Is Wikipedia 'knowledge' merely third party hearsay?

Is Wikipedia 'knowledge' merely third party hearsay?

Summary: Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder, is a master communicator and salesman. The quality of the product that he touts, however, does not match the quality of his orations.

SHARE:
TOPICS: Browser
28

DMM91206WK.jpgJimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder, is a master communicator and salesman. The quality of the product that he touts, however, does not match the quality of his orations.

In a Wall Street Journal e-mail debate with Dale Hoiberg, editor-in-chief of Britannica, Wales put forth his familiar ode to Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”:

there is a vast army of volunteers eager to help good people like you and me who don't quite have enough time and space to do everything from scratch ourselves, and they are writing a comprehensive encyclopedic catalog of all human knowledge.

What is "knowledge" to Wikipedia, however?

In “Why Digg fraud, Google bombing, Wikipedia vandalism will not be stopped” I cite Wikipedia on its aversion to truth, quoting its Wikipedia:Verifiability: This page is an official policy on the English Wikipedia; last modified 7 September 2006.

The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth...

"Verifiability" in this context does not mean that editors are expected to verify whether, for example, the contents of a New York Times article are true. In fact, editors are strongly discouraged from conducting this kind of research, because original research may not be published in Wikipedia. Articles should contain only material that has been published by reliable sources, regardless of whether individual editors view that material as true or false.

In attempting to justify its third party notion of "verifiability," Wikipedia traces a convoluted scenario confirming its aversion to truth: 

A good way to look at the distinction between verifiability and truth is with the following example. Suppose you are writing a Wikipedia entry on a famous physicist's Theory X, which has been published in peer-reviewed journals and is therefore an appropriate subject for a Wikipedia article. However, in the course of writing the article, you contact the physicist and he tells you: "Actually, I now believe Theory X to be completely false." Even though you have this from the author himself, you cannot include the fact that he said it in your Wikipedia entry.

Why not? Because it is not verifiable in a way that would satisfy the Wikipedia readership or other editors. The readers don't know who you are. You can't include your telephone number so that every reader in the world can call you for confirmation. And even if they could, why should they believe you?

For the information to be acceptable to Wikipedia you would have to persuade a reputable news organization to publish your story first...

If the newspaper published the story, you could then include the information in your Wikipedia entry, citing the newspaper article as your source.

In "Web 2.0 'knowledge': future of modern humanity? (I hope not)" I discuss theories of “Epistemology and Logic” to put forth that "knowledge, by definition, must not only be structured, it must reflect verifiable truths." I cite “Ideas of the Great Philosophers,” by William Sahakian and Mabel Sahakian:

How much can a human being know?
Is knowledge possible?
What are the practical and theoretical limits of knowledge?

The principal task of logic is to investigate the nature of correct thinking and valid reasoning, including the laws of rational thought.

The laws of logic cannot themselves disclose facts about the world of man or nature. In order to discuss such facts, or to evaluate the content of an argument, the individual must decide upon the criteria which can enable him to distinguish what is true from what is not true.

Wikipedia may derive its name from the classical Greek traditions for education, but it does not emulate the classical Greek philosophical respect for the truth.

Topic: Browser

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

28 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Unfortunately...

    "knowledge, by definition, must not only be structured, it must reflect verifiable truths."

    That runs afoul of Social Constructivism, the notion (widely touted in Technical Communication curricula) that all knowledge is derived through social discourse, and there is no "absolute truth" - only what is agreed upon by those in the know (experts in their fields). I was enrolled in a Technical Communication graduate program a few years back, but I had to drop out because I could not accept the basic tenets. As a chemist, it was quite eye-opening to learn that all those "facts" I thought I knew were only facts because other chemists agreed they were, not because they were verifiable. Excited atoms only give off radiation because chemists say they do, not because they actually do.

    To me, Wikipedia is just the latest incarnation of Social Constructivism. The belief that "the masses can't be wrong" falls right in with SC.

    Carl Rapson
    rapson
    • Or to put it another way

      The ideas that become widespread are the ideas that are good at spreading themselves (why can't I get that Abba tune out of my head?), not necessarily the good ideas.

      We could look on the scientific method as a gatekeeper that prevents us from taking ideas on board unless they can be shown to be verifiable. In other words the experiments on which the theory is based can be repeated and the theory is stated in such a way that we can verify its logical consistency.

      I haven't come across social constructivism as a term before but it sounds closely related to such dubious ideas as deconstructionism and post-modernism.
      jorwell
      • Oh, yes

        I hadn't come across SC either until I got into the Technical Communication program. It was quite revealing to learn what the academic side thought of science, for example. I can agree that experts in each field need to be involved in what passes for acceptable discourse in that field, but I had a big problem with the idea that there is no truth but what is decided upon by those experts.

        As an off-topic aside, and hopefully not starting any flame wars, another problem I had with current Technical Communication pedagogy was the emphasis on feminism. We were taught, for example, that most scientific literature is actually sexist, emphasizing masculine traits (competition and brute force) over feminine ones (co-operation and consensus). Classes spent a lot of time explaining why technical communication would be better if it were more feminine, or at least less masculine. To tie this in with the current topic, it seems to me that socially constructivist media such as Wikipedia would be in even more danger of being "sexist" (or any other "-ist" you want to name) than scientific literature would be, because there is no peer-group pressure to conform to acceptable standards. It would be much easier to introduce subtle biases into Wikipedia than into the Journal of The American Chemical Society, for example.

        Carl Rapson
        rapson
        • A book I would recommend

          Richard Dawkins in "Unweaving the Rainbow" gives a robust critique of "deconstructionism" or whatever you want to call it.

          He is also critical of the view that science should somehow change to take in so called "feminine" traits. He doesn't deny that many great women scientists have failed to get the attention they so richly deserved (he cites Rosalind Franklin as a case in point - I ashamed to say I remembered Crick and Watson immediately but I had to struggle to recall her name) and that there still exist significant barriers to women in the sciences.

          However, I think he is correct to say that it is somewhat insulting to the highly intelligent and determined women who have made their way against the odds into the scientific world to start declaring that science goes against "feminine" characteristics. This all sounds a little bit like the kind of prejudice that declares that women aren't capable of rational thought.
          jorwell
          • Thanks

            I'll check it out.

            I hope I didn't give anyone the impression that I'm anti-feminist; I certainly can see the benefits of having more women in science, if for no other reason than that more people means more ideas. Science needs all the ideas it can get. My problem is more with the stereotying involved in calling competition "masculine" and co-operation "feminine", as if there are no competitive women and no co-operative men. I mean, the detached style (no first person, passive sentences, etc.) of most scientific literature was even attacked as being "masculine" because it was so unpersonal, as if only men are such.

            Carl Rapson
            rapson
    • Whether you agree with it or not...

      it's the foundation of your field. Science as a social enterprise moves forward by peer-review, and peer-review cedes the point that scientific knowledge advances by the social agreement on what the consensus is of what constitutes reality.

      Scientists are poorly equipped to judge "truth". You might be better off to visit your religious adviser of choice or meditate alone in your room to seek after "truth." Or smoke some peyote.

      But as far as science is concerned, check out Thomas Kuhn's "The Anatomy of Scientific Revolutions" for an idea of the magnitude of the gestalt involved in changes in scientific thinking. Often, a whole community of the "old guard" need to actually die off before a new scientific way of thinking can assert itself.

      I think it cannot be denied that there are unprovable assumptions integrated in the world view of scientific communities that colors what they perceive to be legitimate research, and that there is no outside objective stance that is not subject to similar assumptions. When a revolution in scientific thought occurs, some of these underlying assumptions may be questioned.

      What I think most people can agree on is that we are all impacted by the technology that is generated from science. To the extent that this technology can reliabily alter outcomes of situations we all have stakes in (such as our medical health), I think it's easy to agree that science is supremely relevant. Whether it advances "truth" is beside the point.
      jcg_z
      • Interesting...

        ...but this suffers from the same flaw as those who argue against all religion because some adherents of religion act in very anti-religious ways. There is a difference between science and the practice of science. I think the key point was your use of the phrase "science as a social enterprise".

        Obviously, scientists are people, and as such are subject to the same prejudices and biases as all other people. I recall quite vividly leanring about the concept of "phlogiston" and how long it took to overcome that. But, regardless of how many noted scientists subscribed to the phlogiston theory because it "fit the facts", the reality is that there is no such substance. Following the logic of social constructivism, we would have to conclude that phlogiston actually did exist, at least until enough scientists agreed that it didn't.

        Science is an attempt to explain the observations we make of nature, and to codify those explanations as natural laws. Regardless of what we as fallible humans decide to call something, the fact that something exists is a reality. There are absolute truths, independent of the labels we give them, that have nothing to do with religion or peyote. If something happens, it happens, however we name it. Social Constructivism tries to claim that nothing happens unless we all agree that it does. That's the source of my disagreement.

        Carl Rapson
        rapson
        • Not me so much...

          Science self-defines as a social enterprise because of the role it assigns to peer-review. I think you won't find a scientist (who is viewed as legitimately such) that disputes the role peer-review plays in the advancement of science.

          In the end science "is" what scientists do, and consequently science depends on who we as a society recognize as a legitimate science.

          Whatever current scientific theory we have about anything is just one that "fits the facts", and may in the future be overturned by new accepted ways of scientific thinking that "fit the facts" better.
          jcg_z
          • Peer-review

            One reason for peer-review is to allow for the opportunity for verification. Nothing can be considered a valid scientific theory unless it can be reproduced by others; that's why scientific papers have a methodology section. The social enterprise aspect of science is a means of opening up scientific research to verify reproducibility, not just to get everyone to agree on the conclusion.

            Theories are overturned when additional facts (observations) are made. There's nothing wrong with making a hypothesis based on limited onservations, as long as one is willing to modify the hypothesis when additional observations are made. The fact that we don't know everything about something doesn't mean that something doesn't exist.

            Carl Rapson
            rapson
          • Reproducibility....

            is precisely a means of getting everyone to agree on something. It's the fundamental means of doing so, really.

            Without this social aspect, there is no science. Instead, you have magic and magical thinking, which is science applied at the personal level without peer review. Which is not to say that magic and magical thinking may not be just a valid a means to "truth".

            I think you're wrong that theories are overturned when additional facts are discovered. In many cases, what overturns the theory is the consensus of like-minded scientists. The "facts" in and of themselves mean nothing until placed in a context that argues for or argues against a theory.

            With any given experiment, the conditions of the experiment can always be disputed. Whether adequate controls were applied. And even the decision of what constitutes an "adequate" control is something arrived at by consensus.

            Even the idea of what something as basic as mass or gravity is changes within the community of scientists as a scientific revolution happens. For a Newtonian, mass is a property inherent in the object itself. For an Einsteinien, it's about warping of space-time. Those two conceptualizations lead to validating the pursuit of totally different types of research.

            And, when you descend to the level of quantum physics, it becomes even more evident that fitting a curve through the observations points is more what science is about. Not finding truth.

            I think the problem most scientists have with this conception is that they are endoctrinated so as to be predisposed to disregard issues that expose the history that science does not smoothly progress. To disregard that textbooks are only written by the people who are endoctrinated by the theory that wins, and that those scientists who never "bought into" the new theory might never have agreed. Einstein for example to his death did not concede that quantum physics was an adequate explaination of the phenomena, even though it fit the observations.

            In short, there are no facts, only observations. Observations are interpreted by people. People agree on what the observations mean by social discourse (peer-review). These observations are then taken to support or undermine a given theory.

            But the observation itself, made by an individual, is the "truth", the direct experience of reality. Everything else is a construction that just fits one of an infinite possible number of curves through the available points. That curve may help you predict where the next point will fall, just like Newtonian physics will let you plot the course of a cannon ball. But that's less than truth.
            jcg_z
        • Facts...

          Not all societies historically have agreed on what the facts are. Take soviet era science, for example, where ESP and other "super-natural" phenomena were considered legitimate science.

          Certainly individual people may not agree on that. Even the most basic observations may be colored by what you expect to see. Remember that it always impossible to completely prove that you have absolutely controlled for other influences in an experiment.

          I hear you that you believe in absolute truths, but it's just that -- a belief. Certainly science does not bear you out in that, as we see numerous "absolute" truths overturned as, for example, Newtonian physics is overturned by Einsteinien physics.

          I think what Social Constructivism does is not to claim that nothing happens unless we agree that it does. Instead, it's saying that there is no science without a social dimension, and anything else is just your personal experience, and you in fact may not be lucid.

          Note, interestingly, that it's not required that we have a completely common experience of the physical world to participate in science. Your perception of reality may be very diffent that mine. Maybe what I see as red you experience with the same sensory stimulus that I have when I see green. Who knows. That truth to me may be very different than that truth to you. But as long as we can consistently carry on a discourse with other people about how they relate to each other, science is possible.

          So, I don't agree with you, that there are necessarily truths independent of our individual and completely unique ability to perceive them. And there's no way to prove otherwise. And, in fact, the burden of that proof is on the positive assertion, not the negative one.
          jcg_z
          • Facts

            Anyone can call anything they wish a "fact", but that doesn't make it one. ESP can easily be discredited scientifically because it isn't reproducible (verifiable). Soviet scientists calling ESP legitimate doesn't make it legitimate. Again, we're talking about fallible humans here.

            Likewise with Newtonian vs. Einsteinian physics (the latter of which is being overturned by "Hawkingian" physics as we speak). Newton made the best theories he could with the facts he had; additional experiments and observations led to Einstein's theories. That doesn't mean the basic, underlying principles are not true; it only means we (as fallible, limited humans) are't yet able to make the measurements to know what the underlying principles are. The continuing advance of physics beyond Einstein's theories are evidence that we don't yet know everything, and there is more to learn.

            "And, in fact, the burden of that proof is on the positive assertion, not the negative one."

            That I have to agree with. But I know what I know. :)

            Carl Rapson
            rapson
          • The continuing advance

            is not really a continuing advance. Yes, of course new science interprets itself as being a natural outcome of old science, but the old school often does not see it that way. It's a characteristics of a paradigm change that you can no longer step back and see the world as it truly was conceived under the old paradigm. After seeing the world through quantum mechanics, you can no longer truly see the "clockworks" that the Newtonians or even Einsteinians saw. The most basic underlying principles have changed -- they very definition of something as basic as what "mass" is has changed. Science does not advance towards truth. It advances instead only towards reproducibility.

            I'm always a bit astonished with scientists, backed into a corner, pull out the idea of a "fact" to defend the idea of science leading towards truth. Because the history of science, even as told by the victors, is full of cases where what was considered a fact within one theory is shown to be not a fact at all, but rather an approximation.

            Note that you have displayed rather neatly here exactly the sort of predisposition to discredit lines of reasearch the demonstrates the power of community in science. You have discredited ESP as a line of research, and decided it as not legitimate. Why? Well, because it's part of the current scientific culture not to consider these avenues legitimate. It's not that they are universally disproven. It's instead a matter of credentials and preconceptions based on unproven beliefs. It's "common sense" without realizing that "common sense" has been rejected by science in many other areas (many established principles are counter-intuitive), and otherwise would be no more applicable here than elsewhere.

            It's not that I think that ESP or any of these other phenomena are legitimate areas for scientific study myself. I don't. But that's because I largely buy into the same scientific paradigm that the rest of the scientific community believes. A reality we agree upon by consensus.
            jcg_z
          • Continuing...

            ...in the sense that progress continues, not in a continuum sense. Science certainly progresses by leaps and bounds, and there are many instances of sudden shifts in thinking. I'm not disputing that.

            "You have discredited ESP as a line of research, and decided it as not legitimate. Why? Well, because it's part of the current scientific culture not to consider these avenues legitimate."

            Not true at all. I dismiss ESP because, as I said, it can't be verified and it's not reproducible - the same criteria you propose for scientifica validity through peer-review. The scientific method easily and quickly discredits ESP and other "super-natural" phenomena.

            I think you're mistakenly reading that I believe that what we now accept as "scientific truth" is real truth instead of theories. I'm not. I know that everything held forth by science today is theory, as it has to be because we can never know everything. But underlying it all there has to be an absolute truth, toward which our scientific experiments and observations and theories are slowly leading us. Like Einstein's grand unifying theory, the truth is out there, whether or not we can actually get to it. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, and just becausewe can't get to it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

            Carl Rapson
            rapson
          • When you say...

            "But underlying it all there has to be an absolute truth"

            It's certainly fine that you believe this. But it is a belief. And one can do science just fine without holding that belief. Occam's razon (admittedly also a believed in principal that has no proof behind it) would have you discard the idea of an absolute truth. When would you ever know if you found this absolute truth? Well, you never would. So, isn't the simplier solution to hold that there are only closer approximations to modeling observations?

            It's also a belief that ESP isn't verifiable. You can't prove a negative, so you certainly can't prove that ESP isn't verifiable. Maybe the next experiment would verify it. But, it's the scientific community consensus that leads you away from that. Not that that isn't good. Just that it's a decision made by the consensus reality. For the same reason that you don't research if giraffe's stretching their necks eventually results in offspring with longer necks.
            jcg_z
  • Wikipedia isn't true? WAAAAA!

    </sarcasm>

    Wikipedia isn't [i]intended[/i] to be an infallible fount of truth. It is simply meant to be an information sharing resource with the ability to be updated and edited much more quickly than traditional printed material.

    As the article even states, if they didn't require sources to be verifiable, people could cite hearsay as fact and publish completely bogus information. To use the example of the scientist and his theory, Wikipedia will indeed reflect that the scientist believes his theory to be false, but only after a reputable source has published his change in view. Ideas and information of great importance are generally published fairly quickly in some form or other, and Wikipedia will update to reflect these publications.

    People shouldn't look at Wikipedia as a standalone self-sufficient resource, but as more of an information aggregator, much as RSS newsreaders compile and display news and other tidbits for a reader; the difference being that this one is powered as much by people as it is by code, and is comprehensive rather than selective.
    Dr_Jones
  • Not hearsay, not the masses

    Verifiability is the usual requirement for textbooks and encyclopedias, but not journalists. A news editor would want the particulars about how a journalist came to the conclusion that Elvis is alive, and a scientific paper editor would want confirmation from other scientists (peer review) that the tests a scientist runs on a purported live Elvis would be meaningful. These are called primary sources when they report new facts or new discoveries.

    A textbook or encyclopedia editor (or review article editor) doesn't have such niceites, in forming a review article or book that could reflect on the contributions of 100,000's of discoveries. So a statement, even if true, that Elvis cames to you house for coffee and pie circa 2003 doesn't belong in Wikipedia until after someone has published your story in a primary source.

    Having conflicting primary sources (the majority of which say Elvis is dead), the second phase of Wikipedia editing, NPOV, would suggest that Elvis sitings have appropriate language to indicate it is not the majority view, not the legal view, and maybe background information on the author, who sells "authentic" 'nana sandwiches on the internet.

    There's nothing wrong with review articles ( compare http://pdg.lbl.gov/ to trying to parse all the science in those references yourself ) the only issue is "noise" caused by substandard contributors, and a certain uneven coverage of idea-space. When issues of credibility do come up, the Talk pages usually get long. The metadata on revisions and the talk pages are for the consumers' protection.
    Arpiean
  • Wales is a bit too slick, if you ask me

    He's always making slippery comments to the media, and this exchange with Britannica is merely the latest example. You cannot argue with the guy. And last week, his interim executive director and general counsel, Brad Patrick, was quoted making a false statement to a reporter. If I ask them to clarify their statements, I get ignored. See http://www.wikipedia-watch.org/wikitort.html#sidebar
    Daniel Brandt
  • Educational Purpose

    Wikipedia is an educational tool, not just knowledge but knowledge that is suppose to be connected and questioned and encourage critical thinking, like any encyclopedia. To apply a legal standard such as hearsay implies that the tool is somehow bad because hearsay is often not admissable in courts of law. Why go there?

    One reason is that the legal profession is threatened by the free exchange of knowledge. That profession seeks to keep the world read only, with the writing being done only by word smiths such as themselves, lobby operations they are involved in and public relation firms they may work with. Think what happens when all the law, case law, and decisions become searchable. Every citizen, can represent him/herself. They currently are fools to do so. Will that always be foolish? The world certainly doesn't need more lawyers.

    We in the IT industry have worked for the present where thousands of eyes identify falsehood, and manupulation of what is presented.

    Lawyers should not be involved in defending clients in the courts of public opinion or in applying court of law standards or bar association ethics to web content.

    Consumers are expected to judge every time they make a purchase and the Web, and Wikipedia, and yes even hearsay provide the basis for that judgement. Consumers and voters do not need to prove things. They just need reasonably accurate discourse, links for followup, and the ability to connect the dots so that they can decide what companies and politicians and policies to support when time runs out for researching.

    Frank L. Mighetto CCP
    mighetto
  • In science and Astronomy, Wikipedia is pretty damned good

    Britannica cannot compare. Areas of politics and current events may be a different story...
    GreatInca