From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

Febuary 29, 2004*: Too Common Knowledge.

Recently, a lecturer (with a doctorate) for whom I build and maintain an online course directed her students to an entry from the Wikipedia as background material for one of the units of her course. There's certainly nothing wrong, nor particularly out of the ordinary, in assigning encyclopedia entries for reading in an academic (or any other) course. Encyclopedias on the whole are recognized as reliable (if also introductory) sources of information. When, however, an instructor assigns reading from an encyclopedia, his or her students assume that it's recognized as a well-established source. After all, the editors of the various entries in encyclopedias are ordinarily recognized experts in their fields, and the overall editing of an encyclopedia is a highly professional task. Does the fact that a lecturer directs his or her students to read an entry from the Wikipedia mean that he or she recognizes it as a legitimate source? I'm all for it, but I have to admit that I didn't really expect to see it happen. Or at least this quickly.

Over the past three years the Wikipedia has grown - not only in size, but in popularity as well. It has versions in 50 languages, some of them quite substantial in size, and the end is far from in sight. My guess is that outside of the rather small group of true believers (and contributors), what attracts people to it is the fact that it's free, rather than the fact that it's a continually changing peer-built resource. I don't have any statistics to back up a claim such as this, but I'd venture a guess that more often than not when people refer to the Wikipedia they do so because they've found something they can quote, without even being aware that there's something "special" about the source. Certainly there's good reason to be delighted that a substantial source of information is freely available on the web, but perhaps there's even something a bit distressing in the fact that (if this is really the case) so many of the people who use the Wikipedia aren't at all aware of the fact that it's very existence forces us to question whether authoritative knowledge is actually possible today. After all, to a certain extent the mere existence of the Wikipedia subverts one of the basic premises upon which encyclopedias are built.

In order to understand why this is so, it's important to try and determine just what an encyclopedia is, and what it attempts to accomplish. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that when trying to find an answer to questions of this sort the best source is ... well, an encyclopedia.

The CD-ROM 2001 Deluxe Edition of the Britannica contains a quite comprehensive article on encyclopedias. Among other things in that article, we read that:

... only the encyclopaedia attempts to provide coverage over the whole range of knowledge, and only the encyclopaedia attempts to offer a comprehensive summary of what is known of each topic considered.
Elsewhere in that same article, discussing the compilers of two of the first "modern" encyclopedias, we learn that:
Realizing that the reading public would not tolerate the omission of some subjects and the unequal treatment of others, they prepared works in which at least a few lines were devoted to almost every conceivable topic, and for more important subjects a full account was provided, written by an expert, if possible.
In other words, encyclopedias attempt to be comprehensive, and expert. They want to tell us as much as is possible about human knowledge, and they want what they tell us to be authoritative and trustworthy - an expert opinion. Does what is written in the Wikipedia meet these criteria?

Probably the only way to really test that would be a blindfold test in which readers would be offered texts outside of their published context (let's say printed out on paper in the same font style and size) from an established encyclopedia (or two) and from the Wikipedia and asked whether the information they read seemed to them trustworthy. If readers of these various entries accepted the Wikipedia texts as trustworthy as often as they accepted the "established" texts, it seems to me that we could consider that "proof" that the Wikipedia meets the same criteria by which we judge other encyclopedias. In the meantime, the Wikipedia carries a disclaimer that tells us in in clear language, and bold typeface:
Wikipedia CANNOT guarantee, in any way whatsoever, the validity of the information found here.
And though there's something a bit disappointing in knowing that such a statement really does have to be made, one gets the feeling that just maybe it should appear on other encyclopedias as well.

If we establish that the Wikipedia is a legitimate source, another question begs to be considered as well: Why only it? Does the fact that it calls itself an encyclopedia give it any greater claim to that title, than any other attempt at organized knowledge? Numerous attempts at building a vast repository of information on the web have been made over the years, and simply because most of these were playful doesn't mean that they don't merit being called encyclopedic. And of course numerous times people have claimed that the web itself is a vast encyclopedia.

But in the end, of course, we find ourselves back, almost, where we started. If, after all, we make the web into our encyclopedia, we've essentially given up on being authoritative. We've adopted a relativist position that claims that anybody's definition of anything is as good as any other. That may (or may not) be true, but it's hardly a point of view that can be adopted by an encyclopedia. Encyclopedic knowledge becomes meaningful precisely because it's not known by everyone, not common, but rather specific, expert knowledge which those of us who aren't experts want to have available. By definition an encyclopedia attempts to create some logic and order in the vastness of human knowledge. Information on its own, without organization or categorization, may well be fascinating, but there's not much we can do with it, and somehow it leaves us dissatisfied, with a feeling of incompleteness.

In its content and the way that it's organized the Wikipedia may well have earned the title of encyclopedia, but the price it pays for doing so may be too high. By democratizing the content and the organization of knowledge the Wikipedia may be doing for knowledge what Copernicus did for the solar system, and Darwin did for living beings. It may be true that we don't need experts to organize our knowledge, but I've got the feeling that knowing that they're around makes us feel better.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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