Why Do People Trust Wikipedia? Because An Argument Is Better Than A Lecture
from the source-please dept
I’ve never really understood the debate about how trustworthy Wikipedia is compared with once-printed, more “official” encyclopedia volumes, like the old Encyclopedia Britannica. What rarely made sense to me was the constant assertions that an information system to which anyone could contribute was inherently unreliable because anyone could contribute to it. Sure, you get the occasional vandals making joke edits, but by and large the contributions by the community are from informed, interested parties. The results tend to be close to, if not on par, with traditional encyclopedias.
But if I can’t understand the comparison between Wikipedia and printed encyclopedias, I’m completely flabbergasted why anyone would be shocked to find that the public trusts Wikipedia more than their traditional news sources.
The British public trusts Wikipedia more than they do the country’s newsrooms, according to a new poll by research firm Yougov. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they trusted Wikipedia pages to tell the truth “a great deal,” or “a fair amount”—more than can be said for journalists at the Times or the Guardian, and also slightly above BBC News.
Well, no shit. That’s because, as I’ve been trying to scream at you people for the past three years, the corporate mass-media news industry sucks. More specifically, the once proud fourth branch of our government has been reduced to screaming-head opinionators formulating commentary on the basis of politicized ratings. In other words, Wikipedia and the news are in two different businesses: one is about facts and the other is about shock and spin. Argue with me all you like, you know it’s true.
But perhaps even more importantly, the general public trusts crowd-sourced Wikipedia articles more than the news because an argument is always more trust-worthy than a lecture. That’s the real difference. If you want to know how good a teacher in a school is, you gather up the best student, the worst student, the principal and the teacher and then analyze what they all say together. You don’t ask the school’s PR director. Wikipedia, even when it comes to contested or hotly-debated articles, does this extremely well, even concerning itself. The linked article above discussed a number of articles about how reliable Wikipedia is, some of which disagreed with others, and all were found on the Wikipedia page for itself.
Regardless the disputes over individual studies and their methodologies, how I found them is almost as telling as their results. I came across them because Wikipedia provided external references, allowing me to corroborate the information. This is one of the site’s great merits: the aggregation of multiple sources, correctly linked, to build a more complete picture. As the results of the Yougov poll perhaps suggest, this surely seems more reliable than getting the coverage of an event from one newspaper.
The truest answer to a question can rarely be told by a single source, which is what makes the sources section of a Wikipedia page so valuable. What is the corollary in a news broadcast? Perhaps a single expert? Maybe once in a while they’ll have two sides of a debate spend five minutes with one another? They’re not even close. The argument itself can be instructive, but that argument never happens on most news shows.
This doesn’t mean you blindly read Wiki articles without questioning them. But a properly sourced article is simply more trustworthy than a talking head telling you how to think.