And so it would seem that the time has come to reverse myself on my seal of approval for Wikipedia as a source of authoritative knowledge: Wikipedia’s article on "The Bicholim Conflict" of 1640-41, also referred to as “The Goan War,” has been shown to be a hoax. After five and a half years of misleading its readers, the article was taken down by the editors who had been unable to source-cite it. Because, surprisingly enough, Wikipedia is, in fact, source-cited. And it may take as long as five years – or indeed forever – for its (unpaid and anonymous) editors to get around to conducting proper factual checks on articles posted by volunteers. This process would also explain the nearly four-year long survival of a fictitious Indonesian island, Bunaka, and a digital lifespan of eight years and one month of Gaius Flavius Antoninus, a supposed conspirator in the assassination of Julius Caesar.
But do incidents like these really discredit a vast depository of free knowledge that is Wikipedia? (Yes, it is free, dear Britannica). Is peer-reviewed and professionally edited information always reliable? The most prominent counterexample is the prestigious journal Science. On at least two occasions, Science had to retract already published, thoroughly vetted and peer-reviewed articles. These retractions came after receiving scrutiny by the ultimate peer reviewer - the scientific community – that had called into question the groundbreaking research on which the articles reported. One of the articles linked Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to a xenotropic murine leukemia virus, promising a path to treatment for millions of patients. Science withdrew the article after the research results cited therein could not be replicated, and the authors partially retracted some of their findings. Another case dealt with a report of the first human embryonic stem cells created using a novel cloning technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). Following allegations of fraud, a committee of scientists was called upon to verify the substantive findings, and the article was retracted, while the article’s author and his lead researchers were fired from Seoul National University. This is not the end of the story, though – three years later, another article in Cell Stem Cell partly exonerated the condemned author by showing that he was not a fraud, but had been simply wrong. While the author of the retracted article did not accomplish what he claimed – to create stem cells via SCNT – he did achieve another significant breakthrough without even realizing it: he had created human stem cells via parthenogenesis. Even if his real discovery creates a greater promise for finding a cure for diseases such as Parkinson’s, the human cost of this comedy of errors cannot possibly be overlooked – after all, the names of scientists involved in the “scandal” are now surrounded by ignominy, their scientific appointments terminated, and even those who did unearth their actual discovery later find themselves hesitant to side with the condemned authors.
It is true that Wikipedia lacks a rigorous peer review system. In fact, many of its articles that fall through the cracks of its public verification process do so because they are written on topics that are not important enough to attract sufficient attention. How many people are likely to look up on Wikipedia the name of an island that does not even exist? But the “proper” academic peer review process is not infallible or without fault, either. Just the fact that something is printed – be it on paper or on a computer screen – does not support a conclusion that it necessarily contains absolute truth. Still, if a source is consistently reliable, we may safely assume it will be so also in the instant case. Hence, the judicial standard of “general acceptance” – the one extensively discussed in Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923) and in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993) – still stands with regard to Wikipedia.