Knowledge by consensus

Apr 1, 2009

Wikipedia's guiding principle is agreement rather than truth, says Oliver Kamm

In conception and characteristics, Wikipedia is distinctively a creature of the internet: vast, sprawling and of dramatically variable quality. It is also, by design, an anti-intellectual project. Wikipedia recognises no intrinsic value in competence or knowledge; its guiding principle is agreement rather than truth. Intellectual inquiry involves testing ideas against the canons of evidence. Wikipedia's 'community' offers members a different route to recognition - one shorn of the burden of earning it.
Scientific method is integral to Western civilisation.  The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century allowed the rapid dissemination of ideas, and knowledge began to spread with particular force some three centuries ago with the Scientific Revolution, whose foundations lay in the work of thinkers of classical Greece. In principle, the advent of the web and the planned accumulation of knowledge in an online reference source ought to be a still more powerful means of spreading enlightenment.

Wikipedia has no means of arbitrating between claims other than popularity

But Wikipedia does not work like that. The project's advocates imagine that the problem, if they recognise one at all, lies in the variable quality of Wikipedia's individual entries. The solution is obvious: a process in which editors work on the less successful entries and remove the obviously unmerited ones.

In reality, the problem is much more fundamental to Wikipedia than that much of its content is a pile of dross. Whereas science and learning pursue truth, Wikipedia prizes consensus. Wikipedia has no means of arbitrating between different claims, other than how many people side with one position rather than another. That ethos is fatal to the advancement of learning. Ideas are refined by being tested; scientific method presupposes scrutiny, experiment and conflict.

Andrew Lih's hagiography of the venture - The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia (Aurum Press, £14.99) - is succinct and consistent. From its vainglorious and bathetic subtitle onwards, it is a remorselessly superficial and unreflective book. Long on wide-eyed enthusiasm for technological detail, it is alarmingly short on learning.

Respect is never an entitlement in a culture of learning, it must be earned

Paradoxically, the most useful part of the book is the unintended candour of Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, in envisaging that the venture will be founded on "love and respect". Again, the point is not to contrast Wales's hopes with the virulent abuse that characterises much of Wikipedia's deliberations. It is rather that love and respect are irrelevant to the advancement of knowledge. In a culture that prizes discovery and education, respect is never an entitlement. It is earned, and then still contingent, to the extent that ideas prove their resilience against attacks. Wikipedia does not adhere to those standards of intellectual inquiry.

The most disturbing aspect of Lih's encomium is his treatment of the human side of Wikipedia - what he excruciatingly terms the community. His description of Wales as "like a prophet visiting his flock" is a more revealing simile than he realises. His account of the way in which the self-designated Wikipedians meet bears the hallmarks of a cult. And that strictly is what Wikipedia represents. It is not part of a democratic culture so much as a populist one: a combination of the anti-intellectualism of the Left and the free-market dogmatism of the Right.

Lih refers to - he can hardly avoid mentioning - the scandal in which a prominent member of the Wikipedia "community" and of its arbitration committee turned out to be not, as the man had claimed, a tenured professor of religion but a 24-year-old college drop-out called Ryan Jordan. Wales's handling of the episode - he initially stated that Jordan had "been thoughtful and contrite about the entire matter, and I consider it settled" - demonstrated that a false claim to knowledge was an unexceptionable part of Wikipedia's culture.

Lih's defence of Wales is - and the feebleness ought to make both men blush - that Wales was "likely working off imperfect information".

As is characteristic of Wikipedia's devotees, Lih is fond of setting up straw men: of maintaining that Wikipedia, if it did not work, would produce "nothing but a pile of incomprehensible junk". Wikipedia is indeed comprehensible, and some of its articles effectively mimic the language of scholarly reference. The venture is junk, nonetheless. Wikipedia occupies a prominent part of the Web; the rough beast's hour has come round at last. But there is no reason to accept or value it, still less use it for its intended purpose.

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