Monday 9 March 2009

Can Wikipedia make us think for ourselves?

I read an interesting news item regarding the updating of Wikipedia with false, incriminating or amusing information last week. Which opened a debate on whether we need to edit and approve the data held on Wikipedia.

So here’s my thoughts on the subject.

I find Wikipedia a tremendously useful research tool. I also think that we are all well aware that it is open source and we are therefore alert to the fact it can easily be updated with misinformation and cyber graffiti.

I don’t see this as a major problem as long as we are aware of these pitfalls and compensate with suitable critical thinking and further research where necessary. In fact in many ways I think the fact that Wikipedia is open to user editing can help us by forcing us to learn some critical thinking skills. This could help us evaluate the validity of the vast amounts of information we seem to process everyday from a variety of sources.

The fact that we know that anyone and everyone can contribute and amend this large body of data is in the back of our mind. So when we read something like:

“Jim Morrison was born in a van, whilst curiously enough Van Morrison was actually born in Gym”

We may be highly amused but deeply suspicious of the validity of the information, and most of us would not be prepared to accept it as the truth without a great deal more evidence to support this bizarre claim.

Prior to Wikipedia we have been used to reading facts from books, magazines and newspapers, or hearing things on Film, TV, Radio, or the pulpit and taking them as gospel when reported in a straight faced manner, because they have been written, preached or performed by an authoritative figure with enough importance to warrant their communications platform. But these people are as susceptible to bias, prejudice, ignorance, ulterior motives, delusions and general tomfoolery as the rest of us.

Much of our culture of superstitions, religions, urban myths and misconceptions must be as a result of taking incorrect authoritative information at face value. Once some individuals have taken the bait the memes can multiple and mutate, and over time become ingrained in our culture.

Wikipedia has supplied us with a mountain of mostly accurate knowledge and hopefully taught us to critically evaluate that data. Let’s embrace Wikipedia and learn to apply the methods of evaluating the accuracy of the data. Then let’s apply these principles to ALL sources of information.

BTW If anyone has some good examples of amusing misinformation posted on Wikipedia, I always find them highly entertaining so please post them in the comments field.

Wikipedia has empowered all of us all to be Ford Prefect, if we want to be.

1 comment:

Craig A. Mullenbach said...

Well done, Crispian. I use wikipedia often. It really is only as reliable as any other source of information. The best critical thinkers won't fall for the argument of authority fallacy.

I often run into people who ask me what news I read. They will say: "I don't read Foxnews because they are biased conservatives." or "I don't read (that local newspaper) because they are a bunch of liberals." I tell them I read everything I can from every side, if possible. Then I evaluate the claim and do further research if necessary. Generally, I won't exclude a certain source based on a past mistake or perceived bias.