IN PRAISE OF NONFICTION….Tyler Cowen defends Wikipedia:

If I had to guess whether Wikipedia or the median refereed journal article on economics was more likely to be true, after a not so long think I would opt for Wikipedia. This comparison should give us pause.

….The sad truth is that “non-fiction” has been unreliable from the beginning, no matter how finely grained a section of human knowledge we wish to consider. For instance, in my own field, critics have tried to replicate the findings in academic journal articles by economists using the initial data sets. Usually, it is impossible to replicate the results of the article even half of the time.

….You can knock down the reliability of published research another notch by considering “publication bias.”….Articles with striking findings are more likely to be published and later publicized, whereas it is very difficult to publish a piece which says: “I studied two variables and found they were not much correlated at all.” If you adjust for this bias in the publication process, it turns out you should hardly believe any of what you read. Claims of significance are put forward at a disproportionately and misleadingly higher rate than claims of non-significance. Brad DeLong and Kevin Lang once co-authored a piece on this bias which they entitled appropriately: “Are All Economic Hypotheses False?”

Actually, though, I lied in my introduction. Or half lied. Or, perhaps, misrepresented a bit. In the end, Tyler concludes that “error, falsehood, sloppy untruths, and just downright lies are found all too frequently” on the web, “and they threaten to spread even further.” That’s why you should support your local academic journal. Or fact-checked magazine.

But sloppy untruths and downright lies had an, ahem, robust history long before HTML burst forth from Tim Berners-Lee’s head, so I’ll stick to my basic position on this issue: Wikipedia is a phenomenal resource. It’s astonishingly broad, it’s deeper than most people imagine, it’s startlingly up to date, it contains loads of useful links to primary and secondary sources, and all things considered, it’s surprisingly accurate. However, anyone using it should consider it a starting point, not an end. My motto: “Sure, you have to be careful with Wikipedia, but you should always be careful anyway.”

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