How reliable is Wikipedia? Recent studies have shown that, on the whole, Wikipedia’s accuracy is equal to that of Encyclopaedia Britannica and at least as good as peer-review medical journals. But take a look through several random articles, and you’re likely to find at least one egregious falsehood.
Wikipedia’s greatest strength and greatest weakness is its policy of allowing anyone to edit its articles. This openness simplifies the process of adding new facts, but it also simplifies the process of adding misinformation. Though many inaccuracies are quickly caught and corrected, it is possible for a false statement to remain in an article for years.
Consider the case of “Froot Loops” Tettleton and the monkey/rabbit balls.
Mickey Tettleton was a Major League Baseball player who gained notoriety in 1989 when he hit 26 home runs and attributed his new-found power to eating Froot Loops breakfast cereal. He also had an unusual batting stance and chewed a big wad of tobacco during games. But in addition to all that, according to his Wikipedia article, he “kept monkey/rabbit balls in his back pocket for good luck.”
Tettleton’s breakfast preferences earned him the nickname “Froot Loops”, but I don’t remember anyone ever calling him “Monkey/Rabbit Balls” Tettleton. I strongly suspected this claim was not factual. But just to be sure I googled the phrase “mickey tettleton monkey rabbit balls,” and was shocked to see more than 200 hits. Was this real after all?
On closer inspection, my skepticism returned. Nearly all of the sites seemed to be summaries drawn from the Wikipedia article. They included all the same biographical trivia, and in the same order. One blog, Operation Shutdown explicitly cited Wikipedia as the source of the “monkey/rabbit balls” claim, and then offered speculation about what it might mean. Other than that, not one site offered additional information.
Wikipedia has policies to handle situations like this. The “verifiability” policy mandates that all claims in all Wikipedia articles must be backed by a reliable, published source. But it is not enough that other sites simply publish the claim. If Wikipedia is the source for the other sites, the claim is not verifiable. Along with “no original research” and “neutral point of view,” verifiability is one of the online encyclopedia’s three core policies, which override any other concerns in determining what is appropriate content for Wikipedia.
Failing to verify the statement, I had a choice. I could mark the phrase “”, challenging someone to come up with a reliable source, or I could go a step further and delete the claim entirely. To delete it would be the easier option, but first I wanted to cover all my bases. I looked through the article history, trying to discover who added the phrase — and when — to find clues that might reveal its source.
As I went back a year, then two years, I was surprised to see this claim remaining intact. But finally I found the edit that introduced “monkey/rabbit balls” into the article — on June 23, 2007. The fact that it had remained unchallenged for over three years gave me pause about deleting it, but the details I found around that edit argued the opposite case. The line had been added by an anonymous user. This fits the pattern of most Wikipedia vandalism. Strike one.
The same user modified two other former players’ pages on that day. Marty Castillo, who had moved to Malaysia to manage a baseball team, was lamented with, “A tragic situation for a player so beloved in Detroit.” At the very least, this statement violates the neutral point of view policy. Strike two.
Then there was this edit to Tom Brookens’ page: “He also used to slay dragons with his firey bat and outrun wild boars on the basepaths.” Strike three.
Shortly after the vandalism, Brookens’ and Castillo’s pages were repaired, but Mickey Tettleton’s page snuck under the radar for three years. But no longer. Within seconds, the line was gone.
How reliable, then, is Wikipedia? As long as the site has people willing to find facts and correct errors, the open editing policy will ensure continuous improvement of its articles. But as long as even one site vandal exists, some articles will be infected with misinformation. So take Wikipedia with a grain of salt. Much of the information therein is valuable, but not all. If you find a statement that seems too bizarre to be true, you’re probably right.