Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"What is Truthiness?" The Truth about Wikipedia




Whilst Pilate asked Jesus "What is truth?" it is only appropriate that in a post-modern age, a post-modern satirist like Stephen Colbert would ask "what is truthiness" and is it enough for us in this day and age-- is a reasonable facsimile of the truth what we are settling for nowadays?

My son the computer whiz sent me this recent article on the standard of 'truth' that Wikipedia uses, namely verifiability from a recognized source. When one couples this with the banning of original research, it leads to real problems, and explains why so many academics do not allow the use of Wikipedia in student papers much less in scholarly work.

Check out the link below. Now someone needs to do a similar review of www.snopes.com, and its standard of truth, or perhaps truthiness.

http://tech.slashdot.org/tech/08/10/21/1657256.shtml

24 comments:

danweasel said...

It's probably more correct to say that "verifiability from a recognized source" is Wikipedia's standard of knowledge rather than their standard of truth.

Forbidding original research should actually encourage students to use Wikipedia the way it is intended to be used: as a good place to find links to quality primary and secondary sources.

Stephen Garrett said...

Dear Ben:

What if Wiki is the only place that has the information you need? For instance, I cited them in my book on the "Hardshell Baptists" because they are the only ones who had statistics and other information available online. To have tried to gather the info myself would have been costly in time and money.

Blessings

Stephen

Ben Witherington said...

Stephen if you write a book and do not take the time to check your sources, especially where they are based on a source like Wikipedia, then you shouldn't be writing the book. Writing books requires time, money, effort and the pursuit of the truth about whatever sources you use.

Blessings,

BW3

Ben Witherington said...

But of course Dan, far too many people do not use Wikipedia the way you describe. It should come with a disclaimer: "Warning the material cited in this article is founded in recognized sources but we have no clue whether it is true or not." And it would be worth asking--- sources recognized by whom? By what authorities? I do not say don't use Wikipedia as a starting point. I do say go look at the primary sources and secondary sources they cite and see if they are worth the paper they are printed on.

BW3

Stephen Garrett said...

Dear Ben:

Please do not think that because I asked the question that I do not share your view on writing scholarly material. Believe me, the books I am involved with have citations that are verifiable.

I used Wiki for commentary when I was describing the "Primitive Baptist" denominations various factions. My book is written from one who was once a "Primitive Baptist" and I knew what the writer of the article in Wiki said was accurate, from my personal as well as historical knowledge of the denomination. I only cited the author of the Wiki article (who has contacted me, by the way) because he summarized the info better than I. Can we not cite for that reason?

But, I am also willing to rewrite that section and put it in my own words. I can take criticism.

Blessings

Stephen

Ben Witherington said...

Stephen I am not trying to be hard-nosed, but without question people need to read your book, and one of the dangers of citing Wiki in a published book is just this--- people will look at that footnote and say "Aha! Sloppy research not a book I need to take seriously" which would be a travesty. I would say since you have first hand knowledge, your own personal testimony carries much more weight than Wiki does...

Ben W.

ben cassil said...

I wikipedia'd this post and it said that you are all wrong. as my postmodern truth-bearing standard, wikipedia trumps all of you.

In the words of a very reliable source, Michael Scott:
"Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information."

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ben:

And that is precisely why it is not the best source. Anyone can write whatever they want, even those who know nothing on the subject, or have incorrect information!

BW3

Leslie said...

I would never use Wikipedia as a source for truth on a particular subject. But it can be a very good place to get more solid sources on a lot of different topics, or at least a good place to start looking for those.

zefiriel said...

What if Wiki is the only place that has the information you need? For instance, I cited them in my book on the "Hardshell Baptists" because they are the only ones who had statistics and other information available online. To have tried to gather the info myself would have been costly in time and money.

If they're the only ones having the statistics and other information available online, you should prolly start your radar, if you've yet to start them!

The information on wikipedia is normally obtained from an non-digital sources, or from other sites. So, if there's no citation, *cough* *cough*.

Also do not that just because some information are verifiable, doesn't mean that they're factual. Just because I can confirm that someone said something, doesn't mean that what has been said is correct, even if that person is famous in the academic field! People can make mistakes, and "facts" changes depending on season.

But well, if that's taken into account, nothing in this world can be done, no?

And Stephen, I cannot see how when you said this:
"What if Wiki is the only place that has the information you need? For instance, I cited them in my book on the "Hardshell Baptists" because they are the only ones who had statistics and other information available online. To have tried to gather the info myself would have been costly in time and money.
you actually meant this:
"I only cited the author of the Wiki article (who has contacted me, by the way) because he summarized the info better than I.

In the words of a very reliable source, Michael Scott:
"Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information."

Who the hell, or rather, which Michael Scott. Please provide links to the original article. Thank you.

The irony of a pro-Wikipedian not adhering to its standard, but uh, wait, was that a sarcasm? :P

Jim said...

Ben,

You'll probably be surprised by this but you and I have exactly the same viewpoint on Wiki. It's simply incomprehensible to me why any scholar would direct people to use it. When anyone, without any level of training in a field, can edit an entry as they wish at their whim, that source has become useless.

zefiriel said...

Jim,

What you said is true, well, half-true though.

Are you even familiar with Wikipedia's faithful and powerful patrol team, not to mention the strict standard they have when it comes to postings?

Well, from what you wrote, I don't think so. But if you do, you wouldn't have wrote what you wrote. Hmm...

YAPdates said...

I agree with you Ben. Take for example a researcher who wants to verify a particular citation. If it is from a book, he will go get the hard copy and voila! No matter how old the copy, there is a printed form of evidence.

One cannot say the same for Wikipedia. It takes some tech-savvy hands to dig into the background details (date, time, IP details, person(s) who edited it) of each and every entry of a Wikipedia article. Sometimes, a Wikipedia entry needs to be verified by other sources too! I have read many Wikipedia articles that were simply copied from other online encyclopedias. Plagiarism? That reason alone makes Wikipedia unsuitable for scholarship.

conrade

John Farrell said...

I did an article a while back for Cosmos on Wikepedia's tendency to be misused by cranks.

http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/node/1339

Ben Witherington said...

A patrol is only as good as their tools and level of expertise, and Wikis leaves something to be desired. Fact check by these folks tends to go no further than 'is it in a recognizable source' not is it a fact much less the truth.

BW3

ben cassil said...

zefiriel and ben witherington,

Michael Scott is a character on the NBC version of the office. The quote is a joke (which I thought would be inherently obvious), pointing out the ridiculous nature of trusting online sources. My comments, indeed, were dripping with sarcasm.

Wikipedia has its place, namely entertainment. And while it is easy to find information in it regarding many pop-culture phenomena and the like, it is of course not a reliable source for scholarly research. It is laughable that anyone would consider Wikipedia a source when compared to peer-reviewed journals.

That being said, we must also be leery of the print sources we use. We would never think of using a printed encyclopedia in a scholarly paper either. Perhaps TDNT, but you really should delve deeper than that if you can.

Brett R said...

Wiki is good for the following:

1) To learn commonly agreed upon information. (i.e. who won the World Series in 1956, and who pitched)

2) To find out sources that exists on a subject.

3) To see if there are perspectives you are missing on a particular issue.

Also, its always helpful to read the history and debate.

Stephen Garrett said...

Dear Ben:

I have revised chapter two of my book and rewrote that section. I must say I think it is better.

When I took "Advanced Composition" in college, I remember having to write, re-write, and write again. I remember learning (and still learning it) how what we write is never just perfect. Each time we edit it generally comes out better. Yet, at some point we must say, "it is sufficient," or else we would never get it completed.

Perhaps we can hope that Wiki will one day become a valid source?

"To err is human, to forgive divine."

Blessings,

Stephen

zefiriel said...

I agree with you Ben. Take for example a researcher who wants to verify a particular citation. If it is from a book, he will go get the hard copy and voila! No matter how old the copy, there is a printed form of evidence.

Yeah, even if there's a revised version of the book, correcting previous mistakes, one would just go for the old one (because that one was the one cited) and voila!

I have read many Wikipedia articles that were simply copied from other online encyclopedias. Plagiarism? That reason alone makes Wikipedia unsuitable for scholarship.

It is sad when someone said something as if it's the full truth when they lack knowledge about it. Is that what we called truthiness?
Plagiarism? It's obvious that you also don't really know how wikipedia works.

A patrol is only as good as their tools and level of expertise, and Wikis leaves something to be desired. Fact check by these folks tends to go no further than 'is it in a recognizable source' not is it a fact much less the truth.

Oh, the irony. Isn't that more or less the same as printed media? And uh, I personally think that the word "truth" does not belong to the academic field. There is no "truth," only "facts."

Gary said...

Truthiness on the internet is rampant, even on sites where articles are posted crediting people (George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Garrison Keillor, high school students)for things they didn't write. We should all be wary of things we read on the internet, regardless of whether they come from an email, a website, or a blog.

Paul said...

to ben cassil,

oddly my view of wikipedia is exactly the opposite of yours. Entertainment topics, due to their popularity, are the ones most likely to be inaccurate. There's always someone who has a rumor to promote about current celebrities, etc. But if you want to know about the chemical properties of Lithium, I imagine you won't get into too much trouble.

So far as I can tell wikipedia functions quite well as sort sort of thing it is, namely an encyclopedia. No encyclopedia should be used as an authoritative source on its own merit, but they are quite useful for getting information which is generally reliable. If there is some source of general knowledge which is demonstrably better, I'd like to know what it is (i.e. some source which is so reliable that NO question about it is ever raised).

zefiriel said...

Truthiness on the internet is rampant, even on sites where articles are posted crediting people (George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Garrison Keillor, high school students)for things they didn't write. We should all be wary of things we read on the internet, regardless of whether they come from an email, a website, or a blog.

Like, DUH. Truthiness is rampant even offline! It's not spreading like wildfire because of internet, but rather, it is because of internet that it is obvious.

Wait, do you even know what truthiness is?

If not, perhaps you can enlighten yourself with this article from the "truthiest" source available on the internet. :D

Doug said...

Is Wikipedia's standard of no new knowledge any different from that of a regular encyclopedia? I like it, for what it is. It certainly isn't the kind of resource one would use for scholarly work, but wouldn't most scholars understand this? Wouldn't they avoid regular encyclopedias as well? If it is being rampantly used maybe that means people will generally become more knowledgeable and curious...

Shalom,
Doug

Stew said...

Wikipedias article on itself is very useful

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia

The fault lies not so much in the wiki itself, but in how it is perceived and how it is used.

It is just a tool. The right tool for some tasks and the wrong tool for others.

Snopes, on the other hand is my Number 1 resource when people send me ridiculous emails about free stuff from Microsoft/Google etc. I wish more people would take the 2 minutes it needs to demask a fraud rather than the 2 minutes required to add the 10 names to the "forward to" field.