Monday, January 03, 2005

The demise of Wikipedia

Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism ||

Alas, it was not to be. An article by a former Wikipedia founder outlines a root problem:
The root problem: anti-elitism, or lack of respect for expertise. There is a deeper problem--or I, at least, regard it as a problem--which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise is tolerated). This is one of my failures: a policy that I attempted to institute in Wikipedia's first year, but for which I did not muster adequate support, was the policy of respecting and deferring politely to experts. (Those who were there will, I hope, remember that I tried very hard.)
And an article by a former Encyclopedia Britannica editor goes further:
... Then comes the crucial and entirely faith-based step:
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.
And there's the rub. Where is the "natural selection" process that selects for truth? Humans do not have an innate instinct for truth; if we did, we would not have had to develop the scientific method (devise model, specify testable predictions, tests, measurements, publication, review, revise model, iterate). Humans do have a predilection for creating narratives, hence the rich beauty of religious and spiritual writing (which may be true, but are not testable).

On the other hand, when I was working recently on a talk on knowledge representation, Wikipedia had one of the most helpful discussions of directed graphs that I've found. It was much more accessible than most of the literature on this domain; once I understood the Wikipedia description it I could validate the work against published reference materials. After reading the digested, populist version, I could read the work of recognized experts and interpret that work. So in this case Wikipedia filled an interesting niche -- a "popular" rendering of an esoteric topic that would, in the normal course of things, never be presented at anything other than the language of a post-graduate specialist.

So the Wikipedia will probably fail in its stated mission. It may, however, still have use -- as a way to popularize esoteric topics that other encyclopedias don't cover. The reader, however, must take the next step of comparing the writing of Wikipedia to an authoritative, less accessible source.

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