Thursday, May 08, 2008

Consensus** Encyclopedia or Information Cabal*?

(Note: My apologies for those of you on feeds who have seen this post pop up in an altered state at least three times. See below.)

When Wikipedia first began and I found it irresistable for a quick-reference look-up tool, my dad said something like, "You cannot rely on a freely-updated encyclopedia for accurate information-- the stronger and more stubborn people will make the updates that remain, whether accurate or not."

Well, Dad, you were right.


And in the process of writing what I thought was going to be a fairly simple blog post about an interesting news article, I ran into all kinds of accuracy issues and word struggles myself!

*I orginally had the word 'junta' in place of 'cabal' in the title (the stories on Myanmar must be influencing me subconsciously), and then my hand stumbled over the square-mouse-replacement thingy, causing the post to publish prematurely. This has been a source of many mistakes for me in the last few weeks of getting used to this new laptop. I was just going to look the word up to see if my sense of it matched the actual definition, when the unfortunate stumble occurred. 'Junta' is a little strong in this case as no one is using an army to reinforce their repeated updates of Wikipedia so I thought perhaps 'cabal' would be more appropriate. I have never used the word 'cabal' in my life, so if you think it has connotations not acceptable in this context please let me know.

**After that, I had problems reconciling my use of the word 'democratic' and have completely removed it. I substituted the word 'consensus' for 'democratic' in the title, and 'freely updated' for 'democratic' in my memory of Dad's remarks. (See what happens when you hit publish too soon? All kinds of confusion can erupt.) The posts aren't really updated democratically, because no one is voting for them.

Some links to Wikipedia's ideas about itself:

The site does not promote itself as an experiment in democracy:

Wikipedia is not an experiment in democracy or any other political system. Its primary method of determining consensus is through editing and discussion, not voting. Although editors occasionally use straw polls in an attempt to test for consensus, polls or surveys may actually impede rather than assist discussion. They should be used with caution, if at all, and will not necessarily be treated as binding.

And in all fairness, Wikipedia understands that not all articles produced in this venue will necessarily be accurate or unbiased:

Users should be aware that not all articles are of encyclopedic quality from the start. Indeed, many articles start out by giving one—perhaps not particularly evenhanded—view of the subject, and it is after a long process of discussion, debate, and argument that they gradually take on a consensus form. Others may become caught up in a heavily unbalanced viewpoint and can take some time—months perhaps—to regain a better-balanced consensus.

In part, this is because Wikipedia operates mainly on an informal process to resolve such issues. When editors cannot agree on content and approach, it is likely to take a bit of time before more experienced editors enter the picture. Even then, on inherently controversial topics, those more experienced editors may have their own axes to grind. [emphasis mine]

Then what is it good fer? Well, apparently an 'official point of view' or 'censorship' are very difficult to maintain on an article.

Wikipedia is written by open and transparent consensus — an approach that has its pros and cons. Censorship or imposing "official" points of view is extremely difficult to achieve and almost always fails after a time. Eventually for most articles, all notable views become fairly described and a neutral point of view reached. In reality, the process of reaching consensus may be long and drawn-out, with articles more fluid or changeable for a long time compared while they find their "neutral approach" that all sides can agree on. Reaching neutrality is occasionally made harder by extreme-viewpoint contributors. Wikipedia operates a full editorial dispute resolution process, that allows time for discussion and resolution in depth, but also permits months-long disagreements before poor quality or biased edits will be removed.

What we have in the case of the article I referenced above may simply be the very messy middle of this process. The most disturbing thing about it is that the Kim-person appears to be someone with some authority where Wikipedia is concerned. (Do they have official authorities who monitor content?)

The moral of the story is to choose your references wisely. Wikipedia may be good for a quick-check, but the best policy is to verify the information with two or three reliable sources before using it in a post or paper.


Anonymous said...

I suggest "Creation Moments" - that site with all the proof AGAINST global warming.


P.S. I'm not sure if that's the name of the actual site, but it's something like that.

Katie said...

I don't think that's the site you are thinking of. But in the case of writing an academic paper on something like this, you would need to cite sources that come from a variety of viewpoints. Otherwise, you are writing an opinion piece.