25 October 2008

Wikitruth

Everybody uses Wikipedia these days. I go to the site at least once daily to find everything from the formula for great circle distance to the difference between gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria. Simson Garfinkel says Wiki-memory informs more than my half-arsed TA lectures and frantic data-crunching.
Wikipedia's standards of inclusion--what's in and what's not--affect the work of journalists, who routinely read Wikipedia articles and then repeat the wikiclaims as "background" without bothering to cite them. These standards affect students, whose research on many topics starts (and often ends) with Wikipedia. And since I used Wikipedia to research large parts of this article, these standards are affecting you, dear reader, at this very moment.
And, he argues, that's a very scary thing. Because Wikitruth is not the same as factual truth:
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.
This is a huge problem in light of the fact that many of the top peer-reviewed journals still haven't gone open-source - you can usually link to an online abstract these days, but the text of articles is behind a subscription wall. And so a lot of science might as well not exist, as far as Wikitruth is concerned.

Yet the need to define truth in terms of third-party publications arises directly from Wikipedia's crowdsourced model - authors are unverifiable, so the facts have to be based in something other than personal expertise. Google tried to get around this with the personality-driven Knol, but that's not exactly taken off.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

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