The Uneasy Balance Between Wikipedia And Truth

from the it-ain't-always-there dept

I've long been a staunch defender of Wikipedia -- a site that I think many of us find quite useful. Most of the criticisms directed at Wikipedia come off as misguided -- and usually come from people who only just realized that anyone can edit it and insist this is somehow bad before recognizing that this usually tends to be pretty good, because it means mistakes tend not to last very long. That isn't to say that mistakes aren't made -- or even that they're not made quite frequently. But, as long as you recognize that Wikipedia, by itself, is not meant to be the definitive source, then it is still an amazingly useful repository of information that can be used as a starting point.

However, Simpson Garfinkel has an interesting article pointing out that there is one element of Wikipedia's relationship to "truth" that should be examined. That is, the site very highly values verifiability over truth. In other words, it will always side with a citation over personal knowledge -- even if that citation is incorrect. This leads to some odd situations, when you think about it. After all, people will point out that Wikipedia's advantage over something like Britannica is that mistakes stay for much longer in Britannica. But, that might only be true if the Wikipedia entry isn't based on a false citation.

If the Wikipedia entry is based on a false citation, and there's no other citation that contradicts it, then it's likely that Wikipedia's entry will remain wrong, but citable. So, the easy editing of Wikipedia is a bit meaningless if the source of the false fact is not also editable (or if there's no citation that shows the original citation is wrong). I've seen this myself lately with the short entry about me. While I do take quite seriously the typical admonition not to edit your own entry, I have checked it at times. What amuses me, is that it tends to have my birthday wrong (flipping the month and the date, such that my real birthday -- December 8, or 12/08 -- is flipped to August 12, or 08/12). I've been watching a couple of people (one of whom I'm pretty sure I know) argue back and forth about the date, with the person who keeps flipping it back to the wrong date claiming at one point that he is me. He's not. Of course, I don't take this as evidence of Wikipedia's failure, but more a reminder of what the site is and what it's not. It's a useful starting point for investigation, which is quite often reliable and sufficient, but I wouldn't recommend betting your life on it. Or even your birthday.

Filed Under: truth, verifiability, wikipedia

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  1. identicon
    Anon2, 21 Oct 2008 @ 10:04am

    Starting Point

    I agree that Wiki can be a very good starting point, and I use it for that purpose all the time. Whether, and to what extent, I then take my research further, depends on two factors: (1) my assessment of the reliability of the Wiki article, and (2) my need for the most accurate information. I do the former based on variables such as how many active editors are engaged (or how much active editing was involved) in the article in its current form, or the use of certain language indicating perhaps a less than neutral perspective. No factor will be perfect, it's inherently subjective, but I've found over time I can pretty frequently cull the worthwhile from the utterly useless articles. The latter factor, of course, is a function of what I'm using it for and how much time I have to broaden my searches, dig down into primary sources, etc.

    What I find most interesting, both here, and in general discussion of Wiki, is that something that was practically beaten into me when I was in school seems no longer to be taught (or people forgot the lesson): even Brittanica or some other encyclopedia is nothing more than an extremely general survey of what other sources might have to say about a topic. I.e., encyclopedias are nothing but starting points, regardless of whether you are using Brittanica, Wiki, or some other encyclopedia. They were never meant to be anything else, and it's sad that so many people today assume that an encylopedia entry of any sort can serve as the be-all, end-all of any given question or issue.

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