Wednesday 17 January 2007

On not being a speech therapist

I have finally managed to track down the source of an error which surfaces regularly in correspondence. 'As a qualified speech therapist', said someone in a letter to me recently - and about me! Excuse me? Not me. I am an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. But a 'real' spth? No. (My wife is.) I worked with speech therapists in clinics and schools for many years, so any confusion would be understandable; but my role was always as a 'clinical linguist' - someone who describes and analyses the linguistic character of disorders of communication, but who never treats.

So where did the error arise? Wikipedia, of course. There it says in the entry on me, plain as the beard on my face: 'He is also a qualified speech therapist'.

I say 'of course'. I edit encyclopedias, and very early on I was intrigued by the wiki concept, thinking it would actually help my work. How wrong I was. I quickly discovered that there were so many errors that it just wasn't a safe procedure to use wiki entries without scrupulous checking - in which case you might as well go to the more reliable sources to begin with. Wiki is fine for fun browsing, but I would never take a 'fact' from there without doing a second check. The Wiki managers now seem to have realized the dangers of uncontrolled eneyclopedia compilation for themselves, as I read they have introduced a tier of editorial supervision into the system. Faced with the entries that have been mischievously (or worse) tampered with, and growing threats of litigation from people whose characters have been assassinated, I wasn't surprised. In fact, I predicted years ago that this would have to happen.

I had never thought to look me up in Wikipedia before, but, having been told about the speech therapy error, now I did. I learned some interesting things about me. I live in Holyhead 'with my wife and four children', it says. Well that's a surprise. I've just looked round the house and I can't see them anywhere. (The last one left home years ago.) I 'write articles for the Catholic devotional magazine, The Tablet'? Never. I used to review for them once, back in the seventies, but the only article I ever submitted to it was turned down! And I'm 'president of Crystal Reference Systems Limited'? Ah, it must have been an American who put some of the entry together, for we would never say 'president' in the UK. 'Chairman' I was, before that little company was taken over last year. That's history now.

My entry - as virtually every Wiki entry I have ever read - is a fascinating, unpredictable, dangerous selection of facts and fictions. And the problem is, you never know which is which. It's not as if accurate information isn't available, especially these days, when official websites exist for most things. It takes a lot of time and effort and professionalism to compile encyclopedia entries which are balanced, objective, and accurate, and even then, the professionals don't always get it right. Wiki's fond hope is that by letting everyone have a go, eventually the truth will emerge, and the result will be better than the traditional encyclopedia. That was always a naive belief. Many of the entries are fuller, certainly, than anything you have ever seen in print, and you can read stuff there which is unavailable anywhere else. But beware: lurking within the depths of detail there be always dragons.


Anonymous said...

"David Crystal lives in Holyhead with his wife, he has had four children who have since all left home"

I changed it for you.

You could revise it yourself if some of it is wrong.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, many hardcore Wikipedia fans are unwilling to concede that Wikipedia is anything less than perfect.

I do hope that Larry Sanger's Citizendium will take off. It surely deserves to.
Here's a short essay about the project on the Citizendium site.

Toward a New Compendium of Knowledge

Anonymous said...

I certainly agree with you about the integrity of many Wikipedia articles. Indeed, a friend of mine was able to maintain an entry on a completely fictitious painter for several weeks, before eventually being caught out.

I also agree that perfect quality is something towards which Wikipedia will never make much progress -- the element of mischief will always be there. However, to me, quality isn't really the point of Wikipedia at all. The great think about it is the contextual linking -- the way in which I can read one article and almost immediately be drawn into a fascinating web of related subjects. That I might pick up a few erroneous 'facts' along the way doesn't bother me too much. As you say, it's good for 'fun browsing', but also for getting a general overview of a given subject -- learning in a very exploratory way -- while ignoring the suspicious and uncitated details amirite?

Incidentally, though I admit it sounds very strange, you've attained a place of comic reverence among my fellow lower sixth form English Language students after being introduced to us by an admiring teacher. Evidence: a picture of you hanging in the common room and liberal use of the phrase "David Crystal can beat you up." We were, in fact, leafing through a copy of Language and the Internet at lunch break today. We noted your impressive volume of IRC research and all hope to see you on SlashNET or something sometime!

DC said...

Thanks for doing that, Hannah. Another small step towards perfection. Actually, I have enough trouble trying to keep my own bio data up to date on my website, without looking after other people's! I'm grateful for any help I can get.

It'll be interesting to see what happens to Citizendium, which is an interesting middle road. The problem will be costs. I have a team of about 350 specialists which I use for updating my general encyclopedias, and each time I use them there's a fee to be paid. It's quite an expensive business, using experts to maintain an encyclopedia database.

I agree about the fun browsing element in wikis. You can find yourself going down side-roads that you'd never otherwise have thought of exploring. But you always have to be on your guard. Check, check, check is the only watchword, when it comes to reusing a 'fact'.

Mind you, getting hard facts is not always easy. I remember once phoning an embassy in London to check on some figures for their country, which was in the midst of a civil war. When I explained who I was, a suspicious voice asked: 'Whose side are you on?' And when I said, 'neither', they put the phone down.

Thanks for news of the common-room 'presence'. It sounds a lot better than a previous picture I saw, when I was visiting a school. My pic was on the wall, next to the dart-board. I comforted myself with the thought that the students were obviously not very good at darts.

DC said...

Interesting to see (August 2009) that Wikipedia is having to bite the editorial bullet more firmly, as I predicted it would have to do. But given the report that some editors were found to be manipulating the data, a little while back, the old question arises, Quis custodiat ipsos custodes? - 'Who guards these guardians?' And how are they trained? It takes ages to train editors properly, as I well know from my own encyclopedia days.