Using Wikipedia as a statistical source in the Athens News

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 3 July 2006

Although being on Crete we are some way from Athens, the Athens News is the nearest we have to an English language local paper. Something rather odd struck me about an article they ran last week, entitled "Primates in Peril?".

The article is credited to the AP and to Athens News, and follows the story of a request by the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre to experiment on a type of primate, sooty mangabey monkeys, which some people claim is endangered.

The thing that I thought was both odd, and journalistically risky, was in the last paragraph.

Some 65,000 non-human primates are used in research every year in the United States and European Union, according to Wikipedia. The numbers are rising as biomedical research funds have doubled since the 1990s. Use of non-human primates is also on the rise in China. [My emphasis]

I'm not sure how safe it is to start using Wikipedia as a statistical resource for print media. That number could have been different in the article last week, and might be different in the article next week. I especially think that in an area of knowledge, experiments on animals, that provokes such strong feelings, Wikipedia is always going to struggle to maintain that neutral point of view they strive for, as this discussion about whether the animal testing article should even show a picture of a test subject shows:

'This has probably been discussed before, but why not use the picture of Pavlov's dog at the top of the article, instead of the picture of the monkey? The monkey seems to be there to produce an emotional reaction in readers of the article'

...

'I had initially advocated a picture of a rat or mouse, but people complained because "this did not cause as much of an emotional reaction than the monkey".'

...

'Image should be a typical test, not sitting animal. It is 'animal testing" not "monkeys". And it should be on fruitfly or worm - most common experimental animals. It just makes clear that this part of Wikipedia is dominated by people who turn information into propaganda. Further discussion seems pointless, because it is not arguments but "emotional reaction" which counts.'

Keep up to date on my new blog