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Wikipedia, Verifiability, and Truth

by on February 17, 2012

Wikipedia is a website that academics love and love to hate. I use it all the time to look up facts about people, places, battles, etc. I think the hatred of most comes less from claims of inaccuracy than the use undergraduates make of the website. While it is good for basic facts, it is a pretty terrible place for interpretation. My favorite example is a student who wrote in his/her paper, directly from Wikipedia, that John Locke was the Father of Liberalism. A completely vacuous statement, this adds nothing to the argument of a paper. It is fear of such statements, or even worse, that makes our relationship with Wikipedia ambiguous at best.

It seems to me that the best way to deal with the use of Wikipedia among students is to be clear about proper and improper usage. When I teach, I tell my students they should use Wikipedia when they are reading. If they do not know who an historical figure is or the background to an event, Wikipedia is a great place to look up such things. However, Wikipedia is not the place to look when writing or thinking about writing their papers.

In order to talk about Wikipedia to our students we should also know what Wikipedia is all about. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article by Professor Timothy Messer-Kruse on his attempts to edit a Wikipedia entry. In another context, John Siracusa, in two separate episodes of his podcast Hypercritical (episode 52 and episode 53), also detailed his tortuous experience as a Wikipedia contributor.

The problems of Siracusa and Messer-Kruse stem from the same misunderstanding. Wikipedia is edited not for truth but verifiability. This is explained in a post on the blog The Wikipedian entitled Verifiability and Truth: What John Siracusa Doesn’t Get About Wikipedia. In his post, William Beutler cites the the relevant part from Wikipedia’s policy:

Verifiability on Wikipedia is the ability to cite reliable sources that directly support the information in an article. All information in Wikipedia must be verifiable, but because other policies and guidelines also influence content, verifiability does not guarantee inclusion. The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—whether readers can check that material in Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether editors think it is true.

John Siracusa, mainly in his second podcast, goes into some detail about the consequences of the choice between verifiability and truth. Whichever we might prefer, it is important to understand that Wikipedia has chosen the former.

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