Tuesday, January 27, 2009

5.*: The wisdom of the crowd: Too risky as the basis for truth?

Wikipedia has announced its intention to tighten its editing policy, after two major inaccuracies were released on its site relating to two US Senators, neither of whom actually died on the day of Obama's inauguration (contra early Wikipedia reports). A system of flagged revision is proposed - a system that will increase accuracy, but decrease timeliness. The issue: "critics say that the process is labour intensive and some changes can take days, if not weeks, to appear."

Here we get to the nub of the epistemological issue. Do we value accuracy more than immediacy? Does 'free' outweigh 'reliable'? It seems problematic, if not impossible, to achieve both. It must also be remembered that Wikipedia does, in fact, have a volunteer army of editors... one major difference between Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica is that the latter pays its contributors (and so, naturally, must have a revenue stream with which to do so).

I am impressed with the statement by Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica, who just a few days ago wrote:

"We believe that the creation and documentation of knowledge is a collaborative process but not a democratic one."

This is a subtle but valuable contrast. EB seeks to identify experts to be contributors, rather than an interested public. I continue to be amazed at how the "wisdom of the crowd" paradigm tries to cheapen the concept of expertise, as if those who have devoted years of study, reflection and practice to do with particular subjects are considered just another voice in the crowd. I'm not naive enough to suggest that experts have all of the answers, or that experts are infallible; self-criticism and an acknowledgement of one's own imperfect view are hallmarks of true expertise (at least in the humanities). Nor is it to suggest that people should not have opportunity to voice their own perspectives or understandings. Rather, a site claiming to be a storehouse of knowledge, and one whose readers are seeking objective, neutral and accurate information, must take care to ensure that objectivity, neutrality and accuracy are valued more than participation, openness, and immediacy - particularly when the latter threatens the former. Wikipedia has shown that the two sets of values can, in fact, be at odds.

Why is this post included in this blog? It raises questions of what it means to know, and what it means to prepare information (itself the fuel for knowledge). The Wikipedia model is one worth continual monitoring, as in some ways it measures the pulse of Web 2.0 and its promise for education.

Here is one way in which Wikipedia can be used effectively in education!

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