Blown To Bits

Wikipedia and Truth

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Wikipedia articles now turn up at the top of many Internet searches. They have assumed an astonishing degree of authority in only a few years. And deservedly: They are, in general, remarkably accurate. In an article appearing in Technology Review, Simson Garfinkel argues that the standards and protocols Wikipedia uses are redefining the very notion of truth. As Garfinkel explains,

On Wikipedia, objective truth isn’t all that important, actually. What makes a fact or statement fit for inclusion is that it appeared in some other publication–ideally, one that is in English and is available free online. “The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth,” states Wikipedia’s official policy on the subject.

“Verifiability” means that the information appeared in some other publication. Other principles are “Neutral Point of View” — editing an entry about yourself is a no-no, for example — and “no original research.”

These principles work beautifully given the fact that anyone can edit entries. Vandalism and errors generally get corrected extremely quickly.

But the three principles don’t work perfectly, and Garfinkel gives a couple of thought-provoking examples where they fail dramatically, because information has gained currency through repetition and only the principals are in a position to explain why it is false.

A fascinating piece, and, like everything Garfinkel writes, very well-argued.

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