Wikipedia’s entry on Albert Einstein looks good. Covering each phase of the physicist’s life, from childhood to death, it tells readers about his politics, religion and science. Honours named after him and books and plays about his life are listed. But there is one snag: there is no way to tell whether the information is true.
I can almost smell the Chupacabra’s spoor. In fact, I am so horrified by a so-called science journal asserting that there is “no way” to tell whether information of this sort is true that I just might want to add some spoor of my own, right on top of the latest issue of New Scientist.
The implicit assumption, here and in all discussions of Wikipedia — which nobody bothers to make explicit because everybody knows it — is that if you get your information from a non-Wikipedia source (the Encyclopedia Brittanica, say, or Eric Blair’s immensely illuminating New York Times articles), you don’t need to “tell” if the information is true. It just is, because it comes out of a book or a BBC documentary or a professor’s mouth. In that assumpion, I smell more than just the Chupacabra’s spoor; the idea that books are right by virtue of being books and Wikipedia might be wrong because anyone can edit it — that just may be the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard. In fact, it is a truly dangerous load of crap, because it asserts that the writing of books is different than the act of editing a Wikipedia article; that creating books is some mystical act conducted by holy creatures whose ideas are never spurious, unsupported or just plain crazy. Since when?
Books are wrong all the time, and college professors more than all the time. Articles submitted to peer reviewed journals are also wrong all the time, which is why there is peer review, which (in theory at least) challenges unreferenced statements and questionable conclusions drawn from data that doesn’t seem to support it. It is far from a perfect system, but at least it’s a system.
Most books do not conform to the system of peer review, and mainstream media sure as f!#&&!! doesn’t, I tell ya what. Nor does Wikipedia, as such, but its systems, in which specific statements should be referenced to non-original sources, and lively (sometimes hillariously lively) discussion takes place on the “talk” pages, make it closer to a peer-reviewed publication than anything CNN or Reuters or Fox News could ever be, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that pisses off and scares the living shit out of reporters, professors and other “experts” everywhere. I’ve experienced it firsthand many times: The smallest inaccuracy in a Wikipedia article (or a tertiary post that expresses complete lunacy) can set forth a foaming-at-the-mouth rant from someone who makes her or his living (or pads his or her ego) by being the keeper of sacred knowledge on a given topic.
There is a grain of truth in what the Wikipedia-haters say — but that truth supports, rather than challenges, Wikipedia’s methods.
The Wiki model only provides top-flight information if the reader has the brains to check the references, particularly in the case of controversial or questionable statements. But at colleges and universities across the U.S., students are being told that when writing class papers they are not allowed to use Wikipedia. These commands, like Orwellian poetry, issue from the mouths of the professors who are, or should be, entrusted with teaching these students how to think for themselves and check original sources, which is — or should be — the chaser for every reading of every single Wikipedia article. Wikipedia is far from perfect in its references — let’s face it, Wikipedia’s a clusterfuck — but nonacademic books and mainstream media sources do not reference individual statements at all. Can somebody tell me how that makes them more reliable, or how a properly referenced statement on Wikipedia provides “no way to tell if the information is true”?
The scientific or historical wisdom of a time is not represented by any one source, nor by a limited number of books, journals and learned persons — it’s represented by the totality of those books and people, as checked, each and every time, by references and critical thinking and a willingness to challenge unsupported statements. Wikipedia, New Scientist and the National Review should all be read with one’s mind open. But believing or discounting anything one reads or hears because one is too lazy to check it, whether it’s in a book or a classroom or Joe’s Website About Rhesus Monkeys — that’s pseudointellectualism, the first refuge of scoundrels.