What’s Wikipedia Good For?

 Posted by on 9 April 2007 at 2:00 pm  Uncategorized
Apr 092007

“For conservative computer users who find the online encyclopedia Wikipedia to harbor too many values that conflict with their own, a new site awaits,” says an NPR interview with the founder of Conservapedia, a ‘conservative alternative’ to Wikipedia.

Sure, we can talk all day about the egalitarian, distributed, unowned nature of Wikipedia that translates to inconsistent coverage, errors forever being introduced and corrected, encouragement of a chopped up style, how all this is discouraging of work by top experts, how that all complicates effective use of the site. But none of that is Conservapedia’s beef. No, they think that Wikipedia has a liberal bias while they prefer an encyclopedia with a conservative bias. And note that bias per-se isn’t in fact a sin to be avoided, as some of their rhetoric would imply — no, bias is wonderful according to Conservapedia. Just so long as it is conservative bias.

Looking at Conservapedia’s entry for “Examples of Bias in Wikipedia” (note that spin on the sin), there are endless examples of errors and oversights which Wikipedia’s fundamental principles would guide treatment of (in particular, writers must always cite sources and in cases of disagreement ‘present the debate’ from a ‘neutral point of view’). Even their anxiety over the demographic composition of Wikipedia writers (lots on the Left, lots who are not Christian or theistic or whatever) is no big deal because Wikipedia’s fundamental operating principles point to an obvious solution: anybody can be a writer, so go get more of the “right” people to pile on and make sure your perspective is accurately presented when there is disagreement.

In that NPR interview, however, Conservapedia’s founder didn’t give any whiff of appreciating how these principles relate to the issues he cites. If there were a genuine bias problem for Wikipedia, he would be talking about an inability or refusal to recognize a dispute or to accurately represent the sides, and he would be calling for Wikipedia to simply adhere to its fundamental principles. So this fellow’s real trouble lies elsewhere: if I had to guess, I would say his authority-based epistemology recoils at the idea of letting competing views sit side-by-side with The Answer as he sees it, as if people might have to do some work to know reality rather than simply hear the Truth and be enlightened.

Which brings us to appreciating Wikipedia for what it is. As best I can tell, Wikipedia is not really about capturing objective knowledge, but about chronicling the current beliefs of mankind. In any given topic, to the degree people have decent epistemologies and are grounded in reality, it will point toward useful facts — but to the degree that people don’t and aren’t, it will reflect their confusion. Such a chronicle is certainly useful, but even at its most excellent it would not make people more rational or knowledgeable. Merely seeing what other people hold to be true only constitutes knowledge of what is held to be true, and having access to accurately-presented positions in disputed cases will not automatically improve anyone’s epistemology: rational people will focus and sort the facts out, and irrational people will evade; second-handed minds will look for something to faithfully follow (whether it is an authority like Billy Graham, the Institute for Creation Research, or simply tradition or the majority opinion) — while independent minds will look for grounded approaches to engage, without regard to tradition or majority status. Consider Conservapedia’s founder: Wikipedia has certainly not made him more knowledgeable or rational regarding, say, biology. And indeed, easy inspiration for him to create Conservapedia is found in the (appropriate) double fear that people who are not as steeped in his authority-based style of thinking could wander from the flock if exposed to those competing views, while others who are as authority-based might stumble into trusting the wrong authority and likewise wander.

In short, peoples’ epistemologies are the cause of how they use Wikipedia, not the other way around.

This is why think of Wikipedia as primarily an effect rather than a cause — as descriptive rather than prescriptive — much like dictionaries. Dictionaries primarily tell us how we do use words, not how we should use them. And realizing this profoundly shapes how we confront their contents. When we see something conceptually horrid in the dictionary, our natural reaction isn’t to twist the arm of the editor or to go off and start our own competing dictionary: we understand that it is a reflection of the culture, so we go spread a better concept or usage via education and so on. Likewise with Wikipedia, our natural reaction to something horribly confused in it should be to make sure our perspective is clearly presented and to get to work in the culture, enjoying Wikipedia’s utility in indicating when the confusion has shrunk to a meaningless minority of minds.

So Wikipedia can be valuable as a cultural barometer for those in the know, and as a starting place for those who aren’t. It is not primarily a substitute for thinking or a repository of knowledge, even though the Conservapedians — and apparently even some Wikipedians — wish that it was.

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