Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I was browsing through some stuff on recently and I came across this (which I have parphrased)

"But of course he got the information from Wikipedia, which naturally discounts it's validity"

I've seen this a few times now - the casual discounting of anything sourced from Wikipedia as being fatally flawed and almost certainly wrong. I've never really thought too much about it, but recently it has really gotten under my skin.

Our knowledge is the product of the inputs we receive from a variety of sources. We are assured that things happen, places and people exist etc. not by having experienced them ourselves but trusting in the words of others. That could be the words of our friends, the media or printed libraries.

Of course, we don't always believe the context of what we are told. We are nowadays veterans of a war against spin, bias and vested interests. Even as children we are filled with the dictum 'history is written by the victors' and then told to question it, as it might not be exactly what happened.

Of course, we cannot go to far in this pursuit of the truth. There are some areas that we hold such a powerful collective conscious belief in the absolute objective truth of the matter that their validity is unquestionable. And yes, I'm looking at holocaust revisionists here!

As I understand, Wikipedia is like a moderated collective work, yes? So if there is an inaccuracy in the presented facts, you can challenge it, assuming you know for absolute certain that they are wrong and you are right? So whats the problem? I have to listen to so-called experts talking utter utter bollocks about a load of subjects every morning on Radio 4 but that doesn't mean that I discount everything that the BBC presents as ill-informed misinformation! (Although if someone can retroactively edit the recent England cricket scores with new, better versions I would be most grateful)

If we discount Wikipedia as an invalid form of information, then we have to discount all of the information provided on the internet and indeed, everything in books too! Why? Because they are written by one person - without the rigour of the panel of thousands of know-it-all critics either! Totally useless in our objective world of knowledge.

Wikiphobia, I think, is just a sympton of a greater malaise and thats an inability to divine the trurth of a situation from the frenzied hyperbole of the twenty first century media driven society. It's an easy target for a society that is maybe coming around to the realisation that many of us walk around with the wool voluntarily pulled over our eyes for most of our lives. A society that is happy to live being force fed one point of view, without analysis or doubt, because it makes life easier. Force fed so that we can be farmed for the fois gras of acceptance and cooperation.

I have waited for someone, in response to the horrific killings at Virginia Tech (although don't get me started about how those killings command so many column inches and yet the same number of deaths, to the multiple of 10s and 100s in Africa and the Middle East are passing soundbites) to ask for 'pix pls or it didn't happen'. You know it will come sometime...

Sorry for that little bit of politics. Back to the gaming!



Anonymous said...


Thats just a little bit of background reading to get you going.

The simple fact is that in many walks of life wikipedia is an acceptable source of information WHEN USED AND VERFIED WITH A MORE RELIABLE AND AUTHORITATIVE SOURCE.

But then, why not just use the other source in the first place?

Every time I use wikipedia, I'm using that in conjunction with a number of different sources, in effect, wikipedia gives me an outline, the jist, which I think go on and use to find the facts about. Wikipedia is not, and never will be, a factual resource however due to the way it is constructed.

Wikipedia can be accurate, in depth, and very useful.

It is not however, that most needy of things; reliable.


Vodkashok said...

My question is though, what is reliable and authoritative?

If any source of information is discounted as being invalid because of issues of validity and possible misinformation, how can any source of information truly be considered reliable.

Silly example. I had a cream cheese, ham and chili sauce sandwich in a polish bun for my lunch. Or did I? What would it take for you to believe that statement?

My word?
A stomach pump?
CCTV footage of me eating?
Witness statements?

And was the cheese REALLY cream cheese, or was it squeezy primula? Was the ham really ham, or was it turkey ham? Was it chili sauce or pepper sauce?

I actually understand some of the issues regarding Wikipedia and I personally treat it in exactly the same way you do - a great starting point.

However, to discount that starting point wholesale because of some trendy notion of validity being paramount is to close ones eyes to the amount of validation that we as a society put in the hands of others as a leap of faith.

(Or is it?)

Anonymous said...

We had the discussion at a BCS lecture, and it was interesting, in a very circular way.

It was about technology and historians. They don't trust Wikipedia, and they don't trust blogs.

The argument was, that potentially, if not now, blogs will represent a snapshot of history. Say one from someone in Iraq.

They took the whole it's not authorative argument.

My argument was, well, isn't the ramblings of some monk in a monastery, written in a book, often a form of blog of its time?

I never got a clear answer on what the full difference was.


Anonymous said...

If any source of information is discounted

No, thats not what I've said at all.

Indeed validity is a point of view. As is information, and indeed, the information we get from supposedly "authorititive" sources is questionable.

Indeed, consider the recent 15 servicemen who where captured by Iran.

Who do we trust?

Who was right?

If you read the Al-Jazhera News website (which I highly recommend btw, it gives an interesting perspective change) certainly you will recieve a different "valid" news account than if you stuck to just reading the BBC website.

The "truth" or "accuracy" are conceptual ideals. In other words it's something we seek, and hope for, but have to rationally accept that we may never get. Thus, in our flawed human reasoning we rely on varoius sources of information to inform our reasoning.

The sources of information we sort through as rational humans and digest though the filters of what we percieve as plausable and what we percieve as reliable. Both of those concepts never being absolute.

What the effects these perceptions?

Peer acceptance is an important one. If something is accepted by a great deal of people, and the people we relate to as peers, to be an acceptable source of information, we ourselves have our perceptions affected by this. Does this make what our peers accept right? Of course not! But it's something we use extensively.

This is perhaps why a great deal of students percieve wikipedia as an acceptable source of information (as other students accept it).

While there teachers percieve it to be factually unreliable (as other teachers also don't trust it)

The "truth" and "accuracy" are thus merely our perceptions of these ideals.


Anonymous said...

And, after such a post. I have to say it....

Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth.

What truth?

There is no spoon.

There is no spoon?

Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

hehe :-)


Vodkashok said...

Awesome reply Dave, which clarifies my problem with the phenomenon.

What brings about the perception that is it unreliable?

What makes an academic paper by some grey-haired old soak in Oxford, reliable?

When Wikipedia is shown to have some errors in it, they are rapidly changed or removed.

When an academic paper has errors in it, it stays the same and unless you have the debunking rebuttal available, the error perpetuates.

Of course, this all points to the value of seeking knowledge from a number of sources and cross referencing them to create a corroboration of 'fact' that meets your own internal sense of validity.

However, that still doesn't explain why people can blithely discount one source merely because it has been proved to contain errors, without recognising that all sources of secondary information, in isolation, suffer from bias, error, tactical omission and redundancy.

Except for spoons they are/aren't constant


Anonymous said...

I think the difficulty is that Wikipedia is going to always be a work-in-progress, by its nature it can be modified and edited by the user base over time. Now this really works for me because our understanding of the world around us and the fundemental theories of everything do change over time.

The anti-wiki community can use examples where articles have proved to be wrong, controversial or been politicised. And if enough users set out to 'change' an article to their own particular mindset, then the information can be corrupted. This tends to be around emotive subjects such as Religion or politics, but the nature of shared resources and a community do make it easy for errors or inaccuracies to occur.

Now wikipedia itself has checks and balances to moderate this, flags that inform the user is information isnt properly referenced or is written in a non-encyclopdea format but I think like everything, the evidence can be spun in the same way that people will always take sides in what they 'believe' to be true. It scares me that some bright people where I work utterly disregard the theory that our energy use and pollution cause global warming - 'evidence' I think lies strongly on the side that it does, and that's my belief - however no amount of (I think) rational discussion will shift them that its some kind of global conspiracy.

Also I personally feel a large part of Academia would collapse if students didn't have to buy stacks of books, and Academics get to publish them =) And that the 'Internet' and projects like Wikipedia are poo-pooed as some kind of wierd science phenomena that will pass =)