Posted by: reformedmusings | September 9, 2008

Wikipedia vs. the myth of objectivity

I saw an article on WorldNetDaily entitled Shocking trend: U.S. courts citing Wikipedia. I was amused at first, but then started thinking about what may be behind the author’s reasoning. He seems to be implying that Wikipedia has less objectivity and/or reliability than other encyclopedias. I offer a different view on both points.

Inaccuracies have many sources, including currency or the lack thereof. Wikipedia’s currency exceeds any other encyclopedia. The most prevalent problem in printed volumes is obsolescence of the information contained therein. Printed encyclopedia’s and other references have refresh cycles on the order of years, sometimes longer. Changes in our world happen rapidly, rendering printed information quickly obsolete. On the flip side of that same coin, new developments fall victim to the same refresh cycles. Try finding references to Al Quada or al Zawahiri in the 2001 edition of most printed references. They made it to Wikipedia in hours. That print copy on your shelf from 1995 is literally history.

Scientific knowledge grows at a blindingly rapid pace. What may be taken as gospel truth today may be shown to be nonsense tomorrow. This has been axiomatic to the point of humor in the area of nutrition (eat/don’t eat eggs, bran muffins, etc.), but also in mathematics, physics, biology, and most others. As the knowledge gathered increases exponentially, we need new ways of disseminating it. Wikipedia is one of those ways in the 21st century.

Taking an example from the WND article, try looking up laissez-passer in your printed encyclopedia. Expanding our scope, look up Blackwater Worldwide in a printed volume. Or Stargate SG-1. Or Enron. Or Google Chrome. In a graphic demonstration of Wikipedia’s responsiveness, the latter was released late last week and already has a detailed entry.

Another source of problems comes from biases on the part of the authors. Everyone has biases. The great lie or myth of the past few centuries says that science is inherently a neutral discipline. While it is true that the scientific method itself is designed to limit bias, the assumptions, boundary and initial conditions laid, and interpretation of the results all betray our expectations and/or desires. In a bumper sticker: Objectivity is a myth.

This has been true since the beginnings of science in human experience. Consider the so-called golden age of science, the days of the great science societies. The British Royal Society, the French Academy, and the others all began and exist through the oversight and sponsorship of their respective governments. Even in the US and in the modern era, science depends on funding through grants and sponsorships, most often from the legislative or executive branches of government. In general, that money only continues while the results please the donors. Some respected organizations have a long history of bias in certain areas. Encyclopedia Brittanica in particular has been a standard bearer for particular points of view, particularly on religion and biology.

Take a prominent current example. Enthusiasts of the myth of anthropologically-caused global warming have very publicly tried to intimidate those whose research doesn’t match their cause of the day, cutting money from those who don’t tow the government’s or activists’ political line. Some who doubt the anthropological warming theory have lost their positions, although their professional qualifications are not in question. French scientist Marcel Leroux has said that “In the end, global warming is more and more taking on an aspect of manipulation, which really looks like a ‘scientific’ deception, and of which the first victims are the climatologists who receive funding only when their work goes along with the IPCC.” This doesn’t sound like objective science to me. In the end it couldn’t be, because there’s no such thing. Objectivity is a myth.

Wikipedia is truly a product of the world community. Anyone can write or edit an article but has built-in controls to minimize the possibility of problems with articles. There are standard guidelines for posters, who are typically very knowledgabe on their subjects. References are required to back up statements in articles. Some reference lists run over hundreds of sources. If you aren’t sure about an article, click on the Discussion tab at the top of the article to get a handle on the issues raised in/by the article. Sometimes the discussions are more interesting than the article itself. Here’s where people air disagreements with article contents or tone. There’s also a formal process for dispute resolution. You can also see how the article has changed over time by clicking the History tab.

Is the system perfect? No. But then, when was the last time you saw the author of a printed encyclopedia article challenged in the same volume for all to see, possibly providing a different view? As a result of all the crosschecks and the open processes, the chances of getting a balanced article in Wikipedia are far greater than in a printed volume with no outside accountability. Wikipedia’s policy of a “neutral point of view” for articles is openly enforced by all readers, unlike any printed volume of which I’ve ever heard or seen.

How do uninvolved observers rate Wikipedia? There have been several studies comparing Wikipedia and other encyclopedias. Ars Technica reported on the Nottingham University Business School study, which showed that experts rated Wikipedia highly, being accurate enough to use for study. Ars Technica also reported on a nature.com study that showed Wikipedia to be as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica. As you might imagine, the Britannica folks objected. I’m shocked.

My bottom line is two fold: 1) never trust any single source of information because there’s no such thing as an objective human being; and 2) go to original sources to the maximum extent possible. The closer you can get to original accounts of an event or piece of information, the less filtering or skewing there will be by other fallible human beings. Combining 1) and 2) will provide the best approach to discern the truth in any matter. If you’re relying on any encyclopedia for your information without vetting it against original sources, you’re simply deluding yourself.

So, should we be lamenting the citation of Wikipedia in official sources? I don’t think so. Wikipedia graphically represents the democratization of information, a microcosm of the Internet itself. It’s the way of the future…get used to it.

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