Use of Wikipedia

May 7, 2017 – 10:47 pm

The following is from an email I sent on 22/03/2007. I thought I might as well keep it here as anywhere.

Some people have pointed out that wikipedia articles often say true things. That may very well be so. In fact it might even be the case that, in general, it so happens that wikipedia articles are as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica articles; but that is really quite irrelevant to the question of whether wikipedia is a suitable reference for academic work. The real question is whether wikipedia can satisfy the accepted epistemological criteria which define the collective enterprise of modern Western scholarship.

If I decided to estimate the number of people in a room by rolling dice and adding the spots, it might happen that I got a true answer; and if I decided whether to take an umbrella to work by reading the entrails of a chicken, it might again happen that I got a true answer. But we do not accept that these are acceptable ways to arrive at the truth. What we prefer in these cases is to count the students or to look at the sky. Error is still possible, but experience has shown that the latter methods are vastly more reliable than the former and they are therefore to be preferred on epistemological grounds.

Through bitter experience and disciplined thinking modern Western scholarship has determined a set of standards and methods that are believed to maximize the reliability of the outcomes for this collective enterprise. These are the standards and methods with which we are familiar. One of these standards is that we prefer to trust someone who has been accepted as an expert in some area by others who are interested in that area. Another is that we test new scholarship by peer review by accepted experts. Another again is that when we refer to some supposed fact we support it by appealing to the agreement of some trusted expert. None of this is guaranteed to find Truth: experts will disagree, frauds and fads will occur, and accepted facts will change. It is only our best known method.

Wikipedia, by contrast, deliberately flouts these standards. Does that make it unacceptable? Well, that depends upon whether you think that the standards and methods embodied in wikipedia are as likely to yield reliable results as the standards and methods that they replace. Is that plausible? Is it plausible that the rejection of any preference for expertise in determining trustworthiness will lead to more reliability in scholarly results? Is it likely that the preferences of the most persistent editors will provide results as reliable as the preferences of the generally accepted experts? I would suggest that that is vanishingly unlikely. Wikipedia would replace the present accepted standards with worse, less productive standards.

The wikipedia model should therefore be rejected as a possible amendment to the epistemological criteria of modern Western scholarship; and consequently, we should insist that students avoid references to wikipedia, because we have a duty to train them in the best traditions of modern Western scholarship, and wikipedia is opposed to those traditions.


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