Who Do You Trust, The Wiki Or The Reporter?

from the questions,-questions... dept

On Wednesday I posted a story linking to an article suggesting Wikipedia was somehow untrustworthy. While I can understand why, at first, the concept of Wikipedia seemed a little scary to those who hadn't seen it in action, I figured the reporter in question might want to know a few more details about it, and perhaps correct some of his misperceptions. My main problem was that he seemed to write off Wikipedia based solely on how it was created and maintained, and not at all on the actual content. Along with my post, I sent an email to the writer, Al Fasoldt, giving him some additional information about Wikipedia, and wondering why, after telling us how you can't trust any random info online, he trusted the email from a random librarian claiming Wikipedia was somehow untrustworthy. The ongoing discussion with Mr. Fasoldt has been quite a lesson in watching how a journalist (a) continues to make unsubstantiated allegations (b) seems to prefer insulting me and putting words in my mouth to actually responding to my points or questions and (c) sticks steadfastly to his belief that only "experts" can be trusted with information -- and, in his case, only experts that he chooses. Yet, somehow, we're supposed to find him more trustworthy than a self-correcting community. Figuring he might appreciate the views of others in his profession (you know, "experts"), I sent him links to Dan Gillmor's article on Wikipedia and Steve Yelvington's recent realization of the power of Wikipedia. However, rather than actually look at that information, Mr. Fasoldt accused me of wanting "students to trust a source that's not trustworthy." After some back and forth of this nature, where Mr. Fasoldt responded to my request that he do a little more research by saying: "I'm glad you're not the publisher of a newspaper" (apparently, his publisher lets him do no research at all) and then telling me that anyone who wrote for Wikipedia obviously knew nothing (his phrase was: "100 times zero is still zero"), I suggested an experiment. I pointed to the Wikipedia page on Syracuse, NY where he apparently lives, and suggested he change something on the page, to make it provably, factually incorrect -- and see how long it lasted. Rather than take me up on the experiment, or suggest an alternative, he complained simply that the whole idea of Wikipedia was "outrageous," "repugnant" and finally (in another email) "dangerous," and therefore he refused to take part in my experiment. He told me that asking him to take part of an experiment that would show how Wikipedia corrected errors "wouldn't change the danger" of Wikipedia -- and mentioned how important it was that teachers everywhere knew what a dangerous tool this was. After this email exchange, he came to Techdirt himself, and commented that, based on what he read here, he was disappointed in our educational system -- and proceeded to misquote a poem. Apparently, he was unwilling to trust information displayed in Wikipedia, but finds random comments on a blog as a representative sample of our education system. Thankfully, someone else corrected his misquote, pointing out that a group editing system might have helped out in such a situation. It's true that you shouldn't trust anything you read online, by itself. However, most of us know how to look at information, find other, supporting information to back it up or disprove it before writing it off, and not to judge a wiki by its disclaimer. However, by refusing to back up his claims, by mis-stating or ignoring nearly everything I said to him and by resorting to misdirection in his arguments, personally, I find Mr. Fasoldt to be untrustworthy -- but I suggest you make your own judgment call on that one.

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  1. identicon
    D. Glenn Arthur Jr., 28 Aug 2004 @ 6:08pm

    Re: Face value

    "How many things in a library do you take at face value? "

    While acknowledging that "the singular of 'data' is not 'anecdote'", I still wish to put for an example:

    In two reputable, printed-on-paper books, each being an "encyclopedia of musical instruments", I have found the original Hammond Organ described as an "electronic instrument", explaining that it generates tones with vacuum-tube oscillators as the Teremin and the Ondes Martenot do. This information is incorrect.

    Curious as to the reliability of the Wikipedia, I was pleased to discover just now that the Wikipedia gets it right: the Hammond Organs in question were electromechanical devices, producing their base waveforms by means of physically rotating disks with teeth on them. The Hammond electric organs are no more "electronic instruments" than an electric guitar is. (Each contains electronics for shaping the sound once it's generated -- the Hammond has more than a guitar does -- but each relies on mechanical motion as the ultimate source of the waveform.)

    So no, we can't take library books at face value. Knowing which source to trust in a given disagreement is a matter of epistemology, of course, but the nature of Wikis didn't create that problem.

    Personally, the idea that wankers can post guesswork in a Wiki and the idea that someone with a political agenda or a really persistent misunderstanding can go in and de-correct correct information do bother me, but they're cancelled out by the notion that a proper expert can come along and make it right, or that someone can walk in and say, "I've personally taken apart a $foo and can describe its internals." So for me it's a wash: the Wikipedia is yet another useful source which might be wrong, just like most good reference works. There are a great many sources I trust less.

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