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The Art of Seeing

Apr 13, 2010

A few years ago while discussing Wikipedia with a few colleagues of mine I pointed them at Scholarpedia, and they claimed it was useless compared to Wikipedia, as it had only a few hundred articles. I replied that if it was base quantity they sought, then it was base quantity they would receive. Here I noted the existence of peer reviewed online encyclopaedias and hard copy encyclopaedias, but on further inquiry it turned out these colleagues were primarily interested in fast access to the introductory section of Wikipedia articles. Further to this terrifying little disappointment, I learned they regularly eschewed all footnotes and references. Hence it was not simply the easy access and allure of Wikipedia's base quantity they sought, but the semblance of achievement born of keywords and shallow, superficial analysis. (Just the right thing if what you're aiming at is dinner party mastery over shallow, superficial conversations; but I digress.)

In this regard, the basic problem facing Wikipedia is that its qualitative meritocratic features remain firmly bound to the realm of potentiality, which is to say these features have not developed into actuality, because at present such features are liable to be trumped by Wikipedia's quantitative social features. By the phrase "quantitative social features" I mean to argue against the uncritical introduction-scanning-footnote-eschewing rationale that more is better, regardless of the quality of the contributors, depth of research, and productive process. Such a rationale is heedless of humanity's most important conceptual achievements, things like due process and due diligence, and it is this rationale that renders Wikipedia unreliable and unbelievable.

Witness the products and condition of Wikipedian quantity, anonymity, and anti-scholarship;

"By way of background, Wikipedia's 2.3 million-plus unvetted entries are contributed by anonymous users ... often in a sort of 'anything goes' perpetual intellectual wrestling match ... A pillar of Wikipedia doublespeak establishes this rule: 'Wikipedia has no firm rules.' But actually, there are rules -- and many of them. Original research is forbidden. For example, the world's leading experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, sea turtles or methanol could not contribute their knowledge based on their peer-reviewed findings. But anyone with an ax to grind on either topic could ... Under Wikipedia principles, a user need not possess expertise or credentials in the topic area or even believe his or her entry is true ... In an era when carefully assembled newspapers, books, and accrued knowledge on paper are being rapidly supplanted by the spontaneous Internet, in an era when information is so abundant and omnipresent that everyone can be an 'expert' with the click of a mouse, yet fewer understand the issues or the facts, the struggle to reclaim honest scholarship, historical fact, and contemporary reporting may be one of the greatest challenges to modern civilization. As society careens into the unchartered roadways of the next rev of the Internet Age ... will mankind's itinerary be determined by the open vanguard of our best thinkers and writers or by the shouts and jeers of an anonymous, masked crowd operating in the shadows?"

The claim here is not that information belongs to academics or professionals, but quite the opposite. The first lesson of reliable thought is that a single source is rarely enough, irrespective of rank or repute. Regardless of hierarchy, honorifics, titles, or mis-education; due process, peer review, and quality control are indispensable if we hope to avoid a completely unsubstantiated and meaningless free for all -- and due process, peer review, and quality control are precisely those things that any person can demand regardless of hierarchy, honorifics, titles, or mis-education. Scholarship, knowledge, and understanding arise from research and verification, not power and popularity. "The Wikipedia concept, if turned right side up, could be a boon to mankind. Allowing named and credentialed scholars from around the world to collaborate in their area of expertise could revolutionize the speedy advancement of knowledge."

Returning to the matter of my unnamed and ostensibly credentialed colleagues, what was perhaps most poignant about their introduction-scanning-footnote-eschewing rationale was the fact that these highly educated colleagues adhered to the tenets of due process and due diligence in their own fields of professional work, but summarily disregarded and even jeered at due process and due diligence when conceptualizing outside of their own field. The connection between my colleagues' attitudes and Wikipedia's operational principles obtrudes.

As it stands today, Wikipedia offers not a reliable summation of human knowledge, but exists instead as an instantiation of and commentary on the potential for unreflective gratification and myopia that inheres in the human condition. If you feel otherwise, I hope you'll read IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black, as well as Mr Black's article "Wikipedia -- The Dumbing Down of World Knowledge," and compare his claims with the revisions made to Wikipedia's "History of IBM" page.

Part of the series: Zwingli