Is Truth the first victim?
Tech Central Station:
The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.
Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, Encyclopædia Britannica
To the Editor:
Re ''Google Is Adding Major Libraries to Its Database'' (front page, Dec. 14)
While having online access to some great libraries promises to facilitate research in democratizing access to books, it is worth keeping some things in mind. A digital version of a book -- especially a rare one, printed centuries ago -- is not a replacement for the hard copy. Not only has printed paper proved a durable technology, but there is also much to be gained by visiting the libraries, examining the actual books and entering into discussions with librarians and other researchers. Gaining access to a digital reproduction of an older text makes it easier to take a first step, but little good research will be done simply sitting alone in front of a computer screen.
Vancouver, British Columbia
Dec. 14, 2004
The writer is an assistant professor of philosophy at Simon Fraser University
The gatekeepers are enraged, a priesthood agitated once again, and it's an easy spectacle to enjoy. But there are difficult issues, too. Larry Sanger (link via Many2Many), formerly of Wikipedia and its co-founder:
… the following must be taken in the spirit of someone who knows and supports the mission and broad policy outlines of Wikipedia very well. First problem: lack of public perception of credibility, particularly in areas of detail. … regardless of whether Wikipedia actually is more or less reliable than the average encyclopedia, it is not perceived as adequately reliable by many librarians, teachers, and academics. The reason for this is not far to seek: those librarians etc. note that anybody can contribute and that there are no traditional review processes. … there are a great many benefits that accrue from robust credibility to the public. One benefit, but only one, is support and participation by academia. Second problem: the dominance of difficult people, trolls, and their enablers. … A few of the project's participants can be, not to put a nice word on it, pretty nasty. And this is tolerated. So, for any person who can and wants to work politely with well-meaning, rational, reasonably well-informed people--which is to say, to be sure, most people working on Wikipedia--the constant fighting can be so off-putting as to drive them away from the project. The root problem: anti-elitism, or lack of respect for expertise. There is a deeper problem--or I, at least, regard it as a problem--which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise is tolerated).
Larry Sanger is now 'on the academic job market'. I can't believe he hasn't discovered for himself how trolls and difficult people are quite fully enough represented in academia — a glance almost any week at the Letters pages of the TLS, LRB, etc will make that clear. Wikipedia has no monopoly in that market.
Clay Shirky takes each of Sanger's points and deals with them fairly but firmly. He says:
Of course librarians, teachers, and academics don’t like the Wikipedia. It works without privilege, which is inimical to the way those professions operate. This is not some easily fixed cosmetic flaw, it is the Wikipedia’s driving force. … The physical book, the hushed tones, the monastic dedication, and (unspoken) the barriers to use, these are all essential characteristics of the academy today. It’s not that it doesn’t matter what academics think of the Wikipedia — it would obviously be better to have as many smart people using it as possible. The problem is that the only thing that would make the academics happy would be to shoehorn it into the kind of filter, then publish model that is broken, and would make the Wikipedia broken as well. …
(Wikipedia) is valuable as a site of argumentation and as a near-real-time reference, functions a traditional encyclopedia isn’t even capable of. (Where, for example, is Brittanica’s reference to the Indian Ocean tsunami?) The Wikipedia is an experiment in social openness, and it will stand or fall with the ability to manage that experiment. Whining like Sanger’s really only merits one answer: the Wikipedia makes no claim to expertise or authority other than use-value, and if you want to vote against it, don’t use it. Everyone else will make the same choice for themselves, and the aggregate decisions of the population will determine the outcome of the project. And 5 years from now, when the Wikipedia is essential infrastructure, we’ll hardly remember what the fuss was about.
The best thing on this vexed question of authority that I've read in this whole debate is from Collin Brooke (I've cited it here before):
... credibility is something you earn and develop, not something you simply have. When we ask our students to do research and to prepare the results in written form, we are teaching them to earn credibility through breadth and depth of research. You don't earn credibility by citing an "authoritative source," whatever that means. You earn it by testing your sources against one another, understanding what the reasons are for differences of opinion, and figuring out how to resolve them or to choose among positions, etc. In other words, authority should be something that each of us assigns to our sources, not the other way around. It is the result of research, not a prerequisite.
Which goes to support Danah Boyd's view (and she writes as a contributor to and user of Wikipedia):
i do not consider it to be equivalent to an encyclopedia. I believe that it lacks the necessary research and precision. The lack of talent and practice mostly comes from the fact that most entries have limited contributers. Wikipedia is often my first source, but never my last, particularly in contexts where i need to be certain of my facts. Wikipedia is exceptionally valuable to read about multiple sides to a story, particularly in historical contexts, but i don't trust alternative histories any more than i trust privileged ones. … I don't believe that the goal should be 'acceptance' so much as recognition of what Wikipedia is and what it is not. It will *never* be an encyclopedia, but it will contain extensive knowledge that is quite valuable for different purposes.
(See also Slashdot.)