Friday, April 29, 2005

The truth is out there: trust no-one

This blog entry was inspired by something that Will Richardson posted as Skepticism R Us. He was responding to Jessamyn on Wikipedia and both (I think) were asking, "Can we trust Wikipedia?" This is my response...

Wikipedia logoRemain skeptical. Constantly check your sources. Agreed, but how do you check for authenticity? One of the basic ways I bang on about to teachers and students is to ask who is providing the information and what authority do they have to do this?

I once heard a speaker at a conference say, "Everyone is an expert in something". I would agree with this up to a point and presumably Wikipedia relies on this being the case - lots of people, knowledgeable in narrow domains, co-operating to produce something greater than the sum of its contributor's parts (if you'll pardon the expression).

I worry however that there is no easy way to check the credentials of Wikipedia contributors. Is that being unfair to single out Wikipedia for this criticism? Obviously I can't check the credentials of everyone that creates or edits the information I access, so I use shortcuts. For example, I will tend to trust the Encyclopaedia Britannica even though I don't know anything about the individual contributors. I trust it because of its reputation and because of its quality control procedures. While I may come to respect the reputation of Wikipedia over time, I remain concerned about the quality control.

I was partly reassured on Wikipedia's reliability by Jon Udell's screencast on the Heavy Metal Umlaut. I was impressed to see how the community reacted to an act of vandalism, how the less relevant material was sidelined and how the community worked together to create a more effective way of displaying information. It was impressive. However it also provides an example that can be used to illustrate my concern.

Spinal Tap logoI'm worried (albeit only very slightly worried) by the addition of the information on n-diaeresis (i.e. the umlaut above the "n" in Spinal Tap). Wikipedia says "This is a construction only found in the Jacaltec language of Guatemala..." Interesting, but is it true? I have no easy way to check. It is so delighfully obscure and far enough off the topic of the wiki entry that I wonder how many people reading the page will have the expertise to challenge or check this statement. I can't easily check out the person who added this information. A quick look on Google didn't refute the information, but a good few of the entries referred back to the Wikipedia entry. So is it true? I still don't know, and it would take more effort than I'm willing to invest in this example to check it out.

I banged on about the importance of truth in a blog entry recently. What this consideration of Wikipedia has reminded me is that truth is important, but working out what is true in any given situation is the tricky bit!

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Steven said...

See this. Still trust EB?

David said...

Tee hee! Well nobody's perfect. :-)

Thanks for your comments Steven. In my own defence, I did agree with the "remain skeptical" position and that counts for Britannica as well as for Wikipedia. My point was, I am more inclined to trust some sources than others.

To answer your question, in the absence of other information, yes I do still trust Britannica more than Wikipedia. However, I would always try to cross-check any information (relatively easy to do on the Internet) before using it.

Thanks again for the comment.