Lucian George, Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia

Into this debate about the reliability of Wikipedia leaps the 12–year old figure of Lucian George from north London, who found five errors in the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. BBC reports that

A schoolboy has uncovered several mistakes in the latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica – regarded by readers as an authority on everything. Lucian George, 12, from north London, found five errors on two of his favourite subjects – central Europe and wildlife – and wrote to complain. The book’s editor wrote back thanking him for “pointing out several errors and misleading statements”.
A Britannica spokesman said the company was “grateful”.

His father, Gabriel George, told BBC News: “Lucian told me he had found a mistake. Then, a few days later, he found another. Then there was another. “By the time he had found five, I said to him that he should write to the editors to complain about it.”

So what did he find?

  • Chotyn, in which two battles between the Poles and the Ottoman Empire were fought, is said to lie in Moldova. (It’s not, it’s in Ukraine.)
  • The Polish part of the Belovezhskaya Forest, according to the encyclopaedia, lies in the Bialystok, Suwalki and Lomza provinces. (Suwalki and Lomza provinces have not existed since 1998. And, even when they did, the whole Polish section of the forest – which extends into Belarus – was in Bialystok, the BBC reports.)
  • The terrain of the European bison: Poland, according to the encylcopedia. (Actually it encompassed parts of Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Belarus – not just Poland.)

Of course, errors in the Britannica are nothing new (here’s a list from one guy alone). And I’m no Lucian George but (that’s what we’re going to say from now on, isn’t it? ‘I’m no Lucian George, but isn’t that use of the semi-colon incorrect?’) I’ve spotted a few errors in my time in both the Britannica and Encarta. (If one 12–year old can find five, how many more errors must there be in there?) But maybe we shouldn’t be so apologetic about Wikipedia’s eccentricities and errors when we realise that no single encyclopedia can get it right? The academics who do these entries are, after all, just academics, and probably don’t have time to have any peer review of their entries.

In a way Wikipedia is like having dozens of Lucian Georges looking over your shoulder when you amend or add an entry, which may end up being a better way of keeping out errors. Not least, of course, an error in Wikipedia will get fixed on the spot, but how many copies of EB are going to sit on shelves, riddled with mislocated East European data, for years to come, misleading the public and irritating the good burghers of Chotyn?

28. January 2005 by jeremy
Categories: Internet life, Search, Taxonomy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 comments

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