[Paleopsych] TCS: (Wikipedia) The Faith-Based Encyclopedia

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The Faith-Based Encyclopedia
    By Robert McHenry  Published   11/15/2004

    Away back about 1993, '94 -- in retrospect, the last of the halcyon
    days when a relatively small and rather homogeneous group of people
    around the globe could reasonably consider themselves as constituting
    the Internet community and could take a strongly proprietary view of
    its future development -- back then, I am recalling, a cluster of
    enthusiasts coalesced in an online discussion group devoted to the
    creation of an encyclopedia on the Internet, an Interpedia, as they
    called it. As one of the proponents described it,

      "the Interpedia will be a reference source for people who have
      connectivity to the internet. It will encompass, at the least,
      articles submitted by individuals, and articles gleaned from
      non-copyrighted material. It will have mechanisms for submission,
      browsing, and authentication of articles. It is, currently, a
      completely volunteer project with no source of funding except for
      the contributions of the volunteers and their respective
      institutions. It also has no governing structure except for a group
      of people who have volunteered to do specific tasks or who have
      made major contributions to the discussion. Everyone is encouraged
      to make a contribution, small or large."

    The discussion group generated a great quantity of writing, none of it
    encyclopedic in nature. There were discussions of the software needed
    for authoring and databasing and registering and validating and so on;
    discussions of how to attract contributors and of how teams for larger
    articles might be organized; of how to ensure that articles were
    editable but at the same time protected from unauthorized alteration.
    Every so often there were rhapsodic explanations of why the
    Interpedia, as a noncommercial and collaborative project, was ipso
    facto superior to all existing encyclopedias, all of which were
    published for [shudder] profit and all of which had their origin in
    [shudder] print.

    Every so often, as the discussion went on and on, a burst of
    enthusiasm would overcome one of the participants, who would post a
    message along the lines of "Okay, great! How do we start? What can I
    do, right now?" There never came an answer to that question. Instead,
    the discussion would begin another great swing around the circle of
    technical and procedural matters, to end only when another naïf would
    beg to be given some concrete direction. Eventually the discussion
    petered out, in part because some real encyclopedias developed
    Internet presences, and in part because the volunteer nonleaders of
    the ungoverned, unstructured project truly did not know where or how
    to begin.

    But the dream did not die. A decade later, the Wikipedia project is
    flourishing. As of November 2004, according to the project's own
    counts, nearly 30,000 contributors had written about 1.1 million
    articles in 109 different languages, though some of these language
    versions of Wikipedia remained quite small. The Manx Gaelic version,
    for example, had only 3 articles, the Guarani 10, and the Klingon
    (yes, from the Star Trek series) 48. The largest, the English language
    version, contained over 382,000 pages that were thought "probably" to
    be encyclopedic articles. (The "probably" tells as much about the
    limits of Wikipedia's oversight as any single word possibly could.)

    This is an impressive amount of work to have been accomplished in the
    three years since the project began, and the founders were obviously
    correct in believing that a vast reservoir of willing volunteers
    awaited just such an opportunity as Wikipedia would offer. The effort
    has not gone unnoticed, either. A page on the Wikipedia site lists
    well over a hundred positive mentions this year in the world's media,
    including the Economist, the Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor,
    the Washington Post, Slate.com, Slashdot.com, and, yes, TCS. Wikipedia
    is "one of the most fascinating developments of the Digital Age";
    "brilliant"; an "incredible example of open-source intellectual
    collaboration"; and so forth.

    Credit the founders, then, with having overcome the obstacles that the
    Interpedia nonleaders failed to surmount. They built the software (the
    "wiki" in Wikipedia), they attracted the needed contributors, and they
    generated the all-important buzz. (They also found that they needed to
    create a background hierarchy of administrators, sysops, bureaucrats
    (actually so called), and stewards, watched over by an arbitration
    committee and finally the founder himself, who retains ultimate
    authority. Even online, democracy has its limits.) The question is,
    however, just what have they created?

    Let's first see what they intended to create. The general FAQ
    (Frequently Asked Questions) page tells us:

    "Wikipedia's goal is to create a free encyclopedia --- indeed, the
    largest encyclopedia in history, both in terms of breadth and depth
    and also to become a reliable resource."

    Note the adjectives, and the order in which they appear:

    largest (breadth)
    largest (depth)
    "and also"

    This statement of purpose must be taken with at least a grain of salt,
    however, because it, like everything else on the Wikipedia site, is
    editable, by anyone. We can take it that the statement represents the
    view of the last person to modify it, and those of unknown others who
    have chosen not to modify it further or to "revert" it, in the lingo,
    meaning to return it to a prior state. It is entirely consonant with
    other statements on the site and with instructions given to volunteer
    editors and copy editors:

    "Please remember that the original author took the trouble to write a
    new page for Wikipedia and that however good or bad it is, if you are
    taking the trouble to copy-edit it then it is probably a valuable

    Again with the "probably."

    The idea that animates the entire undertaking, and links it with the
    Interpedia of yore, is expressed in the discussion of editing policy:

    "However, one of the great advantages of the Wiki system is that
    incomplete or poorly written first drafts of articles can evolve into
    polished, presentable masterpieces through the process of
    collaborative editing. This gives our approach an advantage over other
    ways of producing similar end-products. Hence, the submission of rough
    drafts should also be encouraged as much as possible."

    In other words, the process allows Wikipedia to approach the truth
    asymptotically. The basis for the assertion that this is advantageous
    vis-à-vis the traditional method of editing an encyclopedia remains,
    however, unclear.

    The general FAQ does offer one mild caveat:

    "As anyone can edit any article, it is of course possible for biased,
    out of date or incorrect information to be posted. However, because
    there are so many other people reading the articles and monitoring
    contributions using the Recent Changes page, incorrect information is
    usually corrected quickly. Thus the overall accuracy of the
    encyclopedia is improving all the time as it attracts more and more
    contributors. You are encouraged to help by correcting articles and
    passing on your own knowledge."

    One person's "knowledge," unfortunately, may be another's ignorance.
    To put the Wikipedia method in its simplest terms:

    1.                 Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even
    familiarity with the topic, can submit an article and it will be

    2.                 Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even
    familiarity with the topic, can edit that article, and the
    modifications will stand until further modified.

    Then comes the crucial and entirely faith-based step:

    3.                 Some unspecified quasi-Darwinian process will
    assure that those writings and editings by contributors of greatest
    expertise will survive; articles will eventually reach a steady state
    that corresponds to the highest degree of accuracy.

    Does someone actually believe this? Evidently so. Why? It's very hard
    to say. One possibility that occurs to me is this: The combination of
    prolificacy and inattention to accuracy that characterizes this
    process is highly suggestive of the modern pedagogic technique known
    as "journaling." For decades, (following, we are probably meant to
    assume, some breakthrough research at a school of education somewhere)
    young students have been not merely encouraged but required to fill
    pages of their notebooks with writing. Not stories, nor essays, nor
    any other defined genre of writing; just writing. The writing is
    judged solely on bulk: So many pages are required per week or
    semester, but the writing on those pages need not be grammatical or
    even intelligible. Even the "talented and gifted" program at my own
    sons' school employed journaling as a principal activity, merely
    raising the quota over that of standard classrooms. It may well be
    that the practice of journaling in the schools, along with the
    acceptance of "creative spelling" as a form of personal expression not
    to be repressed, underlies much of the success of Wikipedia.

    Superimpose on this intellectual preparation the moist and modish
    notion of "community" and some vague notions about information
    "wanting" to be free, et voilà!

    But conceding for a moment that this exercise in encyclopedia making
    is enjoyed and even believed in fervently by many thousands of
    participants, let us take note of someone who is absolutely central to
    the concept of an encyclopedia but who is hardly acknowledged at all
    by the Wikipedians. I mean, of course, the user. As in the reader. The
    person who comes to Wikipedia in search of accurate information.

    I know as well as anyone and better than most what is involved in
    assessing an encyclopedia. I know, to begin with, that it can't be
    done in any thoroughgoing way. The job is just too big. Professional
    reviewers content themselves with some statistics -- so many articles,
    so many of those newly added, so many index entries, so many pictures,
    and so forth -- and a quick look at a short list of representative
    topics. Journalists are less stringent. To see what Wikipedia is like
    I chose a single article, the biography of Alexander Hamilton. I chose
    that topic because I happen to know that there is a problem with his
    birth date, and how a reference work deals with that problem tells me
    something about its standards. The problem is this: While the day and
    month of Hamilton's birth are known, there is some uncertainty as to
    the year, whether it be 1755 or 1757. Hamilton himself used, and most
    contemporary biographers prefer, the latter year; a reference work
    ought at least to note the issue.

    The Wikipedia article on Hamilton (as of November 4, 2004) uses the
    1755 date without comment. Unfortunately, a couple of references
    within the body of the article that mention his age in certain years
    are clearly derived from a source that used the 1757 date, creating an
    internal inconsistency that the reader has no means to resolve. Two
    different years are cited for the end of his service as secretary of
    the Treasury; without resorting to another reference work, you can
    guess that at least one of them is wrong. The article is rife with
    typographic errors, styling errors, and errors of grammar and diction.
    No doubt there are other factual errors as well, but I hardly needed
    to fact-check the piece to form my opinion. The writing is often
    awkward, and many sentences that are apparently meant to summarize
    some aspect of Hamilton's life or work betray the writer's lack of
    understanding of the subject matter. A representative one runs thus:

                   "Arguably, he set the path for American economic and
    military greatness, though the benefits might be argued."

    All these arguments aside, the article is what might be expected of a
    high school student, and at that it would be a C paper at best. Yet
    this article has been "edited" over 150 times. Some of those edits
    consisted of vandalism, and others were cleanups afterward. But how
    many Wikipedian editors have read that article and not noticed what I
    saw on a cursory scan? How long does it take for an article to evolve
    into a "polished, presentable masterpiece," or even just into a usable
    workaday encyclopedia article?

    The history page for this article reveals a most interesting story.
    Originally, the 1757 birth date was used. Thus the internal
    inconsistencies of ages and dates that I saw are artifacts of editing.
    Originally, the two citations of the year Hamilton resigned from the
    Cabinet agreed; editing has changed one but not the other. In fact,
    the earlier versions of the article are better written overall, with
    fewer murky passages and sophomoric summaries. Contrary to the faith,
    the article has, in fact, been edited into mediocrity.

    Is this a surprising result? Not really: Take the statements of faith
    in the efficacy of collaborative editing, replace the shibboleth
    "community" with the banal "committee," and the surprise dissolves
    before your eyes. Or, if you are of a statistical turn of mind, think
    a little about regression to the mean and the shape of the normal
    distribution curve. However closely a Wikipedia article may at some
    point in its life attain to reliability, it is forever open to the
    uninformed or semiliterate meddler.

    It is true, unfortunately, that many encyclopedia users, like many
    encyclopedia reviewers, have low expectations. They are satisfied to
    find an answer to their questions. I would argue that more serious
    users, however, have two requirements: first, an answer to their
    questions; second, that those answers be correct. Of course, this may
    be just me. I have had the experience of making this argument before a
    roomful of sales executives and marketing people and being met with
    looks of bafflement on the one hand and dismissal on the other.

    The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm
    some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a
    public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to
    exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be
    lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know
    is who has used the facilities before him.

    Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica,
    and author of How to Know (Booklocker.com, 2004).

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