Monday, June 04, 2012

Wikipedia - An Encyclopedia For The Masses: NOT

To read the blurb from any Wikipedia promotion you would be led to the conclusion that Wikipedia is in part an attempt to pitch complex material to those who need things presented in their most understandable terms (because the Wikipedia Politburo say as much - "The Encyclopedia for the Rest of Us").

Yet, examine any of the technical subject pages concerning the classical sciences or Mathematics and you will immediately be confronted with the inescapable evidence that this is simply not true.

Take this example, pinched from the Wikipedia page on "Transcendental Numbers".

In mathematics, a transcendental number is a (possibly complex) number that is not algebraic—that is, it is not a root of a non-constant polynomial equation with rational coefficients.

Here we see a problem that plagues all the technical Wikipedia pages I've ever looked at: the introduction is complete and utter gibberish to the non-specialist in whatever subject the page is attempting to address, in this case mathematics i.e. the target audience for such a page since anyone who already is a mathematician will have learned what this is about yonks ago.

It seems to have escaped the page author(s) that the opening sentence and the material that follows it closely should be in everyday language, not bleeding-edge hardsumsspeek.

Here's my version: A transcendental number is a decimal number of the form x.abcd that goes on forever or as long as you care to keep doing the division sums. Most people knock off at 4 or 5 decimal places. It is called a transcendental number because it has properties only mathematicians care about that separate it from sensible numbers like the square root of minus one.

"But Stevie" I hear you say, "surely one need only follow the rich scattering of hyperlinks in the introduction to gain the elucidation and clarity of your rather non-technical and unrigorous definition of the term?"

To which I answer that a) yes indeed you can, but that the pages linked are just as bloody opaque and unfit-for-purpose as the one you started on, 2) by the time you get the answer to the idle question "what's a transcendental number?" you not only don't care any more but have a healthy hatred of mathematicians usually reserved for dentists and income-tax inspectors and ♥) you may never find the answer anyway as a distressing number of these sorts of pages are arranged in loops of unhelpful gobbledegook that bring you full circle after an hour of headache-inducing technobabble.

I picked out a math page to demonstrate this, but in fact you'll find the same stupidity taking place on pages to do with almost everything technical, which totally undermines the whole concept of the Wikipedia's existence as an Encyclopedia for the Masses.

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