Number vandals at Wikipedia

Dec 12, 2009

ImageI've been an occasional editor at Wikipedia for almost five years now. Over that time, my usual modus operandi has been to come across an article I'm interested in, make a lot of correction and clean-up edits and then add it to my watch list. My watch list has thus grown slowly but steadily over the years.

So I can't confirm whether it is because I am watching more articles, or whether this vandalism practice is new, but I thought I would write about it, because the implications are serious. The type of vandalism I'm referring to is the deliberate introduction of incorrect information involving numbers.

Numbers on Wikipedia intimidate people. Numbers are, by definition, absolute and difficult to argue with. A common example is an unreferenced date on a page receiving moderate user traffic. A well-intentioned editor likely added the date when first creating the article because he or she has intimate knowledge of the subject and is under the impression that such knowledge is "obvious" or "common". It is this misconception which makes number vandalism so insidious.

A sly vandal arrives one day, long after the original editor has moved on, and changes that date to something five years before, or a few months after. Subsequent visitors to the page aren't alerted that the date was recently changed; they only see a date and most will accept it without question, because of two reasons: a) they are there to get knowledge, rather than verify it, and b) a date is a number, impossible to question without pre-existing knowledge of the subject, or expending effort to perform real research.

Thus number vandalism has a tendency to be inserted without question more often, and remain on Wikipedia far longer than vandalism involving factual errors of other kinds. A recent example of this occurred on the Wikipedia page for Balvenie, one of my favourite purveyors of scotch whisky. In a prominent place halfway down the page was a list of "Vintage Casks" complete with dates, alcohol content and number of bottles produced, which was added on the 6th of September, 2009. This information was added without citation, but appeared so authoritative, as well as on a lightly trafficked page, that it was never challenged until I removed it on the 12th of December, 2009.

What's important to note here is that the information may very well have been accurate (although uncited) when it was first added. However, since that addition, further editors had seen fit to add, edit and change dates within this list, all without citation. Perhaps all of these edits were accurate as well, but really: who could tell?

Another example from my watchlist was this edit made on the 3rd of December, 2009. This vandal changed a date on a stub article from 1926 to 1941, and if I hadn't just started watching the article, who would have known the date was incorrect without following up on the various cited references on the Raisin Bran and U.S. Mills pages? How long would it have gone unnoticed on this relatively obscure and low-importance article?

It would be convenient to pigeonhole this as simple date vandalism, but really, the problem extends to all numbers on Wikipedia, of which dates are a significant category that feature on a large number of articles. Most things had to have happened at a "time" so dates are apt to appear on most articles. But it isn't just dates that have an air of authority in the human mind, it is assuredly all numbers.

Are you a Wikipedia editor? If so, you should make it a habit to examine numbers and dates on the pages you watch and edit. Uncited changes should be put under double scrutiny, for the simple reason that the ratio of effort required to change them versus that required to verify them is more unbalanced than almost any other type of edit. Be vigilant, and question all numbers; they should be the first items on any page which require reliable and verifiable external referencing.

Road Apples Almanac Hidden-state input elements and defaultValue

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