Thursday, March 22, 2007

"Wikipedia is Good for Academia"

(Image from Wikipedia)

U.C. Davis history professor Eric Rauchway has written a defense of Wikipedia for The New Republic: "Wikipedia is Good for Academia" (3/21/2007).

It's a learned piece with an interesting argument on the changing ways in which knowledge has gotten disseminated over the centuries:
People with money, reputation, and control over public information have historically used their power to retain control over the means of producing knowledge, as the philosopher J├╝rgen Habermas noted. To crudely reduce Habermas: In the Middle Ages, the only public things were the symbols of authority, displayed to the people by kings and the Church, who told them what to think and do. As market towns arose, so did a new public culture. Now information didn't just move down from above, it moved horizontally and, by the seventeenth century, vigorously: in print journals and coffee houses and also (as my former colleague Peter Thompson would point out) in taverns where political and literary discourse flourished.

As Habermas noted, the rise of public opinion annoyed the experts. "The conflict about lay judgment, about the public as a critical authority, was most severe ... where hitherto a circle of connoisseurs had combined social privileges with a specialized competence." But, once public, knowledge became so cheap to make and spread that it demanded attention. Everyone who was anyone was reading and listening. And, throughout the period of liberalization in the West, the great and good, the ambitious and the worthy, learned to reckon with "the sense of the people."

The rise of the modern state and the expensive apparatus of modern media undid this revolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Al Gore noted, borrowing from Habermas, it meant a "refeudalization of the public sphere."

Now the Internet is defeudalizing it again. There's no point romanticizing what's going on--defeudalization doesn't mean democratization. Like the coffee-house culture, the Internet's public sphere is noticeably male, crude, and given to the concerns of the rich middle class. But it's not subject to the control of press barons, either.
I largely agree with this assessment of how knowledge has gotten 'democratized', and I'm all for Wikipedia as a resource in learning. I draw the line, however, in allowing it as a source for student papers -- though I'd allow such online encyclopedias as The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for it is a professionally peer-reviewed work. This raises the issue of accuracy, and Rauchway comments on the charge that Wikipedia is inaccurate:

On examination, this argument has itself proved inaccurate. As Roy Rosenzweig wrote, "Wikipedia for the most part gets its facts right," and contrariwise, "[y]ou can find bad history in the library." In pitting Wikipedia against the Britannica, Nature found that:

The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.
If you care about accuracy, you don't want to take up the cudgels against Wikipedia. Nor should you if you care about the free production and promulgation of information.
If true, these are excellent and even telling points -- about Wikipedia's science articles. But on non-science articles, Wikipedia can be terribly inaccurate, as has been not only claimed but also demonstrated in one of Maverick Philosopher William Vallicella's blog entries and the accompanying remarks by commenters.

One point often raised in defense of Wikipedia as a source is that it can be corrected -- and often is corrected. Even granting -- for the sake of argument -- that this is the case, the fact that Wikipedia can be 'corrected' at any time means that it can be rewritten at any time, so how can one cite it as a source? By the time that a student's paper reaches my desk, the Wikipedia article cited may have gone through several changes, so how can I verify the student's accuracy -- or even veracity? I am not raising an abstract academic point; I'm raising a concrete academic point. I've encountered this very problem in student papers that -- despite my repeated warnings -- have cited Wikipedia. By the time that I checked the Wikipedia articles, the material cited had been altered.

So, I'll stick to my rule: Wikipedia as a resource but not as a source.



At 6:38 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I think Britannica is too slow, but I like the idea of editions. The fact that Wikipedia is changing on the fly doesn't give me a reference point of ever knowing when to check to see if something I'm interested in has been updated. Am I suppose to fill up my emails with notifications. I only use on my blog when I pretty much know the information and I usually see if there is another site that has the same information.

At 6:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The constant updating of Wikipedia is its strength and its weakness.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:59 AM, Anonymous James said...

I've never done it, but I believe you can reference specific versions of a page under the history tab. If a student were to do that, then at least you could check to see that Wikipedia once said what the student says it said. ("That's many a said," said I.)

Still, I think you're right on about getting students to think of Wikipedia as a resource, not a source. I'm trying to get my highschoolers to see it that way.


At 11:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

James, I'd heard that this might be possible, but I cannot imagine teaching my students to deal with that complexity when they already have trouble developing the basic skill of correctly citing sources.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:04 PM, Blogger Seoul Art said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 1:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Seoul Art, you've already advertised once on Gypsy Scholar. One time was enough, so the one above has been deleted.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:54 PM, Blogger Dave said...

It's hard for me to believe that they could maintain histories for every entry in perpetuity. However, it is about the only way they can keep accountability, given their other self-imposed limitations.

At 3:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree. A history of every entry? And could these be indexed in some readily searchable way?

What a mess.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:25 PM, Anonymous groundhog said...

Isn't Wikipedia just a new form of the "wisdom of crowds" -- a concept that dates to antiquity?

At 3:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

More or less, but not so much "wisdom" as "knowledge."

Thanks for the link.

Jeffery Hodges

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