Wikiwisdom

| March 26, 2014 | 2 Comments

If a shell-less marine gastropod falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

I’ll ask that another way: if a reasonably intelligent 22-year-old almost-college-graduate goes to a random Wikipedia page, will he be able to learn anything from it?

This may or may not be a shell-less marine gastropod.

This may or may not be a shell-less marine gastropod.
photo credit: ShotHotspot.com via photopin cc

Clicking the “random article” button on Wikipedia can lead to a wealth of new learning. In the right light, Wikipedia is the purest form of idealism on the Internet. It’s a crowd-sourced encyclopedia, where everyone can take part in the sharing of information. If you are an expert in a subject, great! Add to what’s already out there, or at least refine it. If you don’t know anything about a subject, also great! Use information from the experts to learn. The beautiful thing about this sort of project, of course, is that my areas of expertise are your blank slates, and vice versa.

But it’s really hard to learn from Wikipedia, and not in the way your high school teachers warned you about. Reading a Wikipedia article requires at least some background knowledge of the field. Let’s say you were interested in knowing more about differential equations. Sentence 1: ”A differential equation is a mathematical equation that relates some function of one or more variables with its derivatives.” Without a pretty good familiarity with math, I might need to look up what a function is, what variables are, and what derivative means before I can make sense of that sentence. That’s a huge time commitment for a very small payoff, and this example isn’t even an extreme one.

When I voiced this concern, I was quickly pointed to the Simple English version of Wikipedia, a translation of the standard site that uses Basic English. In this “language,” that first sentence of the differential equations page reads, “A differential equation is a mathematical equation that involves variables like x or y, as well as the rate at which those variables change.” I don’t hate that translation, but any more information is very limited. Anyway, Simple English is designed “for people who are learning English,” and it has about 40 times fewer articles than the full site. For any information above the basics of the basics, Simple English Wikipedia doesn’t cut it.

I don’t necessarily blame Wikipedia for the huge insider focus. Hell, every link in the post to this point goes to a different Wikipedia page. But I would love to see some sort of resource that could bridge the gap between expert and novice. That resource might come in the form of an online video series/online course service like Khan Academy or something that mimics Wikipedia; I don’t quite know what it would look like. Whatever form it takes, I hope it lets me know when there’s some information on shell-less marine gastropods.

So, if that shell-less marine gastropod falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Probably. I think that’s what this is saying.

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Category: featured, Philosophy and Religion, Science and Technology

About the Author ()

Jeff is currently a senior in SED and CAS, studying the fine arts of Science Education and Physics. Despite his outstanding good looks and charm, he's really a normal guy deep down. He enjoys cool science, a good cup of coffee, Batman, fedoras, British television, and BU hockey. He's accepted that he'll never think the knot on his tie is good enough. OK, so maybe "normal" is an exaggeration...

Comments (2)

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  1. Evan Kuras says:

    Great post Jeff! For the record, the image in this post is a shell-less gastropod, but it is definitely terrestrial, not marine. Just thought the snail guy should add his two cents!

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