Friday, February 11, 2005 | Letters (from)
Recently we took off on an endeavor for a publishing house that required one single piece of information about nearly one thousand individuals: We needed to know their date of birth. Since we live in a nation with excellent records, certainly the hospitals across our fine land would be in a position to provide such data. However, given the scope of our project, such an effort would be far too time consuming. Likewise, contacting everyone’s mother by telephone would be similarly onerous, particularly since this would entail gathering the phone numbers of many private residences and our mole at the F.B.I. could be only so coöperative. Also, old people have bad memories. It would be difficult to rely on their information about their children.
Enter the Internet and, more specifically, Wikipedia. You have a comprehensive library of trivia about a vast number of subjects ranging from Hank Aaron to Ian Ziering. For the record, Hank was born on February 5, 1934, and Ian March 30, 1964, which we easily discovered thanks to one Wikipedia click. We were, in a word, ecstatic. Wikipedia provided not only the birthdays for every major (read: “minor”) celebrity, but also every pope, professional snooker player, member of any royal family, and Bollywood actor in history. It’s a birthday searcher’s paradise.
It seems that in our elation, we took the “pedia” part of your name too seriously (from the Latin for “foot”). We assumed that those feet were concretely entrenched in fact. It appears that we mistook concrete for clay. We should have realized that this was too good to be true. You state your birthdays as fact. And they are, if by fact you mean “the best guess of the person that wrote this Wikipedia article.” It seems that Wikipedia is edited by its users, and its users are either too slow or too stupid to fact-check themselves. These are people who would rather spend their time bickering over the correct words for “pretty girl that I’ll never kiss” in Romulan or Klingon or reporting the sexual history of pornographic films stars in long, graphic detail, in lieu of figuring out the correct dates and information of the large amount of people and things that don’t fall into those two categories for a publication that’s purportedly a reference tool.
But the blame is not limited to users. No, Wikipedia itself is either too lazy or indifferent to root our conflicting reports of birthdates and take 13 seconds (the time it takes to Google a person and check a couple of other Web sites for some sort of confirmation) and publish the correct date, thus rendering the information gleaned useless. If one date is incorrect, the possibility exists that all dates are incorrect, and therefore must all be double-checked, eliminating the time saved by consulting a central “reference” book. “Charo: January 15 or March 13? Who cares? We’ve got all you need to know about Gaelic handball and Super Mario Bros.”
To be fair, even incorrect dates wouldn’t be a tremendous deal. However, when one looks at your listing for February 15 and sees Kim Jong-Il listed as having been born on that day, one takes that answer as on the level, until they flip to February 16 and see “Kim Jong-Il” listed as having been born on that day. Kim Jong-Il is a powerful man, but I doubt he’s powerful enough to bend the space-time continuum. And unless he came out of his mother’s womb, then dove back in and came out again 24 hours later, one of those days is wrong.
While you’re at it, double check these folks: Joan Rivers, Geraldo Rivera, Kathy Ireland, Kenny G, Dennis Miller, and the entire roll of Menudo.
Thank you, Wikipedia, for making three grown men with four hours of sleep in five days directly question their sanity by blurring the line between fact and fiction.