Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Using Wikipedia critically

[via Popular Mechanics]

One of the things I've noticed since I started working with after-school programs a couple of years ago is that while students now spend a great deal of their time online, few are fully aware of the resources that could be making their academic lives so much simpler. I can't count the number of times I've seen students reading and rereading class notes hoping to find an answer that was just a few seconds away on Google.

Of these resources, perhaps the most underutilized is Wikipedia. It's not perfect, of course, but between breadth and surprisingly good quality control, there's nothing better on the internet for general factual questions.

Occasionally, though, something godawful does slip through.

Case in point...

Wallace L. Minto (August 6, 1921, in Jersey City, New Jersey, United States – September 3, 1983) had a passion for science at a very young age. For instance, at age 13, he and his father, Wallace Milton Minto, stock piled more than 50 tons of uranium rich ore in Sparta, NJ. He was also the first to split the uranium atom while still a teenager. This nearly created an atomic explosion in his family home. At age 16, Wallace synthesized radium and invented what is now known as "Scotchlite". He had a copyright on his own periodic chart which renamed all the elements.

When only 16, he was a student at Columbia College and was later instrumental in convincing Albert Einstein to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (dated August 2, 1939) stressing the need for the United States to expand its experimentation with Atomic Energy, leading to the Manhattan Project. Consequently, Minto sold his uranium rich ore to the U.S. Government for use in the Manhattan Project.[1]

On June 26, 1944, Minto was enlisted by Dr. Andrew H. Dowdy, director of the Manhattan Department of the University of Rochester, to take charge of the Special Problems Division of the Manhattan Project. Minto reported directly to General Leslie Groves and reportedly threw Groves out of his lab for tampering with his beakers.

We could, of course, dismiss this as being simply incredible, but simply dismissing the unbelievable is a potentially dangerous habit. Unlikely things do happen. Instead, the article strikes me as a great opportunity for discussing why we reject certain sources as unreliable.

1. Check the issues box.

Lots of red flags here.

This article needs additional citations for verification. (July 2015)
This article may be in need of reorganization to comply with Wikipedia's layout guidelines. (July 2015)
This article is an orphan, as no other articles link to it. Please introduce links to this page from related articles; try the Find link tool for suggestions. (December 2015)
That first one leads us directly to...

2. Check the sources

Or, in this case, source.

"Forgotten Genius". Retrieved 2015-07-28.

It's a brief post that cites no sources other than an alluded-to acquaintance with the subject, nor is there anything in the writer's online biography that suggests special knowledge.

3. Check the relevant pages

Go to the Wikipedia listings for the Manhattan Project and the Organic Rankine Cycle Engine and do a search for "Minto." You can probably guess what happens.

As far as I can tell, the only other place Minto does show up in Wikipedia is the also suspect entry on the Minto wheel, a cute but not very practical heat engine that seems to predate Minto by quite a bit.

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