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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wikipedia and Truth

An interesting article came out in Technology Review about Wikipedia and its standard of truth, "verifiability." As Simson Garfinkel puts it:

So how do the Wikipedians decide what's true and what's not? On what is their epistemology based?

Unlike the laws of mathematics or science, wikitruth isn't based on principles such as consistency or observa­bility. It's not even based on common sense or firsthand experience. Wikipedia has evolved a radically different set of epistemological standards--standards that aren't especially surprising given that the site is rooted in a Web-based community, but that should concern those of us who are interested in traditional notions of truth and accuracy. On Wikipedia, objective truth isn't all that important, actually. What makes a fact or statement fit for inclusion is that it appeared in some other publication--ideally, one that is in English and is available free online. "The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth," states Wikipedia's official policy on the subject.

As Garfinkel sees it, this practical approach is also a bit of a dodge, because so many of us treat the product of these standards as the truth on a variety of subjects. He concludes:

So what is Truth? According to Wikipedia's entry on the subject, "the term has no single definition about which the majority of professional philosophers and scholars agree." But in practice, Wikipedia's standard for inclusion has become its de facto standard for truth, and since Wikipedia is the most widely read online reference on the planet, it's the standard of truth that most people are implicitly using when they type a search term into Google or Yahoo. On Wikipedia, truth is received truth: the consensus view of a subject.

Garfinkel finds this standard of "truth" troubling -- especially when talking about something like LOTR or Dr. Who. But, not to get too armchairish, what other kind of truth is there? Traditionally speaking, it's only since the Enlightenment that we've begun to think of the truth as something directly accessible -- something "out there" that can be seen and measured, rather than an ideal that doesn't exist in the mundane world [EDIT: a shift only achieved by radically curtailing what would be accepted as truth]. To put this differently, truth is necessarily referential -- built of a network of associations, standards, and testimonies about what you're looking at, what you're using to look at it, and what all of it should be taken to mean. [EDIT: When "truth" looks simpler, or more transparent than that, it's only because you've lost hold of all those threads.] From this perspective, Wikipedia's standard seems a bit more direct and honest than, say, the absurd simplifications ofcollege textbooks, or even some scholarly articles. To work on a Wikipedia entry is to confront how unstable "truth" really is, in a manner not too far from that the experience of a scientist at his bench or an anthropologist in the field. Maybe "wikitruth" will help disseminate some healthy epistemological skepticism. (Or, from experience grading college essays, maybe not.)

1 comment:

Taran Rampersad said...

Obfuscating the truth does not make for a better truth. As it is, the Wikipedia administrators guide the Wikipedia to a path to truth which they dictate - but which is not necessarily the truth of others.

Further, if you actually compare 'Truth' between article translations, the argument that Wikipedia contains Truth is further obfuscated.

As far as 'The Enlightenment', if you think that this has already happened I am not certain that you have been paying attention to the world as it is. :-)