“0. The zeroeth law of Wikipedia – The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.”
Wikipedia is an encyclopedia built on mistakes and the inexplicable human need to fix them. While the print encyclopedias of yesteryear stood upon the shoulders of certified experts, Wikipedia opens up the process of writing and editing to almost anyone with access to the internet. This model takes to the extreme an old internet adage called Cunningham’s Law, according to which, “The best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it’s to post the wrong answer.”
Indeed, while there are few people who would take the time out to write the complete Wikipedia entry for Donald Trump, there is no lack of those willing to edit the existing one (5,456 to be exact).
Cunningham’s Law is named after Ward Cunningham, a pioneering programmer who first developed the technology that is the heart of Wikipedia and informs almost every aspect of it. From guidelines and rules, to articles and the very software Wikipedia runs on – almost every facet of the online encyclopedia is “crowdsourced.” Due to an inherent belief that opening up the editorial process to all will eventually fix every factual error and balance out any personal bias, Wikipedia takes a supposedly neutral position on the question of “truth.”
Instead of striving for absolute veracity, it strives for verifiability – a process driven by fastidious editors engaged in lengthy and tedious debates.
And it works: By ignoring the prickly question of epistemology that has plagued philosophers for millennia, and focusing instead on the practical issue of how to report accurately facts confirmed by others, Wikipedia has gone from being a controversial internet phenomenon to being a legitimate source of everyday information in just over 15 years.
Why the world isn’t flat
However, the question of how to defend the truth in an encyclopedia driven by errors – and where the issue of what is truly true is secondary – has becoming increasingly pertinent for the hard-core Wikipedia community.
While abuse of its open and anonymous editing function has always existed, the rise of so-called “post-truth” culture has posed a uniquely difficult challenge to Wikipedia, where both content and editorial standards are set by reputable academics and provocative conspiracy theorists alike.
Attempts to politicize science – for example, on climate change – are forcing it to buckle down on its commitment to verifiability. An interesting essay by a group of science-minded Wikipedia editors attempted to address the question of how to fight pseudoscience masquerading as factually based content.
Titled “Why Wikipedia can’t claim the Earth is flat,” the essay makes a somewhat startling yet revealing claim: “If Wikipedia had been available around the sixth century B.C., it would have reported the view that the Earth is flat as a fact and without qualification.”
Stressing the role of Wikipedia in reporting not the truth but rather what is accepted as fact by the scientific community, they write: “Similarly if available in Galileo’s time, the sun goes round the earth as a fact, and if Galileo had been a Vicipaedia editor, his view would have been rejected.
“Of course, if there is a popularly held or notable view that the earth is flat, Wikipedia reports this view. But it does not report it as true. It reports only on what its adherents believe. Wikipedia is inherently a non-innovative reference work: It stifles creativity and free-thought. Which is A Good Thing.”
The article uses the myth that the world is flat as a straw man for how to argue against conspiracy theories being pushed by “dedicated fringe advocates” who know how to manipulate Wikipedia’s rules. If offered up a blog as a source for an outlandish claim, it explains, counter with an academic journal; if accused of systemic bias for supporting science, reverse the burden of proof.
In one telling example of how Wikipedia battles unorthodox knowledge, the essay explains that while the claim “the world is flat” requires creative extrapolation from academic sources, the claim that it isn’t is stated directly in scientific literature, which is given preference by the encyclopedia. Thus, Wikipedia’s guidelines can be employed to maintain its “stated goal to mirror the current consensus of mainstream scholarship – ‘accepted knowledge.’”
Alongside verifiability, Wikipedia has two other “core content” policies that are non-negotiable: neutrality and no original material. That means that only “well-accepted facts” can enter the online encyclopedia. The question of what constitutes a fact, however, is up for debate.
Is the sky blue?
There is a long-standing argument among veteran Wikipedia editors regarding whether the claim “the sky is blue” needs a citation.
The debate has played out in the form of two competing essays – internal white papers floated around on the website’s back pages and discussed by a small yet dedicated group of policy-minded editors.
The generally accepted position among the Wikipedia community is that you do not need to supply a footnote for the claim, the sky is blue: “Although citing sources is an important part of editing Wikipedia, do not cite already obvious information.” On the other hand, a rival camp claims: “The statement ‘the sky is blue’ must be footnoted in the article ‘Sky,’ especially in the section that discusses the color of the sky. Citing the sources that explain why it is blue would be valuable to all readers. Even the most obvious and simple assertion may need an explanation.”
The question of whether the sky is blue seems to touch on a fundamental issue for Wikipedia: What constitutes a fact so obvious it does not require verification? However, these two contradictory positions coexist within the online encyclopedia’s maze of informal policies.
As Wikipedia has matured, more and more criteria for confirming the facticity of content have been put into place, alongside guidelines on how this evidence is judged. Thus, for example, editors decided that an academic journal carries more clout than a blog and that a professor needs more than tenure at a university to be eligible for inclusion. The editorial process on Wikipedia is ongoing and built on an argumentative system whereby each new edit is scrutinized and the person responsible for it must defend his or her choices. At times, just being able to defend one’s argument by citing Wikipedia’s editorial policy is more important than whether that policy is inherently consistent.
Correct use of Wikipedia policy is in a sense Wikipedia’s shibboleth, a gatekeeper to weed out nefarious editors pushing content that may be unfit for Wikipedia’s encyclopedic ambitions.
Last month, it was reported here that the Wikipedia page for Günter Bechly, a German scientist who came out against evolution, was deleted after it became a battleground between the encyclopedia’s editors and proponents of creationism. The formal reason for the page’s deletion was that it failed to meet Wikipedia’s “professors’ test” – the guidelines for deciding which academics are notable enough to have a Wikipedia entry of their own. However, many viewed it as revenge by the scientific community on Bechly for using his status to promote his own religious beliefs.
While I agree that in Bechly’s case Wikipedia’s editors threw the baby out with the bath water, and that it would have been wiser, if only for the historical record, to keep Bechly’s entry, but note in it his controversial views – there is a wider underlying caveat: The deletion of that article has less to do with what Wikipedians jokingly call a “cabal” of liberal editors, and more with the inability of those outside the consensus to argue their case in a non-polemical manner, as Wikipedia attempts to encourage. Though there is much to be said about the dangers of deleting articles from Wikipedia due to the heterodoxy of their topics, it is also important to remember that Cunningham’s Law is in a sense Wikipedia’s Darwinism: Those who cannot adapt to its intellectual environment may not survive.