The Truth About Wikipedia

WikipediaGod is true. God is truth. God is entirely without error, entirely true in all he is, in all he knows, in all he commands. He is the source of all that is true and right. As beings made in his image, we are to reflect his truth, to value what is true and turn from what is error. Truth leads to God, error leads to Satan, for it is Satan who is the first liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). Wayne Grudem offers this warning: “In a society that is exceedingly careless with the truthfulness of spoken words, we as God’s children are to imitate our Creator and take great care to be sure that our words are always truthful.” Lying is an abomination to God because it mocks his truth. And while factual errors may not carry the same level of moral culpability as outright lies, while they may be unintentional, they are still lies, still pointing to a false reality. They still dishonor God.

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I thought about these things as I was working on the manuscript for my forthcoming book on technology. I thought about how we encounter truth in the world today, how we determine what is true and what is false. And naturally my thoughts led me to Wikipedia. It led me to pour a lot of thought into Wikipedia and into the reality that Wikipedia may well now be our culture’s primary arbiter of truth. What does this mean to the Christian? Is Wikipedia a source of truth? And what does it mean that as a society we now believe that a wiki model is the best way to determine what is true?

Today and tomorrow I want to write about Wikipedia a little bit, seeing it as a microcosm of the way our society determines truth–truth by consensus.

Because of its popularity and the way it takes advantage of the elements that cause web pages to be most noticeable to search engines, Wikipedia is very often the first or second search result returned by search engines. I recently glanced at the pages of the books spread out before me, chose some words and performed a Google search for each. Knowledge, authority, and affair all showed a page from Wikipedia as the very first result. Truth, history and power all had the entry appear as the second result. Turning to words of theological concern I found that Jesus, God, justification, Christianity and baptism also all lead first to Wikipedia. This shows that Wikipedia is now the first to answer many of our most important questions, questions about truth, authority, knowledge, wisdom, power, God and salvation. Its 15 million articles draw in 75 million visitors every month. Wikipedia tells the world what is true.

Wikipedia’s success has spawned a long list of imitators, other sites that maintain a similar look and feel but, more importantly, the same wiki format (a wiki is a type of site in which the users create and edit the content; it depends not on a few experts but on an army of amateurs and enthusiasts like you and me). Because Wikipedia has cornered the market as a general repository of information, most of the imitators are more narrow in scope, catering to just one discipline, whether science or theology. Even dictionaries have become open, with the definitions of words and phrases determined by the crowds (For example, Wiktionary is a lexical extension to Wikipedia while Urban Dictionary is a collection of slang and hip terms). The wiki model is increasingly regarded as the best means of arriving at truth, at building a repository of knowledge.

The obvious question to ask first is the question of accuracy: Do Wikipedia and its many imitators generally get the facts right? Does this new model work? Living in a sinful world we cannot expect perfection, of course. Our knowledge is incomplete and will always be marked by some error. Yet we want to pursue truth and the greatest possible truth. Does a wiki get us there?

In many ways it does. Wikipedia is right far more often than it is wrong, truthful far more often than it is marked by error. Yet it is not without concerns. Before I deal with concerns, though, let me be fair and suggest the advantages of the wiki model when compared to a more traditional model. Let me suggest what it does well.

What Wikipedia Does Well

It is expansive. A traditional encyclopedia has many limitations it must work within, the first of which is a limitation of space. With 65,000 entries, Encyclopedia Britannica already comprises 32 big and heavy volumes. And because each article must be prepared, edited and fact-checked by a staff member, the number of articles must be relatively few. There are issues related both to physical space and to editorial bandwidth. Not so with Wikipedia. Because it uses electronic storage rather than paper, there is near-infinite room for expansion and because entries can be created by anyone and immediately published, there is no need for editorial intervention or approval. The wiki model has proven that it can be much bigger, much more expansive in its scope.

It relies on more sources. The wiki model does not depend upon the knowledge, the time or the good will of a few experts. Instead, it allows anyone anyone with knowledge to add, change, clarify, edit. I recently observed that in the Wikipedia entry for Eric Liddell it was stated that he ran the 400 meter final in the 1924 Olympics clutching a piece of paper on which someone had written a few inspirational words. This is how the event was shown in the movie Chariots of Fire, but I knew that this is not historically accurate (though even in the movie half the shots of the final race show him clutching the paper and the other half do not!). Because this article is built upon the wiki model, I could immediately edit the entry to correct this mistake. I am no expert on Eric Liddell but had recently read a couple of biographies of him and had learned that though he appreciated this note, he did not run with it. Inherent in a wiki is this understanding that all of us have knowledge and that each of us can contribute that knowledge. This accords with what Protestants have long believed about the priesthood of all believers, that God does not dispense truth to only a select few, but to all of his people.

It is cheap. Because the wiki model depends on the labor of the masses and because it does not pay contributors, editors or administrators, it has very low overhead. This allows the Internet to have more wikis, more repositories of knowledge, dedicated to more subjects.

It is responsive. The wiki model is fluid, able to respond very quickly. Entries can be changed quickly in response to new realities. When a celebrity dies, his Wikipedia entry is often changed within moments. That same entry in a traditional encyclopedia may not be changed for several years. When I noted the inaccuracy about Eric Liddell I did not need to notify an editorial panel; I could simply make the change myself, a process that took just a few seconds.

It is convenient. Wikipedia is available in its entirety from any device that has Internet access. I do not need to carry 32 hardbound volumes with me; I can simply carry my iPhone. The site’s format also offers of the convenience of inter-linking, where one page often links to hundreds of others. As I research one topic, I can quickly find information about related topics.

The wiki model does have much to commend it. Whether looking for general information on Wikipedia or searching for information about a particular scientific fact through a wiki dedicated to a very narrow discipline, the wiki model is able to create and share vast amounts of information. And this information tends to be factual.

I will come back to this topic tomorrow and address some of Wikipedia’s shortcomings.