Open Letter in reply: Open Letter in reply:
Wikipedia is just a bunch of people deciding what they think is important, adding and correcting things they assert are information. At least, that’s what you’d believe if you took Saturday’s piece by Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones at face value, in which he claims: “The principle of staging an Edit-a-Thon epitomises why Wikipedia is a corrupting force and why it is eroding the world’s intellect”.
I’m a trustee of Wikimedia UK, a charity that exists for the express purpose of facilitating projects including Wikipedia. My PhD research is also on topics including collaboration around writing things like Wikipedia articles. So I took some interest in Jones’ article. We’re delighted that projects such as the ArtAndFeminism editathon in the US have caught attention, and alongside events such as this one at the Royal Society hope they’ll achieve a long lasting impact. However, with respect to Jones’ piece I want to correct a couple of misconceptions around:
- What Wikipedia is and the role of Wikipedians (that’s what we call people who edit Wikipedia) in that.
- The need for historiography in considering ‘the sum of human knowledge’
- The objectivity of ‘hard sciences’ and why they are interested in Wiki-like systems
First, while “Wikipedia is the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”, and I’d strongly encourage everyone to think about contributing their skills, that does not mean you’re free to edit as you want; rules around verifiability (including in disciplines such as medicine) and neutrality are key, and ‘enforced’ by fellow editors. We’re keen to work with experts, like some of those who come along to editathons, like Jones, like the institutions with which we run ‘Wikipedian in Residence’ programmes. Those experts contribute their knowledge, they work to help the community gain access to resources and understand disciplinary context – including how ‘notability’ might be understood. If Jones does not think the women added in recent editathons are notable enough, there are ways to address that including via a deletion process.
What Wikipedians do not do though, is engage in original research, or push a particular point of view. That doesn’t mean disputes cannot be reported on, or novel perspectives given. It does mean that the way information is presented should be proportionate to its noteworthiness, with no particular angle given on the presentation of disputes. It’s not a gripping page turner, it cannot give a definitive account of historic cause and effect, you won’t find completely novel perspectives in it; but it seems to be quite a popular format particularly as encyclopedias go…
However, moving to my second point, we do have reason to be worried about Wikipedia. We are concerned with under-representation of groups editing Wikipedia. Too few editors are women, and there is evidence that women are also under-represented in articles across the encyclopedia. That is precisely why we seek experts, to contribute their valuable knowledge about people who are quite rightly seen as noteworthy by those experts but are perhaps lesser known.
We (Wikipedians, and society at large) should be very careful not to perpetuate historic inattentions where possible, and there is good work exploring under-represented groups throughout history, and bringing to prominence their stories. It only takes a scratch to the surface of the idea of history as just “facts” to see the far more interesting depths of narrative. Wikipedia is not the site of historic research (except in the sense that it’s transparent how each edit builds on the next), however it is absolutely right that we put considerable effort into ensuring that where good secondary literature exists (for verifiability purposes) it is used to address gaps.
There is a bias (particularly in gender)on Wikipedia and this is something we should care about. Where possible, we absolutely should be improving coverage of female scientists, artists, computer scientists, and various other areas of history, sport, and so on. Addressing a failure of representation is not the same as fabricating those representations as Jones seems to imply. Moreover, any comparison with review practices in ‘hard sciences’ is fairly spurious. As those of us actually engaged in research around tools such as Wikipedia know, there is a fascinating literature around quality, editor reputation/authority, and indeed the value of such systems for promoting learning. This is not to mention the concerns with peer review, and shifts by some to more open review systems, including the use of Wikis in medicine.
Could open systems – in Wikipedia and beyond – be improved? For sure. Are they eroding the world’s intellect? Seems unlikely – in fact, academics, researchers, medics, and other expert groups seem to be at the front line of the movement. I’d invite you all to come and join in.[expand title=”I used this page to draft an earlier (rougher, more roughly-academic) reply which can still be viewed in the below expansion”]
Wikipedia is just a bunch of people deciding what they think is important, adding and correcting things they assert are information. At least, that’s what you’d believe if you took yesterday’s piece by Guardian Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones at face value, in which he claims: Wikipedia is just a bunch of people deciding what they think is important, adding and correcting things they assert are information. At least, that’s what you’d believe if you took Saturday’s piece by Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones%3
The principle of staging an Edit-a-Thon epitomises why Wikipedia is a corrupting force and why it is eroding the world’s intellect.
Such claims interest me, first because I’m a trustee of Wikimedia UK – a charity that exists for the express purpose of facilitating projects including Wikipedia. Secondly, because my research interests are precisely around the kinds of epistemological interactions around technology; the ways technologies and social structures (e.g. assessments, and teaching of mathematics) implicate particular epistemological stances, and the ways that individuals’ epistemic commitments are born out in their interactions with the world.
It’s always nice to see people taking an interest in Wikipedia and the excellent projects run to improve coverage on the encyclopaedia, particularly of under-represented groups. I suppose, too, that there’s an “any publicity is good publicity” line to be taken here, but let’s take a closer look at some of those claims in any case.
Jones’ primary concern seems to be this:
Getting together to edit the truth – to shape it in what you see as the right direction – is to take Wikipedia at its word. Its word is that all knowledge is democratic, not just in how it is spread, but how it is made. There are no absolute facts and no absolute experts: there are just lots of editors who add what they assert is information, correct what they claim are mistakes, and so on. The theory of the hive mind is that through this relativist process, a deeper collective knowledge must emerge.
The concern here is something like what I opened with – that Wikipedia is just a bunch of people making stuff up about topics they think are important. Leaving aside what Wikipedians (that’s what we call people who edit Wikipedia) actually do, the claim displays a pretty startling (and, obviously, put on) ignorance of historiography. Rhetoric around the “editing of truth” aside, debates around: the significance of particular groups (including women); under-representation of perspectives in historical narrative; interpretation of events and causes; the importance of varied source analysis, and so on are fundamental to the pursuit of history. Of course that’s not to say there aren’t relatively trivial things on Wikipedia (treated with serious consideration), but unless that point is relevant to the coverage of female artists (or scientists, or historical figures, or other individuals and groups under-represented) then it is a) rather moot and b) an indirect ad hominem.
But this is a sloppy postmodern cliche of what constitutes knowledge. Imagine if science were governed by Wikipedia. The results of an experiment would be posted, then “edited” by people whose expertise might be totally dubious, then it would become part of a democratic mass of information without at any stage being rigorously debated, disproved or proved. Science would melt into a relativist sludge.
There is a bias (particularly in gender) on Wikipedia and this is something we should care about, it’s an injustice to the individual’s ignored, and is likely to have wider societal consequence in ‘content holes’ and ‘hermenutic injustice’ (Fricker). However, this bias in part reflects the historical record, and the extent to which we should “rewrite” history to address such issues an interesting topic. What’s important in this case, though, is that Wikipedia is not the place that will happen. While Wikipedia can, should, and should exert considerable effort in, reporting on under-represented groups and modern accounts of such groups and individuals and their under-representation, it cannot engage in original scholarship. That’s not to say that expertise doesn’t matter – indeed, that is precisely why Editathons and Wikipedians in Residence (Wikipedians embedded in organisations for a period) are so important, they facilitate the transfer of expert knowledge to the encyclopaedia that anyone can edit.
Of course, as anyone who has spent any time editing Wikipedia will know, that doesn’t mean you’re free to edit as you want; rules around verifiability (including in disciplines such as medicine) and neutrality are key, and ‘enforced’ by fellow editors. Indeed, as those of us actually engaged in research around tools such as Wikipedia know, there is a fascinating literature around quality, editor reputation/authority, and indeed the value of such systems for promoting learning. This not to mention the concerns with peer review, and shifts by some to more open review systems, including the use of Wikis in medicine.
So fundamentally, Jones hasn’t understood what Wikipedians do, nor the ways in which expertise can be brought into systems such as Wikipedia. There’s another peculiarity of his piece though around a particularly naive view of ‘knowledge’:
True knowledge acknowledges facts in nature that have to be discovered, but that are objectively real.
Let’s take this at face value and assume Jones actually believes it. I have a small quibble here re: ‘knowledge’, in philosophy, knowledge is generally taken to require the truth of the proposition (one cannot “know” falsehoods) so “True knowledge” is redundant. But in any case from this Jones wants to say that:
Historical events are objectively real – they happened. Works of art are objectively real, too. The cave paintings of Lascaux were no less real for being hidden away for tens of millennia.
Now for sure in a sense that’s true. Indeed, it is rather the point of the editathons – just because women (and others) receive undue inattention, it does not mean they are not notable. However, my main issue with this claim is more foundational. It just is not the case that most people who think seriously about matters of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ take it that our experience of the world consists in exposure to an objective reality which we can ‘know’. As I said above, in history this is particularly important. However, even in the sciences the importance of: theory; probability (what is ‘truth’ in probabilistic reasoning?); developing, testing, and ‘fine tuning’ evidence; and even things like the anthropic principle, challenge the simplistic view presented.
While there are few who would deny that some “things” exist, and we happen to know those things as the cave paintings of Lascaux, it is patently not the case that there is some concept “paintings of Lascaux” that we discovered at the discovery of those markings in the “real” world. That is, Jones is forgetting that even in our perception of everyday things our historical, social, and physical context (as evolved animals) plays a huge part in what we perceive, how we exchange information about those perceptions, and how those perceptions resource our future activity.
Since the Renaissance, people have been trying to discover objective facts about the universe, nature and humanity. The university disciplines are the result. They are taught and researched in ways potentially accessible to all (there’s no law that says only some people can become theoretical physicists). But they are disciplines, and if I want to know something worth knowing about black holes, I will try to read a book by a leading physicist, not absorb some third-hand factoids from Wikipedia.
“Works…” might be said to have some sort of objective existence. “Works of art” in contrast patently do not. Works of art exist within a social context, they are normative, we have debates over whether a urinal is a piece of art or not – we can say stuff about those debates, and indeed about the urinal, but this isn’t about “discovery of facts”. To be fair, this is sadly not an unknown view, for example with the State of Florida mandating that: “History shall be viewed as factual, not constructed” (with obvious backlash from historians), but that’s what’s so frustrating – Jones apparently did read history…
Jones seems to have three concerns:
- That Wikipedia doesn’t respect expertise, presenting series of rather dull “facts” from whosoever wishes to contribute them
- That these contributions reinvent history, shifting emphasis, and creating a relativistic worldview
- That such shifts fail to respect the objectivity of disciplines
But of course, while Wikipedia does set out to maintain neutral point of view, that does not prevent it from reporting the facts around disciplinary disputes. Furthermore, while we should absolutely be careful to maintain standards of verification and notability in Wikipedia, that is precisely why we seek expertise, have guidance for citations, and attempt to report appropriately on the many perspectives including in historical narratives. Complaint regarding such a perspective on history (and other disciplines) isn’t a concern with Wikipedia, it is a much deeper failure to grasp the philosophy of science, historiography, or basic epistemology. Where possible, we absolutely should be promoting female scientists, artists, computer science (+), and various other areas of history, sport, etc.
As an aside to close, it’s worth checking out ManyPedia which shows different language versions of the same article, and this proposal for a shift from Neutral Point of View to Every Point of View.