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Humanist Archives: Jan. 26, 2019, 8:03 a.m. Humanist 32.387 - the question on Wikipedia

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 387.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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    [1]    From: Bob Kosovsky 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.374: the question on Wikipedia (68)

    [2]    From: Tim Smithers 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.377: the question on Wikipedia (192)

    [3]    From: Norman Gray 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.377: the question on Wikipedia (81)

        Date: 2019-01-25 14:03:37+00:00
        From: Bob Kosovsky 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.374: the question on Wikipedia

Malgosia Askanas  wrote:

"Another passage in that same section says "Occasionally you may interact
with another editor who clearly does not share your expertise on the
subject of an article. This can often prove frustrating for experts and is
the basis of much academic angst on Wikipedia. On such occasions, remember
that you are assessed only on your contributions to Wikipedia, not who you
are, your qualifications, or what you have achieved in your career."
Enough said, no?"

The mistaken irony in the statement is based on a misunderstanding of
Wikipedia which I find many Humanist contributors make.  The statement "The
sum of all human knowledge" has been quoted; but in Wikipedia terms it
should read "The sum of all documented human knowledge."  Wikipedia does
not accept one's original research unless it has been published, and even
then, there are obviously concerns as to whether one is promoting one's
original research.

I've not yet seen a contributor to this thread mention one of the most
important Wikipedia tenets:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Verifiability,_not_truth  - I
quote from the guideline:  "Wikipedia's articles are intended as
intelligent summaries and reflections of current published debate within
the relevant fields, an overview of the relevant literature."

Some years ago there was a controversy involving a professor (I think from
Harvard or MIT) who discovered that a long-held belief in a topic was not
true (I'm sorry I can't recall the topic). Not understanding how Wikipedia
worked, he rewrote the article, and his edits were promptly reverted.
After some back and forth, he finally engaged with editors, and after many
weeks finally understood the situation.  It turned out that there were 12
articles stating the long-held belief; the only article which dispelled the
belief was the professor's.  Clearly the professor believed that he had
uncovered the truth.  But the preponderance of documentation weighted
heavily in favor of the traditional belief.  In the end, the professor had
to accept that currently, the article weighed more for the traditional
belief, with his new discovery given mention.

There's another issue about Wikipedia (and all Wikimedia projects) that I
think relates more to some of the issues discussed on Humanist.  People are
treating Wikipedia as if it is comparable to printed encyclopedias.  I
don't think that's an apt comparison, not only because Wikipedia is
web-based.  I often like to compare Wikipedia to a living organism because
it's constantly changing, not only because of 800-900 articles being added
each day but because of the continual modification of articles.  In a sense
it's like social media but certainly unlike Facebook, Twitter or any other
social media.  To really understand Wikipedia you have to not just edit it,
but also engage with other editors (on any articles' talk pages) and
understand their thinking of how articles are good or bad.  Everyone knows
there are bad or weak articles on Wikipedia.  Passive users of Wikipedia
think the responsibility for improvement is on existing editors, while
article editors wonder why those who criticize don't make the edits
themselves. And indeed, I've heard the heads of the Wikimedia Foundation
articulate that Wikipedia is not supposed to be solely a passive
interaction but is best when people feel empowered to edit.

If one's response is "I don't have enough time" - then whose problem and
responsibility are those weak articles?

Bob Kosovsky, Ph.D. -- Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts,
Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
blog:  http://www.nypl.org/blog/author/44   Twitter: @kos2
Listowner: OPERA-L ; SMT-ANNOUNCE ; SoundForge-users
- My opinions do not necessarily represent those of my institutions -

*Inspiring Lifelong Learning* | *Advancing Knowledge* | *Strengthening Our
Communities *

        Date: 2019-01-25 11:59:18+00:00
        From: Tim Smithers 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.377: the question on Wikipedia

Dear Ken,

Here's my two bad-apples worth back.

One: Apples really are different from Oranges, and no amount
of collecting and presenting all the World's Knowledge in a
Posh [accurate and reliable] form, can change this.

Two: Let me bring some don't-know-how-reliable Wikipedia
knowledge into this, and take you back to July 2006, to an
episode of Stephen Colbert's satirical comedy show, The
Colbert Report, in which he introduced the notion and term
'Wikiality.'  See here:


To quote for this don't-know-how-reliable source

  "Colbert defined wikiality as "truth by consensus" [see more
   on this below] (rather than fact), modeled after the
   approval-by-consensus format of Wikipedia.  He ironically
   praised Wikipedia for following his philosophy of
   truthiness, in which intuition and consensus is a better
   reflection of reality than fact:

     You see [said Colbert], any user can change any entry, and
     if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true.
     ...  If only the entire body of human knowledge worked
     this way.  And it can, thanks to tonight's word:
     Wikiality.  Now, folks, I'm no fan of reality, and I'm no
     fan of encyclopedias.  I've said it before.  Who is
     Britannica to tell me that George Washington had slaves?
     If I want to say he didn't, that's my right.  And now,
     thanks to Wikipedia, it's also a fact.  We should apply
     these principles to all information.  All we need to do is
     convince a majority of people that some factoid is true.
     ...  What we're doing is bringing democracy to knowledge.

  "According to Stephen Colbert, together "we can all create a
   reality that we all can agree on; the reality that we just
   agreed on".  During the segment, he joked: "I love
   Wikipedia...  any site that's got a longer entry on
   truthiness than on Lutherans has its priorities straight."
   Colbert also used the segment to satirize the more general
   issue of whether the repetition of statements in the media
   leads people to believe they are true.  ..."

[Remember!  This was 2006, so we didn't have Trump-truth then,
which is, "if I, Trump, say it, it's true, and it's true for
as long as I say it is."]

In case you think 'Wikiality' is too Common, take a look at
this don't-know-how-reliable Wikipedia entry.
    Truth by consensus 

Which tell us, quoting again:

   "In philosophy, truth by consensus is the process of taking
    statements to be true simply because people generally agree
    upon them.  Imre Lakatos characterizes it as a "watered
    down" form of provable truth propounded by some
    sociologists of knowledge, particularly Thomas Kuhn and
    Michael Polanyi."

In other words, 'Wikiality' is just the Common version of the
Posh term 'Truth by consensus.'  Lakatos, Kuhn, and Polanyi,
are widely accepted, I think, as having done good Posh
scholarship, no?  I'm sure the known-to-be-reliable Great
Britannica will tell us this.

Any way, now we can discuss the Posh notion of 'provable
truth' that the Posh scholars tell us we need to have
knowledge.  And with this knowledge we can establish how
"everybody agreeing" is _not_ some kind of proof.  All we need
for this, is the provable truth of what provable is and of
what truth is.  Agreement on this shouldn't be too hard,

Three: [Yea, I know, I said my two bad-apples worth, but I'm
using this as an unreliable term.]

If you lookup 'Wikipedia' in Wikipedia (see
), you'll see that
there is no mention of the grand aspirations and goals you
talk of them failing to fulfill.  Perhaps this lack indicates
an unreliableness in this Wikipedia entry.  But, even if we
found a more reliable source, such as the Great Britannica
[which I can't access 'cos I didn't pay up first], which does
tell us about these claims, I'd still say you misunderstand,
and miss represent, what statements like this really are: they
serve more (much more) a motivational role, to attract
participants and supporters, than they introduce any genuine
statements of intent.  This is not un-common, even in research
disciplines.  AI, for example, has repeatedly been short at,
by Commoners and Posh-o's alike, for making claims it has not
fulfilled.  But, imagine if the Founders of AI had announced
they will build, in not sure how many years, a chess playing
computer that can play (at least sometimes) nearly as well as
an average ten-year-old, or, that they will build a computer
machine that can (quite often) see and recognise a few simple
and carefully prepared objects in well illuminated conditions
(with no occlusions).  Few people would have taken any notice,
funding bodies in particular, and AI would not have happened.

Last: [Yea, I know, but I judged the Wikipedia entry on
counting to be too unreliable, so I still don't know how to do
reliable counting.]

I teach what I call the foundations of research practices to
researchers, mostly PhD students, in mixed-discipline groups
(from the Arts, Humanities, Engineerings and Sciences).  In
this, and for this, teaching, I am interested (in a Posh way)
in the reliability and robustness of the knowledge and
understanding all good research seeks to build, and in how we
can assess the reliability and robustness of our knowledge and
understanding from research.

One idea for this I call 'truth by disagreement.'  Identifying
and understanding the basis and causes of some disagreement
amongst researchers and scholars, can, I think, tell us quite
a lot about the reliability and robustness of the knowledge
and understanding involved in the dispute.  Reality, you see,
possesses much disagreement.  [Just don't look at Brexit!
It's determined not to be understandable, I think.]

Done. Time for Fish & Chips.

Best regards,


> --[3]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>        Date: 2019-01-24 09:49:05+00:00
>        From: Ken Friedman 
>        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.374: the question on Wikipedia
> Dear Tim, Willard, & All,
> Everything that Tim Smithers writes is reasonable, and I agree with much of
> If one adopts the position of a common site versus a posh reference work, then
> Wikipedia does its job.
> In raising the question of reliability, however, I don’t position Wikipedia as
> apples against oranges. It’s true that this is the situation, but it’s what
> Wikipedia aspires to be. The goal of Wikipedia is to represent — in the words
> Jimmy Wales — “the sum of all human knowledge.” Since human beings believe
> they know a great deal that simply isn’t so, we’d still get back to apples vs.
> oranges, except that this isn’t what Wales or the Wikipedians intend. They
> assert that the Wikipedia system can build a free reference work that is as
> as other reference works of all kinds.
> When tests compare Wikipedia favourably against such reference works as
> Encyclopaedia Britannica, no one the Wikipedia community says “We don’t care.”
> When people point out that the studies are wrong or too selective to be
> meaningful, people in the Wikipedia community have been known to protest. So
> I’ve been taking the Wikipedia people at their word, based on their stated
> goals. While comparing the wild apples of Wikipedia against cultivated oranges
> is problematic, there is no problem comparing Wikipedia’s orange grove
> as it is) against any other orange grove. I think that Tim is quite right —
> that’s not what Wikipedians say of Wikipedia. Their belief is that the
> system will one day yield an excellent reference book. In much the same sense
> that I believe in the value of great public works such as highways, sewer
> systems, electricity grids, and water works, I see real potential for
> At the same time, one can see Wikipedia as an ungoverned public utility that
> nearly become a not-for-profit monopoly. A reliable Wikipedia would be
> As it is, I see it as comparable to a water system that delivers polluted or
> infected water to a certain percentage of users, or an electricity system
> plagued by rolling blackouts and brownouts.
> I use Wikipedia all the time myself. And I check with multiple sources when I
> require trustworthy information.
> Ken

        Date: 2019-01-25 10:42:05+00:00
        From: Norman Gray 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.377: the question on Wikipedia


This thread has been interesting, with a range of well-known positions
on Wikipedia eloquently aired, and there is not a huge amount more that
needs to be said.  However...

On 25 Jan 2019, at 6:21, Humanist wrote:

>         From: Malgosia Askanas 
>         Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.374: the question on Wikipedia

> Is striving for accuracy even an explicitly stated goal for Wikipedia
> editors?

I think Malgosia Askanas's points may need a modest rebuttal.

> I couldn't find a guideline or rule that suggested it was considered
> important
> (but I also didn't look very thoroughly).  The Wikipedia entry "Ten
> Simple Rules
> for Editing Wikipedia"

This page [1] directly links to a 'Five pillars' page [2], point two of
which says:

> [...] presenting each accurately and in context [...]. All articles
> must strive for verifiable accuracy, citing reliable, authoritative
> sources,

...which points to a _long_ discussion [3] of what does and does not
count as a suitable source.  That is one obvious link away from the
quoted page, and no, does not count as a very thorough search.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Five_pillars
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Verifiability

> My favorite section of the above-mentioned entry is titled "Share your
> expertise, but don't argue from authority" .  It starts by the hugely
> reassuring
> claim that "Writing about a subject about which you have academic
> expertise is
> not a conflict of interest; indeed, this is where we can contribute to
> Wikipedia
> most effectively.".

The point here is to disclaim as illegitimate the Argument from
Authority, the 'trust me, I'm a doctor' line.  Wikipedia asserts that
its articles should persuade and inform me, not because of the
credentials of the author, but through the authority of the sources of
the article.

This is a reasonable position, which other encyclopaedias may disagree
about.  Brittanica, for example, seems to assert that we should believe
its articles based on the expertise of the author.  If that author were,
indeed Maxwell on 19th century electricity, then that may be reasonable;
if I haven't heard of the author, then it has less force.

So are expertise and authority ignored?  No, of course not: someone who
is expert in an area -- an academic, to pick one example -- is very well
placed to be able to provide the rhetorical and logical coherence, and
the bibliographic force, to make a conclusively authoritative article.
In principle, they have no higher standing than the tenth-grader, but I
know who I'd back in an argument.

This process doesn't work flawlessly, of course, but the resulting
disputes only rarely escalate to 'edit wars', and even then they count
as little more than bickering, and the resulting deficiencies no more
than passing bad weather.

Best wishes,


Norman Gray  :  https://nxg.me.uk

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