Why Does Wikipedia Suck on Science?

Wikipedia is, by all measures, one of the great accomplishments of the Internet Age. I’m willing to say it stands alongside Google, eBay, GoogleMaps, IMDB and Wired.com as among the greatest resources on the Web (ok, that last one is self-serving).

But boy, does it suck when it comes to science topics.

Here’s my beef: Wikipedians are at their best when they are able to use their knowledge, be it bonafide expertise or particulates of trivia, to fill in the blanks for our collective intelligence. There’s nothing like needing to know who Henry V was (versus Henry IV) and being able to find the answer in less than 50 keystrokes. Or pinpointing just when the first Anthrax attack happened in 2001. Or getting a good sense of whether Francis Fukayama is a neocon or a brilliant maverick (mutually exclusive??).

But I find that when it comes to science topics, I often find Wikipedia more of a hinderance than a help. Curious about just what epigenetics is? Figure you really should know what mitochondria do? Don’t count on Wikipedia - odds are their analysis is too pedantic for you, as it is for me.

Now I’m no Wikipedian come lately. I wrote the first story in Wired Magazine on Wikipedia about four years ago, back when it had a paltry 150,000 entries in English (it boasts 1.8 million and climbing now). But it’s an interesting problem that seems to arise when you task experts to write on an expert topic. When you’re open sourcing Linux with programmers, the fact that they’re all speaking the same language - or writing in the same code - is a benefit. But when you’re creating a quasi-open-source project for, well, everyone, it may just happen that the expert langauge necessary to define a topic will progressively escape the comprehension of the non-experts who are the main audience for said project. It’s not quite forking, to use the open-source term for when a project gets split and “forks” into tangential projects. It’s more like oyster forking - the creation of a highly specialized tool that only some people can grasp.

Here’s what I think is going on: On Wikipedia, contributors are expected to contribute their knowledge. But on science, there’s a oneupmanship going on, and a topic will be honed to an ever-greater level of expertise. That’s great for precision and depth, but horrible for the general user, who is often brought to Wikipedia through a top hit on Google. Clay Shirky and others have written about the “the expert problem” on Wikipedia, usually meaning the lack of expertise and a need for experts. That may be true in some contexts, but that isn’t the problem I’m talking about. That complaint is that Wikipedia needs experts to bring entries up to snuff; I’m more concerned about bringing entries down to a level that’s actually clear and useful for the layman.

Look at that Epigenetics entry, for instance, which comes up first when you Google the term “epigenetics”. Here’s the first sentence:

In biology, while the subject of genetics focuses on how organisms can inherit traits by inheriting genes from their parent(s), which encode information for cell function as sequences of DNA, epigenetics is sometimes used to refer to additional methods of biological inheritance that do not directly relate to the inheritance of collections of genes, or soft inheritance.


Now I’m sure that’s accurate, but it’s way too rich for my blood. A better primer can be found at the backgrounder from Johns Hopkins that ranks as the number three hit:

There is far more to genetics than the sequence of building blocks in the DNA molecules that make up our genes and chromosomes. The “more” is known as epigenetics. What is epigenetics? Epigenetics, literally “on” genes, refers to all modifications to genes other than changes in the DNA sequence itself. Epigenetic modifications include addition of molecules, like methyl groups, to the DNA backbone.

That, I get. It’s the same on so many other topics. Here’s the first line for the entry on fluid mechanics:

Fluid mechanics is the subdiscipline of continuum mechanics that studies fluids, that is, liquids and gases. It can be further subdivided into fluid statics, the study of fluids at rest, and fluid dynamics, the study of fluids in motion. Modern applications use the computational approach to develop solutions to fluid mechanics problems; the discipline concerned with this is the CFD, Computational Fluid Dynamics.

Sorry, you lost me at “continuum.”

And here’s the beginning of the Mitochondrial DNA entry:

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is DNA that is located in mitochondria. This is in contrast to most DNA of eukaryotic organisms, which is found in the nucleus. Nuclear and mtDNA are thought to be of separate evolutionary origin, with the mtDNA being derived from bacteria that were engulfed by early precursors of eukaryotic cells.

Thank god for the NIH, which helpfully has a page (the fifth result from Google when you search for “mitochondiral DNA”) that starts with this:

Mitochondria are structures within cells that convert the energy from food into a form that cells can use. Although most DNA is packaged in chromosomes within the nucleus, mitochondria also have a small amount of their own DNA. This genetic material is known as mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA.

Thank you, big sprawling federal bureaucracy!

Now given that there are, as I said, 1.8 million articles on Wikipedia, there are bound to be dozens - if not thousands - of exceptions. For instance, on the basic science entries - biology, cancer, volcanology - Wikipedians have created useful, thoughtful, and readable dispatches. And sometimes there’s been the laudable foresight to add “introduction to” pages, such as those for quantum mechanics and quantum physics. But increasingly, I find myself skipping over a Wikipedia result on Google not because I’m worried about the validity of the information there - I don’t share that concern and think it’s way overblown - but rather because I’m worried it’s just going to be a bunch of formulae I can’t parse and jargon I can’t unpack.

This is, in many ways, the opposite of the tragedy of the commons - it’s the tragedy of the uncommon, meaning topics that the common folk just don’t get - and thus can’t help in editing the entry on. What happens when you get something written by a bunch of geniuses? Well, something written by a bunch of geniuses.

Published by: tgoetz on May 10th, 2007 | Filed under Misc.

102 Responses to “Why Does Wikipedia Suck on Science?”

  1. Steve Murphy MD Says:

    The Harvard Business School commonly calls this porblem “The Curse of Knowledge” In a group of approximately 100 experst only 1-2 will be able to translate the expert concept into common terminology. THey suggest you focus on telling an anecdote to illustrate the concept. I am not sure we can really do that with mitochondria though. For a good example on expert wikipedia entry search personalized medicine.


  2. Utkarshraj Atmaram Says:

    There have been several discussions on what kind of “reading level” Wikipedia is aiming for. Many Wikipedians have expressed concern that Wikipedia might end up being too pedantic. Wikipedians do recognize this concern, and the Wikipedia Manual of Style tries to address the issue, asking the editors to ensure that articles in Wikipedia remain accessible to a general audience.

    If you feel that an article is too pedantic, feel free to tag it with the maintenance templates ({{technical}}, {{context}}, {{confusing}} etc.) and start a discussion on the article’s talk page. There are several such articles that have been nominated for cleanup.

    There is also a Simple English Wikipedia that uses simple language, without dumbing down. But, it’s still in a nascent stage and not as comprehensive as the main English Wikipedia.

  3. Hsien Lei Says:

    I just can’t be bothered with Wikipedia anymore. The politics that surround what gets included and what doesn’t make Wikipedia a more biased source that it claims to be. As for going in and helping to edit, if only I had the time! It would be a full time job and more.

  4. Mr. Gunn Says:

    So your real question is, “Why does Wikipedia suck on science communication?”, and the answer is because there are less communicators than there are experts.

    There’s an unavoidable distinction between those who know a subject and those who know how to communicate a subject. This is why traditional encyclopedias employ editors. Lacking the traditional organizational structure of a publisher, there has to be a balance struck among wiki contributors about which things should be cut from an article to improve clarity, and which well-written passages are too shallow or potentially misleading. Because expert communicators are, by definition, fewer than the set of all experts, there will be, in general, a skew towards pedantry and there’s no getting around it without a way to weight the contribution of communicators a little more than technical experts.

    You just have to understand wikipedia is it’s own category, and not something you can compare head-to-head with a traditionally published encyclopedia.

  5. dr. dave Says:

    There are all sorts of problems with science entries in wikipedia… they range from too technical to too simplistic to too short.

    Next semester I plan to assign my upper level physics and astronomy students the task of seeking out and improving many of these entries as a semester-long project. So many educators complain about students using Wikipedia for research I figured… here is one way to make sure they don’t get all their info from Wikipedia… give them the job of fixing all the stubs.

  6. Bill Says:

    You lost me at pedantic…

  7. abu Says:

    dr. dave - veyr very very cool idea =)

  8. Eric Says:

    dr. dave, don’t bother with Wikipedia; unless you have thousands of students they won’t be able to make a dent. Even if they do, there’s no one there to keep the articles from being screwed up again. Citizendium is a new wiki site that works similarly to Wikipedia, but has a group of editors with actual expertise in the subject areas (with some effort put toward actually verifying credentials). Anyone can edit an article, but there will be “approved ” versions — sort of like stable releases of software versus beta releases.

    Citizendium has just started, so there’s not a lot there yet.

  9. nthmost Says:

    Eric: Why the hell not have students work on something potentially futile, pointless, and serves no purpose? It’s a damn sight better than what they’re doing 99% percent of the time — stuff that’s *definitely* futile, pointless, and serves no purpose.

    Dr Dave: In all seriousness, good idea! I would have been honored to get such an assignment. It’s nice to be able to do work as a student t hat has some persistence and utility, however fleeting.

  10. Cat Says:

    Yeah, you might have a point with that but Wiki’s saved my life on a fair few Organic chemistry assignments so it isn’t all bad

  11. ann Says:

    I cannot agree that: “This is, in many ways, the opposite of the tragedy of the commons - it’s the tragedy of the uncommon, meaning topics that the common folk just don’t get - and thus can’t help in editing the entry on.” even though I understand how this could be frustrating. Because as a trained educator and library worker, I see no need to fret when the information I, or any students, need is not presented in simplistic terms at first. The act of continued research or the search for understanding is the part of the learning process that increases understanding of a subject the most.

    I applaud the professor who is having his students edit stubs for credit. It is rare to find solid non-traditional teaching methods outside of the public school system in the US.

  12. Abhiroop Basu Says:

    This problem is quite apparent, however, I would like to point out a mistake. You compare the Mitochondrial DNA with Mitochondria, two very different things. So naturally the explanations would be different (as Mitochondria is slightly easier to understand).

  13. Abhiroop Basu Says:

    This is the article about Mitochondrion:

    In cell biology, a mitochondrion (plural mitochondria) (from Greek μιτος or mitos, thread + κουδριον 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 form of ATP via the process of oxidative phosphorylation. Mitochondrion number varies immensely according to organism and tissue type. Many cells possess only a single mitochondrion, while others can contain several million mitochondria [2][3]. Mitochondria contain DNA that is independent of the DNA located in the cell nucleus. According to the endosymbiotic theory, mitochondria are descended from free-living prokaryotes. The mitochondria are known as the powerhouses of cells.

  14. CuriousMe Says:

    I learned most of the information that is in the Mitochondrion article in High School Biology. I’m in college now and take lower division science courses; I’m by no means a science expert, yet have not had a problem reading science entries in Wikipedia. In fact, I like that I can often find deeper information, explained in an understandable format.

    I hope they don’t work to hard to fix something I don’t think is broken.


  15. hexphreak Says:

    Even though experts should indeed try to make public articles more accessible, there are always technical details they feel cannot leave out, or the rigorous formulation which took so long to come up with and mustn’t now be wasted. Despite attending high-school, I’m pretty much self-taught in maths, from manifolds to complex calculus, and most of it I learnt through Wikipedia or my dad’s books - which are much more technical. If you make an effort and go through the article word-by-word and search the related concepts’ articles, I’m sure you’ll end up understanding it. Of course most people don’t have time for this, and most need only a simple description that enables them to keep on reading. That has more to do with the purpose of Wikipedia though (encyclopedias usually do have thorough and extensive articles), and it’s also the reason why there are “Informal definition/description” sections in some articles.

  16. Phil Goetz Says:

    What you call pedantic, I call efficient. If I’m looking up mitochondrial DNA on Wikipedia - which I did last week, in fact - I don’t want to have to page through an explanation of what mitochondria are. I wouldn’t be looking at an entry on mitochondrial DNA if I didn’t already know that.

  17. chris t Says:

    For the mtDNA one, the NIH description is actually slightly inaccurate. DNA is usually NOT packaged into chromosomes, except when the cell is about to divide.

    I’m highly biased because I really like biology, but what about the mtDNA article introduction is hard to understand? It doesn’t say much that’s different from the NIH article, and what’s more, it’s correct.

  18. zircon Says:

    After several months of working on Wikipedia, I found that the biggest problem was simply productivity. Making the smallest contribution is a lot of work, because it will have to be done, redone, done over, and done again. And if the topic is at all controversal, it will have to be discussed, defended, vandalism reverted, negotiated, discussed some more, and defended some more. It is exhausting, and eventually, everybody gets tired out, except for the fanatics. It is almost impossible to rewrite or change anything that has already been written; and it isn’t so easy to write something new.

    Fortunately for Wikipedia, there are a lot of people willing to work on it, so even with low productivity, a kind of progress does get made.

  19. Victor Says:

    the science articles on wikpedia are not hard to understand at all, the problem is people are too lazy to bother to read further and try to understand what they say. The idea of wikipedia is not to make a site for schoolers to go and “copy-paste” the articles for their homework.. it’s more for a deeper understanding of most topics… like a rel encyclopedia

  20. rsw Says:


    I hate to say it, but I think the sentiment you’re actually expressing here is laziness.

    If you don’t understand the material presented in the article, click on the links to the entries on the terms you don’t understand and keep reading.

    Wikipedia shouldn’t be dumbed down for the masses. It’s their responsibility to raise themselves to its level. The whole point of the thing is “learning,” after all.

    Or, to put it another way: don’t bitch when your encyclopedia gives you too much information. That’s is freakin job.


  21. Joseph Says:

    The science entries on Wikipedia are great. Since when did Wikipedia become a manuel for dummies? I’m in high school, have had a few courses in biology and physics, and the examples shown in the article (of articles) are very clear and concise to me. I always thought Wikipedia was a collection or information for reference, not a teach-yourself book.

  22. Simon Says:

    I agree with the last couple of posts - if you insist on a simpler presentation of the information you cite above (which I think is complex, but still readable, and I’m not in bio at all), then chances are you were only reading it out of curiosity, and you’re going to forget it in a couple of hours anyway.

    Offtopic, but why is the font in this text field so very small? I can’t read the text I’m typing in, it’s disgusting.

  23. Steve C Says:

    I just looked at the mitochondria page. The first paragraph looks no more complicated than a high school or first year college bio class text.The mtDNA descriptions from NIH and wikipedia have virtually the same information, but the NIH description is incomplete in not stating that nuclear DNA and mtDNA have different origins.

    I do not know your science background, but your citing the mitochondria DNA article when you originally complain about the mitochondria article and your preference for the incomplete and somewhat misleading NIH article suggest you may not really know the difference between mitochondria and DNA and the role each plays in the cell.

    With respect to “you lost me at continuum,” perhaps you should try reading a little further. It is not “continuum” it is “continuum mechanics” If you do not know what that is there is a link to explain it. There is also a chart on the page breaking down continuum mechanics. No article will ever help you if you choose to ignore its content.

    You may have a point, but I think you picked poor examples

  24. Dan Says:

    I understand the point that Wikipedia science articles are always moving to higher and higher levels, and that this can be frustrating. But frankly, for some of us that high level is really useful… I am not a geneticist or a fluid dynamics guy, but I could understand both those articles really well. I like that they’re precise and use the terms that experts would use.

    I am a science graduate student myself, and I find that I get a better understanding of almost anything by reading a text aimed higher than the average “science for laypeople” article, which tend to be wishy-washy and useless when you’re actually looking for precise information.

    I agree that Wikipedia articles should include introductions aimed at ordinary people, but having the high-level content is a huge asset!!

    Phil Goetz has a great point: if you don’t understand something on wikipedia, you can hop over to another article that will explain it in just a second or two. For example, if you go to the mitochrondrial DNA article without knowing what mitochondria are, just click on the blue, underlined word “mitochondria”, and there you have an explanation.

  25. John Ellis Says:

    In a large cooperative effort like wikipedia, where the authors are self-selected, there are bound to be variations in the quality of writing. As we are all aware, there are scientists, and there are writers. Writers are good at storytelling, scientists are good at, well, their science. As long as wikipedia is what it is, a collection of contributors, we will se variations in writing quality and style. A book editor would have a writher and an editor smooth out these things, but that isn’t what Wikipedia is, or there would be writers and editors looking everything over before publishing, maintaing a chosen style and level. Due to the nature of the beast, I think we need to accept the flaws with the benefits. Overall, “its a good thing.”

  26. Gnudiff Says:

    I have no degree, yet I find Wikipedia’s science articles I’ve needed to consult so far (including the ones you quote), written well enough, whenever I need some information or reference.

    I’d value some extra accuracy in the encyclopedia (as far as Wikipedia claims that title) over chewing it down to people who have had trouble with exact sciences in high school. That’s what external references in the articles should be good for.

  27. Tim Says:

    These quotations from wikipedia are very misleading, simply for omitting the links. By “flattening” out the material, you exaggerate the complexity of an entry by removing the assistance of the medium. For instance, the first sentence in the “continuum mechanics” entry tells us that it “is a branch of physics (specifically mechanics) that deals with continuous matter, including both solids and fluids (i.e., liquids and gases).” This is just one click away - there’s no reason to be lost.

    We should also keep in mind that wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a primer nor a dictionary. These should be other projects for the time being, until the semantic tools are developed to bring them parallel to their cousins.

  28. Adam Says:

    I think the articles should use a certain amount of technical vocabularly. It makes things more consise and more accurate. Who cares if you don’t know what a particular term means, you can follow the carefully assigned links to find out.

    In many cases, an article provides both the technical terms and a layman’s definition, you are merely getting berwildered by the difficult parts. The quoted fluid dynamics article is an example of this. If you had made it past “continuum mechanics” you’d find the rest of that paragraph to be what I consider to be a good summary. And even more commonly, the opening paragraph is a very strict terse definition, and then a later paragraph will give a more accessible description (usually appearing directly under the ToC, as in Epigenetics).

    Though many of your cited articles are poorly written, I do not fault the approach. There are many scientific things that are quite involved, and no amount of good communication is going to be able to produce a simple, consise free standing article, at least not without some sacrifice. Hence I think you may be overestimating the problem of lacking experts with communication skills.

    I would be more inclined to attribute poor articles to people who do not fully understand the material, say students rather than professors. These sorts of people can write well and produce accurate definitions, but lacking a full overview of the subject are not able to summarise it well in their own words.

  29. PKtm Says:

    As another reader commented above, Wikipedia has numerous problems that deter participation. Primary among these, and exceeding the expertise issue, is politics, and a curiously glaring proof of the Greater Internet F**kwad Theory (see http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19 : Normal Person plus Anonymity plus Audience = Total F**kwad). I don’t bother contributing even small edits to Wikipedia anymore. It’s just not worth the hassle, the personal attacks, the circling of the wagons by the select Wikipedia elite. Great experiment, great results at first, now deteriorating.

  30. dofkex Says:

    I don’t think wikipedia should aim to be a resource for experts. After all, it is an encyclopedia and the purpose of encyclopedias is to get readers familiar with topics, not train experts

  31. Info-hungy hippo Says:

    There’s nothing that annoys me more than information being dumbed-down.
    Simple short descriptions are for dictionaries and traditional encyclopedias.
    Wikipedia fills a hole by being a clearinghouse for things that are hard to find information on elsewhere.
    Bring on the full-jargon science. If I don’t know it now, I can learn… also a certain level of detail and expertise offers a barrier of entry to average know-nothing dude on the street who might otherwise be tempted to share their “knowledge” about a topic.

  32. KISS Says:

    Most of the commenters don’t seem to understand. It’s not about writing in a scientific style vs. “dumbing it down”. It’s about knowing how to write in the first place. A preposterous, confusing, esoteric style is not a sign of intelligence, but of inability paired with arrogance.

    Or take the Wikipedia entry for “Tensor”. It’s not so hard, even for non-mathematicians, to visualize and get an idea of what a tensor is, but this convoluted style makes it impossible.

    It’s also about knowing the difference between, say, a thesis, a textbook, and an encyclopaedia. For example, an encyclopaedia entry should start with a simple sentence starting with “A $lemma is a …” that gives a general idea about the subject with the least number of references possible. The “Epigenetics” article already fails at this point. It sounds like copy-and-paste from an oldfashioned textbook.

  33. Anthony Says:

    I have register unhappiness with the content of this article and agree with many of the posters. What makes Wikipedia valuable is exactly the fact that it has precise and complete information. It may not be trivial to read, but anyone with a genuine interest in a subject will find it a better starting place than other simplistic sources. Entries on a huge range of subjects are detailed and complete. Wiki will not and should not be a general text book. As a centralized, public, accessible repository of scientific knowledge, it is of immense value to the public the scientist alike. Science advances by continually building on the established body of knowledge. By making that body widely available, we will accelerate scientific progress. There are many other resources for simplified introductory material; we should not sacrifice this valuable resource to make one more.

  34. trrll Says:

    I looked at the mitochondrian entry. It is clearly written at an “encyclopedia” level that any high school student should be able to understand, and there are links to help with possibly unfamiliar terminology. What it isn’t is dumbed down and larded with misleading metaphors like so much of the material published in “Wired.”

    I hear that there is now going to be a special conservative wiki for people who find Wikipedia too “liberal.” Perhaps we need a special Wired-style wiki for people who are too lazy for Wikipedia

  35. Eivind Eklund Says:

    I’m mostly self-taught in science, and find the level of the articles excellent. It assumes a reasonable background to get them, yet that background is fairly easily avaialble, and the depth makes for good understanding further on.

  36. Shara Says:

    I find this article pathetic. “Sorry, you lost me at Continuum?” Why the hell do you need to know anything about fluid mechanics if you don’t even know what the continuum assumption is?

    The information on Wiki is actually useful, unlike most of the crap out there.

  37. WritingIsNotYourCalling Says:

    Reading this article gave me a sense of genuine rage. The author could not be further off base. My thoughts are completely opposite those presented here. I love Wikipedia precisely because it contains genuinely informative articles that use technical language. If I wanted dumbed-down crap I’d watch prime-time TV. Why don’t you do the Net a favor, step back from the keyboard and go sit in front of the TV with all the other fucking mornons.

  38. Theo Says:

    Your article is the reason why so many Americans can neither spell and why so much high level research is leaving the US: The nagging of spoilt American brats who expect to by catered to for their every whim. Sometimes, you simply have to use that grey matter, blödmann.

  39. bck Says:

    I think that this is really not an issue; or, to the point that it is, what each wikipedia article thus needs is an ‘intro level’ and ‘mid level’ and finally ‘exper level’ discussion. *shrug* Solves everyones problem. It’s like good journalism - tell them the basics i nthe first paragraph, and then tell them the details, for those who care.

  40. Mark A. Craig Says:

    Might I suggest that the solution in this instance is for these “laypeople” to become *involved* in the process, as proofreaders and editors with a special focus on readability for laymen? A layman is indeed an expert, in the sense that he better understands the needs of his fellow layman peers than do specialists in other areas.

  41. tgoetz Says:

    Hello Slashdot readers.

    I’ve added a new post responding to many of these comments here: https://epidemix.org/blog/?p=74

    -Thomas Goetz

  42. Peter Says:

    Have you considered getting a basic education? All of those were perfectly understandable to me. Just because TV is dumbed down for increasingly stupid people, thereby making increasingly stupid people, and needing to be dumbed down more for the new generation of yet dumber people, that doesn’t mean the Internet ought to be. Or at least, not wikipedia.

  43. James Says:

    I dont know what the problem is here. I often use wikipedia as a study guide for my sciences courses and have no problem understanding the concepts and appropriate terms that are used. It does not take a scientist to comprehend the material, by a single click of the mouse one can follow a link to explain any number of words and references that is what is so good about wikipedia its ease of use.

    These advanced articles require a certain level of understanding but nothing that a current high school senior doesn’t have. To dumb down wikipedia would be a disservice to all those who actually have a use for the atricles. Take some time and read the links and there should be no problem getting valuable use of all the pages.

    Dont’t expect to learn anything without a little effort on ur part.

  44. Simplysimple Says:

    Hmm, I’m going to go out on a limb and say I’m not surprised that people are already saying “No, it’s not Wikipedia that has a problem by being too complex, it’s you who are too dumb!”

    Which of course, is the reason why so many of these articles simply aren’t being fixed. Sorry folks, but while you can argue with the examples, if you can’t find any problem in a person coming to a page and being totally befuddled, I don’t know what to say except clearly we have entirely different goals.

  45. Joe Nayares Says:

    If you have no idea what epigenetics, mitochondria or fluid dynamics, you will not be too likely to search for a description.
    And if you do it will be readily understood
    You probably have the same problem with a
    dictionary where the words are listed alphabetically and not in a common way
    whatever that means

  46. Jebadiah Moore Says:

    No offense, but I’m 15 and those excerpts make perfect sense to me. Besides, like others have said, if you don’t know a term you can click on one of the plethora of links embedded in every Wikipedia article and find out.

    And what’s the deal with the font in the comment boxes? I had to blow it up to about 300% just to be able to read what I typed.

  47. Tigerhawkvok Says:

    I actually find it much BETTER that they have those in-depth articles. Usually, science majors or scientists wil want to look up some information that is more in-depth than they would find conventionally, and believe me, it is irritating when all you find are the layman explainations. Those sites abound; there is no reason that Wikipedia should be dumbed-down. I do’nt know if its a product of my emphasis, but I understood both examples perfectly well. The only time I”ve gotten lost in Wikipedia is when I should; for example, trying to read about General Relativity before I knew tensor mechanics. It would be criminal to have an encyclopedia entry on GR without the proper math and technicality. If it ‘dumbed down’ to the layman, I’d *stop* using Wikipedia.

  48. Dave Lee / jBlog » Open Day Says:

    […] [EPIDEMIX] Why does Wikipedia suck at science? […]

  49. aldehyde Says:

    Please do not recommend dumbing down wikipedia, that is incredibly ignorant. If you dont understand the explanation search for another source to get a different explanation rather than remove the confusing content. You may not understand the wikipedia article for the SN2 reaction in organic chemistry but that doesn’t mean its bad, it means you should probably use more sources when you’re learning something for the first time.

  50. sleepykit Says:

    Well, i think that Wikipedia and the articles mentioned do their job well. Odds are that if you’re on Wikipedia searching for Mitochondrial DNA, you already know some of the words assciated with it, like what a mitochondria is in the first place.

  51. Laura Says:

    The problem is only getting worse. Layman’s explanations have been put into a couple of topics near the top. If you look at the history of those pages, the layman’s explanation becomes more abstruse over time as people insert more technical vocabulary into them.

    See Optical Vortex for an example.

  52. captainobvious Says:

    If you think you could do better than click edit.

  53. Thad Beier Says:

    I love the science in Wikipediia. I was reading about “reentry”, and the article was just wonderfully detailed, arcane, and at-the-very-edge of intellegibility — but even the parts that were hard to understand were a challenge to learn more, in the best way of all science writing. I wouldn’t change a thing, certainly wouldn’t recommend dumbing it down.

    That said, on my bedside table I have Van Nostrand’s scientific encyclopedia. I open it to any page, and am instantly fascinated.

  54. Bill Says:

    That’s why there’s a whole world wide web. Don’t depend on wikipedia to be something it’s not, just use a different search result from your original Google search. I prefer to have free access to the unabridged articles in wikipedia, even if it means I need to do more work, or supplement with other results.

  55. L. F. Miller Says:

    This article points out more of a problem with “journalism” than with wiki or science. You call yourself a writer but you don’t know what continuum means? You couldn’t even understand a lot of Star Trek episodes then I guess. Please don’t try to dumb everyone else down to your level. Smart people (i.e. Star Trek fans) like to look up stuff sometimes too.

  56. [Slashdot] Stories for 2007-05-13 at Kaizenlog Says:

    […] Links:    0. https://epidemix.org/blog/?p=72 […]

  57. Encyclopedia of Life: Better Than Wikipedia? Says:

    […] Goetz writes at Epidemix that Wikipedia “sucks when it comes to Science topics”, not for being inaccurate, but […]

  58. remi Says:

    there is a reason why there are interwiki links.

  59. remi Says:


  60. Encyclopedia of Life: Better Than Wikipedia? »Technology News | Venture Capital, Startups, Silicon Valley, Web 2.0 Tech Says:

    […] Goetz writes at Epidemix that Wikipedia “sucks when it comes to Science topics”, not for being inaccurate, but […]

  61. steve clayton Says:

    maybe this could help

  62. myxie Says:

    When I first saw the slashdot summary referring to this article, I thought “oh no, Wikipedia is dumbing down”. Thankfully, the complaint was in the opposite direction.

    I’ve always felt that an encylopaedia should be able tell you things directly (learning) rather than tell you about things (recognition). I had no trouble understanding the excerpts above.

    Analogies and examples, introductory overiew articles and popularisations have there place, but this should never be at the expensive of the main encylopaedia content.

    When I was still in [high] school (before the WWW existed), if I found something of interest in New Scientist (dumber than Scientific American for those unfamiliar with it) or in class, I could read up on the background in more detail in the school library’s Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Wikipedia needs to fullfil that same role - reference.

  63. omwo Says:

    The examples provided seem to me to be completely understandable. I don’t know what the author’s problem seems to be, except that he could at least have been a bit more careful in not comparing entries regarding mitochondria with thiose regarding their DNA. Perhaps such care would be pedantic. Perhaps it is pedantic to expect him to actually make sense.
    His other example is ludicrous:
    >”Fluid mechanics is the subdiscipline of continuum mechanics that studies fluids, that is, liquids and gases.(…)”
    >Sorry, you lost me at “continuum.”
    Did they? Then I see where the problem is located: somewhere between your chair and your laptop. If you can’t understand such a simple sentence then you should just go back to school. And I don’t mean college.
    Not only is the sentence simple, it leads you to follow up on “continuum mechanics” if you don’t know what it it. And the ease with which you jump from a concept to another is one of the things that makes wikipedia great.
    The entry was perfectly clear. What the author misses is not clarity, it is empty verbiage that makes him feel warm and fuzzy and actually bloats and obfuscates an article.
    Leave Wikipedia alone. Some of us like to go there to learn stuff, not to get talked to like we were brainless. If you don’t like it you can always go watch some soccer or something.

  64. John Says:

    Wikipedia provides a great opportunity for people to expand their knowledge. In your example of being lost at the word continuum, if you were lost, they why not click the hyperlink and use it as an opportunity to expand your knowledge? That is after all what Wikipedia is about.

    For those that are looking for technical information the level of detail on Wikipedia can often be invaluable due to most other sources on the internet being afraid to go into too much detail for fear of scaring off the masses. That’s what makes WIkiepedia great, it has enough information that if you are actually trying to learn something you can.

  65. Wikipedia Too Scientific? at Udo’s Techblog Says:

    […] Goetz of Wired.com thinks Wikipedia sucks on science articles because many people can’t parse the lingo. You know, I’m all for making science […]

  66. Mike Abundo Says:

    Why pander to laymen?

  67. Who is your audience? « The Phineas Gage Fan Club Says:

    […] recent post at Epidemix (via Slashdot) asks why Wikipedia sucks at science. Thomas Goetz cites a few good examples of how […]

  68. Liz Says:

    Hey, as an fyi, if you are interested in learning more about in depth topics (like those of the science-nature), www.answers.com is a good place to get more detail. It includes Wikipedia as part of its content, but it primarily includes topic-specific encyclopedias and dictionaries for those obscure science terms, business words, medical language, etc…

    Disclaimer: Yes, I am an employee of Answers.com, but I thought this might be helpful to those in this discussion of Wikipedia’s depth.

  69. Blueweed Express Says:

    […] https://epidemix.org/blog/?p=72 […]

  70. Joce Says:

    Is this written using the worlds most unreadable font?

  71. Multimedias.mobi » Encyclopedia of Life: Better Than Wikipedia? Says:

    […] Goetz writes at Epidemix that Wikipedia “sucks when it comes to Science topics”, not for being inaccurate, but […]

  72. Eye on DNA But Not On Wikipedia — Eye on DNA Says:

    […] May 13, 2007 in DNA in General Fellow DNA Network member, Thomas Goetz has started a ruckus over why Wikipedia sucks on science. He posted part of his rant over at Wired Science, which then got picked up by Techcrunch and […]

  73. BillyBuckets Says:

    I disagreeI firmly disagree with this argument. I think that the depth of the information in a scientific Wikipedia article should be appropriate to the depth of understanding needed to grasp the topic. Without this correlation, you would have one of two problems: either every article would be so rudimentary that it would be entirely useless to anyone with more than a high school education in the particular field or each article on an advanced topic would be cluttered to the point of diminishing the accessibility of the details. It is not entirely unreasonable to hope a reader has some biochemical education before reading about Zif268 or some knowledge of quantum physics before delving into perturbation theory.

  74. Deepak Says:

    I am somewhere in the middle. Wikipedia functions best as a general resource, but it should not be trivialized. To some extent it depends on the topic as well. For example, take fluid science. While the main fluid science page should maintain a general level. so that someone wanting to find out what it is about can understand, what about someone who wants to understand subtopics in fluid science at a greater level of depth? Does that belong in Wikipedia or some form of sub-Wikipedia or a vertical fork of some sort, along the lines of Wikia?

  75. Judsen Self Says:

    When I was a child I began understanding none of what I heard. After learning some words,as a student I looked up words I was not clear about and sometimes found I had to look up some of the definition words. After college I still found myself researching word meanings to clarify my understanding of technical terms. Language is dynamic as is education. The response to this article is telling! We need to “smart up” not “dumb down” Certainly some are better wordsmiths and others may be improved better communition skills. Just remember, everything you know seems simple because you know it , Everything you don’t know seems complex until you know it. Read think reread think etc. …

  76. business|bytes|genes|molecules Says:

    […] post by Thomas Goetz, who asks the question: Why does Wikipedia suck on science? My first reaction to the post was something along the lines of “What is he talking […]

  77. Schmisty Says:

    Great article — and very true. Good science writing — both accurate and accessible — is hard to find. MSM is notorious for getting things wrong, and the general public has many misperceptions when it comes to science (Google “Bad Science” or “Bad Astronomy” and you’ll get an eyefull).

  78. anon law student Says:

    At least the science info is correct. Most of the law-related subjects on wikipedia are incorrect.

  79. links for 2007-05-13 « John’s musing Says:

    […] Epidemix » Why Does Wikipedia Suck on Science? A well constructed article, tons of comments, and a good follow up blog post (tags: collective expert science wikipedia) […]

  80. moonbandito Says:

    I use Wikipedia to start research. It’s been helpful to get ‘the Wikipedia’ definition and the references to find out more. The Wikipedia site lacks some useful features. One I’d like to see would be a search result of the relationshops between subjects. ‘Vocabulary Grapher’ is the sort of interface display that would best present this sort of information. I have no idea how that function could be added to Wikipedia.

  81. My Biotech Life » Wikipedia is no good for science? Says:

    […] seems that a post by Thomas Goetz, a fellow DNA Network member, and author of Epidemix.org has got a lot of people […]

  82. Kevin Says:

    I’m not sure I see what is so difficult to understand in the Wikipedia samples that you put forth here. They didn’t seem too bad to me, maybe you had to read them more than once to get all the info, but that’s how you learn science, or most any other subject for that matter. And the concept of a continuum is central to fluid mechanics, if you don’t have the time to look up the word ‘continuum’, you don’t have time to learn squat about fluids.

  83. capi Says:

    try “define:” on google.

  84. alf Says:

    While I don’t think the separate Simple English Wikipedia - or any kind of Qwikipedia - is a particularly good idea, it would still be good to have a quick overview of complex subjects in a box at the top of each Wikipedia page.

  85. Le Blogueur » Blog Archive » Wikipedia et la science : un language incompréhensible pour les non-initiés ? Says:

    […] Suck on Science?” (Pourquoi Wikipedia est nul quand il s’agit de science ?” se demande Thomas Goetz sur son blog Epidemix. En gros Thomas regrette que, dans la version en anglais […]

  86. Ricardo Colmenares Says:

    It looks as though a lot of people completely missed the author’s point, here. Nowhere do I see him arguing for “dumbing down” Wikipedia, but merely for professional-grade editing. Wikipedia should not be dumbed down, but it should definitely be accessible. The two concepts are not the same.

    The examples provided? Some, I understood quite well, while others left me sharing the author’s befuddlement. The fact that you (general you, aimed at the commentators so far) have no trouble with a certain piece doesn’t mean those that do are “dumb”, or want to see Wikipedia be “dumbed down”. If anything, the hostile respondents are confirming Mr. Goetz’s thesis: Scientific oneupmanship means fewer and fewer people are likely to be able to delve into a particular topic, leaving an even smaller group to virtually pat each other’s backs.

    Wikipedia needs not become “The Encyclopedia for Dummies”, but it does need to be able to inform its readers, of whatever stripe those readers might be. Poorly communicated knowledge is worthless.

  87. Pav Says:

    It’s not just science that is sucks on. I’ve been embroiled in a little battle over an article on the Indo-Greeks that has been absolutely, mind-boggling in how absurd the claims put forward by the opposition is. Once a “respected” member comes in with an agenda the entire clique circles the wagons to pat each other’s backs. Anyone with a contrary opinion is just bullied out.
    And of course, it leans heavily in favour of people with far too much time on their hands to be making edits and reverts. Wikipedia’s own regulations are selectively enforced and generally only done in favor of the one with seniority. Most of the problems come in articles that are obscure enough that people can’t make error corrections. A handful of pseudo-experts come in and have a run of the place.

  88. Michael Says:

    The obvious solution is to have links at the bottom of the wiki entry to the “dumbed down” explanation.

    That and to make sure the summaries at the top of the entry are good.

    and what the HELL is up with your comment field? i can barely read what i’m typing, because its 1) tiny and 2) a light grey on white. seirously, this blog theme blows.

  89. Branden Says:

    Great Article! I completely agree. Wikipedia should include primers or intro’s for topics that have become two advanced. They should also consider a grading system for reader (not publishers) of the topics, so that editors can prioritize which articles are most in need of a primer.

    Also, I’m not to keen on google pulling up Wikipedia for everything I search for. I realize they have a lot of content, but if I wanted to find a wikipedia article on something, I’d go to wikipedia. Perhaps google should make it easier to unselect certain web sites from searches.

    I agree with Michael, your comments system is WAY to small to read. I actually wrote this in a text editor and pasted it into your comments field, just so I could read what I was typing.

  90. gina Says:

    In addition to any potential one-upmanship by wikipedia writers (which i don’t doubt exists), there are two causes that i think have more to do with why wikipedia science entries are less than elucidating to the general reader:

    1) As opposed to an article on history or politics, an article on science will on average have far more new vocabulary words for the layman. In a traditional text article, there are two ways of dealing with this - you can either assume that your audience understands all your jargon (which is absolutely the case in most specialized scientific journals, where most scientific articles are published), or you can try to take a more conversational tone and drop the specialized vocabulary, which is something that writers will typically only go to the trouble of doing for an article meant for the general audience. I think most people who are knowledgeable about science tend towards the first unless there is sufficient reason (and enough editors) to help them translate their usual manner of describing concepts into something that the average person will understand. Wikipedia editors don’t have sufficient motivation to go out of their way to explain what they’re saying, especially since, if someone doesn’t understand a phrase, they can usually click on a link within the article that will take them to a more detailed explanation of that phrase. The thing that I love most about Wikipedia is that for me, it enables a totally different kind of reading experience than reading an average article - one where I’m led from one concept and definition to another and have the potential for far deeper understanding.

    (2) Writing about scientific topics in a way that is both accurate and engaging is just hard. I didn’t find that the examples you put were necessarily inaccessible (especially once you realize that you can click on links and get more info), but they were pretty damn boring. Once again, I challenge you to read the average article in any of the tons of specialized scientific joyrnals that are published and try to get through two paragraphs without taking a nap. Call this my totally unscientific hypothesis - Most people who are really interested in science and understand scientific topics, whether it’s mitochondrial DNA or collusion dynamics, with the degree of confidence necessary to write about it, are probably not engaging writers. Most people who can write in a way that is interesting and accessible, even ifi they do understand scientific concepts in a broad way, do not have sufficient confidence that they accurately understand scientific concepts to do something so bold as to edit a perfectly accurate and sufficiently understandable but boring article on a scientific topic just to make it more engaging. And if they do, there’s a decent chance that someone whose concern for accuracy is greater than their concern for accessibility may find flaw with their reinterpretation and edit it back to something boring but correct.

    I don’t necessarily think this is a huge problem, but I think what it does do is point to the need for more translators in the world. As mentioned in a prevoius comment, there are more experts than communicators. In rapidly advancing and increasingly specialized knowledge is growing in science and technology, the need for people are able to talk the talk of the specialist but synthesize for the general public has increased.

    My next totally unscientific hypothesis is that since science and technology are traditionally male dominated fields, and women tend to have stronger connections between their brain hemispheres than men, we will see women increasingly filling these gaps in scientifiic communication.

  91. PabloG » Blog Archive » links for 2007-05-15 Says:

    […] Why Does Wikipedia Suck on Science? - Epidemix Critique sur le nivellement par le bas des articles scientifiques dans Wikipédia. Dans le projet de la nouvelle encyclepedie de la vie (eol.org), ils ont pensé à cette problématique en prevoyant l’affichage de l’information en trois niveaux (tags: wikipedia wiki science culture vulgarisation critique) […]

  92. Bench Marks » Blog Archive » Biologists and social networks, why don’t they work? Says:

    […] things immediately make sense or provide valuable services (interesting article on how Wikipedia “sucks on science” here). What I think will happen is that someone is going to come up with a valuable tool, and community […]

  93. Meme Says:

    I think that the oneupmanship exhibited in most Wiki articles is very apparent in most of the comments here. People just at any opportunities to make evident their level of intelligence. They do this to validate themselves and to feel good. If someone says that a book is hard to read, don’t be surprise if a crapload of people then smirk and claim it was easy for them. That kind of reaction is expected, and it’s often mendacious. I think your examples weren’t the best you could have used; however, I agree with you that many articles on Wiki are too technical. I am by no means an expert when it comes to science, but I took several years of physics in high school, and I always got solid A’s in my science and math classes. And I honestly have trouble with many Wiki articles, especially when half of them are concerned with complex calculus. You go to a page to learn about a subject, and it’s obvious someone who already knows a lot about it wrote it for similar people. It’s like a journal for graduate students.

    p.s. Anyone here who claims to have learned a whole subject just from Wiki articles is lying through his/her keyboard (teeth).

  94. ernest Says:

    Science Articles on Wiki might be pedantic but they are far from sucking. As an undergraduate computer science-major i frequently use it as a resource which, in the field of CSCI, has thus far been infallible. Animations generally clarify extremely abstract material. This is also the case for many biology articles.

    To Meme: Anyone who makes sweeping generalizations about anything is an ass.

  95. Extenuating Circumstances – Bad Science Reporting: DNA, The Times Says:

    […] article in Wikipedia on the genetic code (that coincidentally also perfectly illustrates the expert problem), and here’s a Human Genome Project factsheet on […]

  96. lunslgvfgc Says:

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  97. Donna Gooch Says:

    This one makes sence “One’s first step in wisdom is to kuesstion everything - and one’s last is to come to terms with everything.”

  98. Das Fehlen von Übersetzerqualitäten « Senfsessel Says:

    […] diesem Epidemixartikel wird auf den Fluch der Fachsprache eingegangen: The Harvard Business School commonly calls this […]

  99. Jeezy Says:

    I love wikipedia when it comes to science srouces. Anybody with the most basic scienc eknowledge can understand what you can’t seem to understand. I think some science classes are in order.

  100. ryisse Says:

    I got here through a Google 5th-page hit for ‘tensors “for dummies”‘, so I’m late for this discussion When searching for information on tensors, I found the existing four Wikipedia entries on the subject to be well thought-out and clearly written on each of their four different levels. In every field there is some need to reflect the complexity of what is presently known so that we know what there is left to discover; the layered structure does great at its job of communication while preserving the marvellous intricacy and slight aura of challenge of the field or subject.

    I enjoy some Wikipedia entries because they push me to learn what I didn’t know I didn’t know. The variety of comments here show two mutually exclusive attitudes towards difficult things: 1. Run, to another resource you can more easily understand, 2. Stand still at the article that originally shocked you, and weep and protest that it is beyond your understanding, and demand that it be changed. Clearly I prefer 1. because I get the knowledge I need (that caters to my level) in a much shorter time.

    In the pursuit of knowledge, Wikipedia might have grand aims to cater to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people but that (utilitarian) philosophy has never been successful anywhere in practice. As with all “repositories” of knowledge, use/leave at your discretion.

  101. herman Says:

    is politics a science?what are the approaches to the study of politics?David easton’s view of the political system[1965]

  102. Lorima Says:

    Whew, thanks to all who objected to the proposal to make Wikipedia less technical and less deep. Everytime I read a science article in Time or Newsweek I shudder at the oversimplifications, questionable generalizations, and downright erroneous information therein. I like a chatty style, but there are some subjects that can’t be adequately explained in simple everyday language.. If people are interested in these topics, they’re just going to have to do the work and acquire the background and vocabulary necessary to the subject. There are plenty of oversimplified popular science resources for those who want them - please let Wikipedia be as excellent and thorough as it can be.

    Sorry if there are typos, I can’t read this as I’m typing it.