Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Battle lines

One of the issues in this debate concerns the quality of information that is available with Web 2.0 in general and Wikipedia in particular. Michael Gorman in a posting titled Jabberwiki, is blunt:
"Let us ... concentrate on the central proposition that one can gain useful knowledge from texts written by any Tom, Dick, or Sally with time on his or her hands. Do we entrust the education of children to self-selected “experts” without any known authority or credentials? Would any sane person pay fees to take university courses that are taught by people who may or may not be qualified to teach such a course? "

Gorman cites Andrew Keen and his new book The Cult of the Amateur which makes similar complaints. Keen claims that "Wikipedia ... is almost single-handedly killing the traditional information business." (p127-8). and "Since Wikipedia's birth, more than fifteen thousand contributors have created nearly three million entries in over a hundred different languages—none of them edited or vetted for accuracy."(p4).

Many people defend Wikipedia. Some claim that unlike Britannica, Wikipedia’s credentials don’t come from its editors but from references and sources cited at the end of articles. However not all articles include citations and citations don't guarantee that the research is comprehensive and balanced.

Others have argued that Wilipedia articles are edited and vetted for accuracy by other Wikipedia contributors. Helen Nicols in her blog The Business of Knowing argues that regulation by a community of on-line users as with Wikipedia is equivalent to the academic peer review process as ways of establishing authority.

Wikipedians like to point out that traditional resources such as Encyclopedia Britannica contain errors which have been corrected by the on-line community.
Errors in the Encyclopædia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia

Gorman and Keen would argue that the on-line community is just as likely to introduce errors into an authoritative article as it is to correct errors. There have been cases of individuals submitting corrections to their own biography on Wikipedia only to have other contributors deleting these corrections so as to maintain the "authority" of the original article.

Another argument used by defenders of Wikipedia is that traditional resources present a single world view that may be influenced by cultural norms while Wikipedia allows debate and the presentation of alternative views. As an illustration here is an extract from the 11th edition of Encyclopadia Britannica (1911).

For the rest, the mental constitution of the negro is very similar to that of a child, normally good-natured and cheerful, but subject to sudden fits of emotion and passion during which he is capable of performing acts of singular atrocity, impressionable, vain, but often exhibiting in the capacity of servant a dog-like fidelity which has stood the supreme test. Given suitable training, the negro is capable of becoming a craftsman of considerable skill, particularly in metal work, carpentry and carving."

With hindsight we now see that Britannica reflected the prevailing social views and prejudices of the time. Is it not likely that today's "authoratitive" works are also biased? On the other hand there is a danger of falling into the trap of relativism - the doctrine that no absolute truth exists, but that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as language or culture. Surely most facts (the date of the battle of Hastings; the atomic weight of Hydrogen) are facts and a reference source can get them either right or wrong

Further discussion can be found in the Wikipedia entry Reliability of Wikipedia and the entry in the LIS Wiki Librarians' claims and opinions regarding Wikipedia.

I think that the TS Eliot quote is relevant:
"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

There is a lot of information available from Wikipedia and the like but this is not the same as knowledge. At the very least we need to heed the advice of the Bellman "What I tell you three times is true" - and not take any information on trust until we have checked with several sources. We also need the wisdom to understand that any information can be inaccurate, incomplete or biased in some way and we should make allowances for that fact.

1 comment:

Helen Nicol said...

Thanks for the mention Carl. A sticky issue and one which cannot easily be answered - I do hold with my argument that communities validate contributions in a "peer review" and it's academias concept of "expert" which is not the be all and end all.

I agree that we should always consider the validity of any information though...nice post