The Samovar


Public knowledge
December 8, 2007, 2:56 am
Filed under: Academia, Anarchism, Internet, Manifesto | Tags: , , , , , ,

Wikipedia has a very bad reputation for accuracy, and recently it’s been getting a bit of a trashing for its internal politics. Despite this, millions of people continue to use it, and I think it’s easy to see why.

Despite its problems, Wikipedia is a better resource for the public dissemination of knowledge than almost anything else out there. It can be misused by blindly relying on what is included there, but this isn’t a reason to attack Wikipedia. You just have to approach it with the right attitude: a Wikipedia article is a starting point for further research, not an end point. It’s a means for discovering new information as much as a repository of information. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this. Discovering that certain knowledge exists is itself a very difficult and important thing to do.

Wikipedia articles are like a quick and dirty map of a knowledge space. They give you a rough idea of what something is about, even if the details may be wrong, and they suggest where you could go to find out more. As a sample, I picked the Wikipedia entry on dynamical systems more or less at random. As well as a decent length article, it has a bibliography of 17 books, including 13 serious academic books at varying levels and 4 popular mathematics books, and 22 internet links, including complete books available online, tutorials and the web pages of relevant research groups.

The nature of knowledge is that it is constantly expanding, and at the moment it is doing so at an incredible rate. Traditional repositories of knowledge like textbooks and encyclopaedias find it difficult to keep up, and are often years if not decades out of date. Wikipedia may be less authoritative than these, but it is often only days after a new discovery is made that a detailed write up is available on wikipedia with links to the original research paper for those who need more accurate information. Textbooks and printed encyclopaedias cannot compete with this.

It is interesting that much of the criticism of Wikipedia comes from those with a vested interest in doing so. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has criticised Wikipedia, and it’s obvious enough why they would do so because they’re in direct competition. But Wikipedia also gets a very bad treatment from the press, by people who are not directly in competition with it. The coverage from The Register (article linked to above) is a case in point. Their stories about Wikipedia are hostile almost to the point of absurdity.

So why is this? My feeling is that it’s because the model of public knowledge espoused by Wikipedia is a direct challenge to the elitist model of knowledge of journalists, and the reason they attack it so strongly is the same as the reason they attack blogs so strongly. Their whole reason for existence is based on the idea that they are providing something through their expertise and knowledge that cannot be obtained elsewhere (for free). If people could just directly access knowledge without going through them, why would be bother doing so? They feel their existence is threatened.

And they are right to feel that way. Wikipedia articles on new scientific discoveries are often much better researched than the write ups in newspapers, and Wikipedia authors often seem to have a better understanding of the discovery in question than the science writers in the newspaper. This shouldn’t be surprising: a newspaper typically only has one or two science writers (and they’re often failed scientists or those with only an undergraduate degree in science), whereas a Wikipedia article could be directly written by someone in that field or even by the original authors themselves. A newspaper article will never cite it’s sources because there isn’t enough space, but most Wikipedia articles do so (and those that don’t are conspicuously flagged).

Similarly, blogs often provide a much broader and more interesting range of political analysis than you find in a newspaper. One of the criticisms that traditional media such as newspapers level at blogs is that they don’t do investigative journalism, but in fact the heavy competition and diminishing revenues of traditional media mean that they are doing less investigative journalism than ever. When the US invaded Iraq, the traditional media were telling us how great everything was because their information was all coming through the filter of the military forces. On the other hand, Iraqi blogs gave a much broader picture.

Getting back to Wikipedia, the journalists and others would be right to criticise Wikipedia if the point of it was to provide an authoritative reference point for factual information. But this really shouldn’t be the point, and the criticism is fundamentally based on an inaccurate picture of the nature of knowledge. Truly authoritative knowledge is very rare. Anyone relying on a single source, however authoritative that source is, is making a serious error. Wikipedia shouldn’t be relied on in this way, but neither should an Encyclopaedia Brittanica entry or even a scientific textbook (and certainly not a newspaper article!). The critics cannot understand this point, or cannot concede it, because their view of themselves is that they are this sort of authority, and so they cannot comprehend the suggestion that this sort of authority is not needed.

So in defending Wikipedia from its critics, I am not – as they might imagine – denying the need for expertise, but attacking the false and elitist nature of expertise that they represent, and defending a view of knowledge that is inherently diverse.

As a postscript, a very interesting project is Scholarpedia. It is inspired by Wikipedia, but has a different balance of openness and expertise by essentially restricting editing rights to academics, with the level of control increasing with scientific status. As the front page of Scholarpedia states, “The approach of Scholarpedia does not compete with, but rather complements that of Wikipedia” (my emphasis). Scholarpedia is a recognition that both expertise and the dynamic, open approach of Wikipedia are important. At the moment, Scholarpedia is restricted to articles about theoretical and computational neuroscience, some mathematical fields, and astrophysics, but it will grow.

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