maintain Mathematical integrity.

    The Wikipedia is meant for informational purposes. NOT for presenting introductory material. If an introduction is needed there are tonnes of 1st year texts. If the lay-person wants something dumbed down for them, there is the science section of newspapers.
    • Re:Dumb it down?!?!? (Score:4, Informative)

      by iabervon (1971) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @02:45PM (#19097629) Homepage Journal
      The general idea of a metric space is totally intuitive to practically anybody. It's a set with a way of measuring distance that has the basic properties you'd expect of a distance (the distance between something and itself is 0, the distances there and back are the same, and going through some third spot isn't shorter total than going directly). People are familiar with Euclidian distance in 2 and 3 dimensions, and non-directed non-weighted graph edge distance (Kevin Bacon).

      The thing that makes metric spaces tricky to most people is that any text that bothers to mention that something is a metric space is using either an unexpected set or an unusual distance, generally with only a brief description ("2D Euclidian figures, with the Hausdorff distance"). It's mathematical articles that use the term "metric space" and expect this to mean something to novices (without a distracting side track) that are confusing, not an article actually on the topic of metric spaces.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ciggieposeur (715798)
      The Wikipedia is meant for informational purposes. NOT for presenting introductory material. If an introduction is needed there are tonnes of 1st year texts.

      I disagree. Wikipedia is meant to be the jumping-off place for all accumulated human knowledge; relying on the existence of 3rd-party texts -- most of which do NOT have their information on the Internet -- severely limits the usefulness of Wikipedia for everyone. The science articles I have tried to use in Wikipedia have knowledge barriers both at th
  • For some science areas (especially physics and mathematics) more introductory entries would be very helpful. Instead they are often high-level and they link heavily to each other, weaving often an undecipherable web for the layman.

    Take for example functional spaces like the "Banach Space" ( []). You are reading and reading and reading about vector spaces, completley normed vector spaces, metrics etc. etc. and you still don't get, whats it all about. This is, because f

  • Quite the contrary (Score:3, Insightful)

    by El Cabri (13930) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @01:38PM (#19097099) Journal
    That's what makes Wikipedia a superior source, since experts can discuss a topic precisely and thouroughly without being dumbed down by editors that want to appeal to a large audience for commercial reasons. Space is infinite and hypertexting allows to preserve a reasonnable length for any given article while allowing more details on sub-topics.

"But this one goes to eleven." -- Nigel Tufnel