More Truth About Wikipedia

WikipediaLast week I began writing The Truth About Wikipedia. In that article I shared a few of the things that the Wikipedia model does well. Today I want to share some of the things I think it does poorly. Remember, I’m using Wikipedia is a microcosm of the wiki model which says that truth can best be captured by relying on the masses; the wiki model allows anyone and everyone to create and edit information. Along the way I’m drawing a few inevitable comparisons between Wikipedia as the vanguard of the new model and Encyclopedia Britannica as the vanguard of the old.

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It ignores human nature. The wiki supposes that humans are generally good and that they will work together to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. This ignores what the Bible tells us, though, that as sinful humans we are predominantly selfish, looking out for our own good ahead of the good of others. While our individual actions may assist others, we are still inherently and essentially sinful. We are not good people who occasionally do bad things, but bad people who sometimes do good things. The wiki model has had to account for human nature and respond to it in different ways, even ways that seem to cast the whole model in doubt. As just one example, certain pages have become so controversial or have seen so much vandalism that they have been locked so only administrators can edit them.

It offers too little review. The sheer volume of information that tends to accumulate when this model is successful makes it impossible to patrol it all, to ensure quality and accuracy. As of a few weeks ago Wikipedia had just 1,742 administrators tasked with overseeing more than 3 million English articles; tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of articles may be changed on any given day. Though there are no set qualifications to take on this position, administrators have the final say over articles, determining if they must be locked down, if they must be changed or if they must be deleted. When we have a model that ignores human nature and combine it with too little oversight, we will inevitably run into problems related to the misuse of authority. Wikipedia admits the failings in its model when it writes “In particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles more frequently contain significant misinformation, unencyclopedic [sic] content, or vandalism. Users need to be aware of this to obtain valid information and avoid misinformation that has been recently added and not yet removed.” And yet this warning is buried deep within the Wikipedia system. Very few people who use the site and read its articles are aware that newer articles frequently contain “significant misinformation.”

It is too subjective. In 2007 Virgil Griffith released a tool he called WikiScanner. The purpose of this tool was to link Wikipedia edits with the computer addresses of the people or organizations who had made changes to articles. The results were stunning, showing that many corporations and politicians, those with a vested interest in a certain topic, were constantly monitoring and changing articles within Wikipedia. Computers from within the headquarters of the Church of Scientology had removed critiques of the church from within the article on Scientology; computers from within the Vatican were alleged to have changed an article on Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. The anonymity of Wikipedia and the way in which it allows anyone to edit articles necessarily means that people will seek to protect their own interests in the world’s most important repository of information. Some believe that as wikis are left to mature, objectivity will increase. I find this difficult to believe. As wikis mature their importance will increase and thus it will become ever-more important for each of us that they contain not necessarily what is true about us but what we want others to believe is the truth.

It ignores authority. While Christians believe in the priesthood of all believers, we also believe in authority. The wiki model levels authority structures, finding no value in age, experience or education. When editing an entry on justification, thus declaring how God saves his people, the ten year-old child stands on equal footing with the most eminent theologian. In this way it offers a kind of radical egalitarianism at odds with biblical authority structures and plain common sense.

It redefines truth. The most dangerous problem of all is that the wiki model gives us a whole new understanding of truth. What is truth? Truth in this model is nearly indistinguishable from consensus. Because there are no experts and because “facts” do not have to be proven, the model brings with it a level of uncertainty about what is true. When truth is in dispute, when a piece of information is turned one way and then another, the deciding factor is not whether the fact can be proven or proven from an authoritative source. Instead, the deciding factor is what the majority agree on or perhaps what an administrator decides upon, even though that administrator may have no knowledge about the topic. The wiki model tells us that truth is what the majority determine it to be. If 75% of us determine that Eric Liddell ran with a piece of paper in his hand, the model offers no way of contesting that. In this way it democratizes truth, subtly teaching us that truth can be found through the majority opinion. By requesting footnotes it tells us that what has been put in print is true and, conversely, that what has not been printed has not been proven. It tells us that all sources are equal in authority. If someone can find a quote saying that Liddell ran with a piece of paper in his hand, he has every right to contest and overrule my edit.

Even some in Hollywood recognize that this is problematic. Stephen Colbert coined the word wikiality saying “together we can create a reality that we all agree on—the reality we just agreed on.” Colbert understands what too many miss: when we look at the epistemology of the Internet, the way it defines truth, consensus reigns. Truth does not have its source in God, it has its source in us.

Let me reiterate here that I am using Wikipedia as a microcosm of the wiki model as a whole, a model that is now the backbone of much of the information we encounter. The older you are, the more likely you are to understand its shortcomings and to use the sites with an awareness of these shortcoming. The younger you are, the less likely you are to understand this. Today’s younger generations have little sense of the distinction between old sources of knowledge and today’s sources. They have even less sense of the differing epistemologies, little understanding that Wikipedia is far more likely to be radically wrong than Britannica. Speaking personally, I access Wikipedia frequently, but always regard it as a non-authoritative source of information. Its convenience appeals to me more more than its authority. It is handy, but I rarely allow it to be the final word; it is a starting point to knowledge, not a destination. Wikis, we find, are better at communicating information than knowledge. The more they speak to what is true, the more troublesome they become.

Academic institutions have had to wrestle with the reality of a wiki world. Some regard any use of Wikipedia as an automatic fail; others consider it equal to any other encyclopedia. In an interview with Business Week Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales said that he doesn’t think that students should be quoting Wikipedia saying, “No, I don’t think people should cite it, and I don’t think people should cite Britannica, either—the error rate there isn’t very good. People shouldn’t be citing encyclopedias in the first place.” He may be right, but the reason that many teachers of days past have told students to avoid encyclopedias was not because of inaccuracy but because of laziness; teachers wanted their students to go to the sources, not to the summaries of those sources. Wales gives Britannica too little credit.

Oliver Kamm warns us of a danger inherent in allowing consensus to serve as the arbiter of truth. “Intellectual inquiry involves testing ideas against the canons of evidence” but “Wikipedia recognizes no intrinsic value in competence or knowledge; its guiding principle is agreement rather than truth. … Wikipedia has no means of arbitrating between different claims, other than how many people side with one position rather than another. That ethos is fatal to the advancement of learning.” Of course consensus and Scripture are often far opposed to one another. The consensus holds that this world has been shaped by an impersonal process of evolution through which all that exists has come to be. The Bible tells us that it was lovingly fashioned by a good Creator. The consensus holds that humans are essentially good, that the Bible is a human construct, that human life begins some time after the moment of conception. In all these things consensus is directly opposed to truth. Wikipedia says that knowledge flows horizontally from human-to-human and that truth is the sum of this knowledge; the Bible tells us that knowledge and truth find their source in God and that all truth flow vertically from him to us. At the heart of the wiki model is a new conception of truth–truth is what we agree upon.