Monday, January 25, 2016

Wikipedia ... hurry up and ... know?

As a teenager, I can remember going to the library as a means of doing a particular history (or whatever) homework assignment. There I would dig out relevant volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Encyclopedia Americana  and perhaps one or two other more family-oriented encyclopedias as a means of amassing data. I would read them all and then let the information percolate in my mind before attacking the homework assignment. It was not always easy, but I was under the impression that research required sweat and varying points of view were my responsibility.

Of course, I was more of a believer when I was a teenager. As such, the Encyclopedia Britannica was the gold standard -- a set of volumes which had an unresearched reputation for bringing together the best researchers available and then vetting their product to a fare-the-well. If the Encyclopedia Britannica said so, you could more or less take it to the bank, however viscous the writing might be. The Americana was not far behind. And behind that there were the World Book or Colliers or other home-library reference works ... more accessible, perhaps, but more dubious as well. Just because something was accessible did not mean it was true ... or anyway that was my thought. It did not really cross my mind that just because something was difficult, the information was therefore more credible or true.

Information in these encyclopedias came from on high. There was no Internet and an encyclopedia's sales rested on the kind of credulity I was willing to offer ... whoever was writing these things were the top of the heap, the smart guys, the guys and gals who had spent years combing the topic at hand.

Today, of course, there is one part of me that snickers at my naivete. But another part of me longs for that credulity that was once: I might not know something, but there was someone who had spent long hours and did know. It was possible to get an answer worth knowing. Someone, somewhere had expended the blood, sweat and tears to which I was becoming privy. They were not feather merchants.

Nowadays, there is Wikipedia -- the Internet encyclopedia to which all and sundry are welcome to contribute and correct. The doofus and the dandy are as welcome as the meticulous researcher.
Those who can access the site can edit most of its articles. Wikipedia is ranked among the ten most popular websites, and constitutes the Internet's largest and most popular general reference work....
A peer review of 42 science articles found in both Encyclopædia Britannica and Wikipedia was published in Nature in 2005, and found that Wikipedia's level of accuracy approached Encyclopedia Britannica's. Criticisms of Wikipedia include claims that it exhibits systemic bias, presents a mixture of "truths, half truths, and some falsehoods", and that in controversial topics it is subject to manipulation and spin.
When I look something up on Wikipedia -- and look it up, I do -- there is no knowing if I am receiving the benefit of arduous hours or beer-pitcher conclusions. True, the measurements and other concrete factual data may not be open to manipulation, but the impact and meaning -- and the sense that I am getting the straight skinny -- is ... well ... wobbly. If anyone can contribute, and if a democracy of thought-equalities is asserted ... well, what sort of answer is that? I want an answer; I do not want a democratic answer.

Like anyone else, I imagine, I love Wikipedia and its easy access and quick rejoinders. But I also have a hunch that to the extent I put my faith in what I get, I am descending into a watered-down realm where agreement is the yardstick of truth. If everyone says so, what has that got to do with the truth?

The good think about my uncertainties is, of course, that I have learned to be uncertain -- a lesson I was not capable of when going to school. Schools rely heavily on answers. First the answers, then the ambiguities.

I guess I am just wondering to what extent Wikipedia lends its wonders to a widespread dumbing down. Dumb and dumber ... and the question, as always, becomes, how much research am I willing to exercise in the search for whatever truth I may seek.

Gawd, laziness is comforting and delicious and experts are more appealing that five-dollar whores.

And it's not as if just because everyone says so, they are necessarily wrong.

1 comment:

  1. It is peer reviewed, and if you put a spin on something that is far from factual you can be banned from the site. I'd take criticisms to have their own agenda's and lack of factuality. People proofing just doesn't happen.