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Wikipedia: Kitsch Knowledge?

The June 7th issue of the Economist contains a very interesting article on the philosophy of Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales. In it, Wales describes his early interest in Ayn Rand's brand of hyper-individualistic capitalism, which understood reality as "fixed and objectively knowable." The article suggests that Wikipedia "seems to fit well with Rand's contention, elaborated more fully by libertarian thinkers such as Friedrich von Hayek, that decentralized markets work best because they are so much more efficient than centralized bureaucracies at digesting information." The article notes that, in this instance, the object of the market is knowledge rather than, say, the price of corn. Claims to efficiency aside, the question I found intriguing concerns whether the commodity won on Wikipedia's virtual capitalist battleground is in fact knowledge.The article reports, quoting Wales, "I think that reality exists and that it's knowable,' he says adding that Wikipedia aims not for truth with a capital T but for consensus. You go meta,' he says, meaning beyond' the disputes and to the underlying facts.... Through this process, says Mr. Wales, Wikipedia articles eventually reach a fairly steady state called the neutral point of view,' or NPOV.... Wikipedia resolves the postmodern dilemma of truth by ultimately relying on process,' says Gene Koo of Harvard Law School's Berkman Centre for Internet and Society. Its process is both open and transparent. The levers of power or not destroyed-Foucault taught us that this is impossible-but simply visible.' To which Mr. Wales responds, more simply, the NPOV is a way of saying: Thanks, but, um, please let's get back to work.'"What struck me about this is the fact that Koo seems to think Wales' pragmatism, which seeks to get "beyond" dispute for the sake of efficiency, can somehow be reconciled with Foucault's insight that knowledge is produced precisely in the breach of contestation. This is to say that conflicting views of "fact" are always already interlaced with power dynamics and other interests such that the "truth" of the matter must always be situated somewhere in a continuing discussion. For example, check out the entry on Roman Catholicism, does it capture the truth or the facts? Whose facts does it convey? It seems to me that what gives one cause to worry about Wikipedia is not that it contains potentially inaccurate information, but rather, that it suggests the illusion that "facts" can be offered irrespective of a point of view and that "reality" is one and the same with "consensus." Furthermore, it elides spirited discussion in favor of dispassionate forensics-the former being the real stuff of human inquiry and the latter a task any monkey could do.On that note, check out the website, which is premised on the old joke that a million monkeys on an indefinite typing spree could produce Shakespeare. Here we have literature being produced in the same Wiki-way. Is it art? Again, where is the conflict, the soul, the passion, the risk? In the end, I worry that when conflict becomes consensus, everything becomes kitsch.

About the Author

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious StudiesĀ at the University of Washington Tacoma.



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As far as I can see, the Economist story ignores a problem that crops up on Wikipedia periodically--that is, people posting falsehoods, sometimes libelous ones, on the site.Pages are corrected when someone points out the errors, and Wikipedia editors and posters are now vetted. Limiting who can post and edit surely reduces the achievement of NPOV, if NPOV can be achieved by consensus (scary, since the consensus in my town is that Barack Obama is a Muslim). Moreover, even if NPOV could be achieved by consensus of the vetted posters, how do you know when NPOV has been achieved? Wikipedia's main use is as a snapshot of what matters to people. As the Economist notes, the entry on Pokemon characters is longer than the entry on quantum physics. And that speaks volumes about what we know and value.

Jean the good news is that people who think Obama is a Muslim have trouble putting sentences together. It is astonishing the smears going on and the blatant misquoting of Barack from his book. At any rate, Eric, you keep hitting home runs. Maybe people should be doctoral candidates forever and get their PHD when they retire.Eric also wrote: "It seems to me that what gives one cause to worry about Wikipedia is not that it contains potentially inaccurate information, but rather, that it suggests the illusion that facts can be offered irrespective of a point of view and that reality is one and the same with consensus."Eric read a few Catholic Church historians. They are a little better now. When I studied church history, they were still trying to convince us that all those corrupt, power mad popes were good people. Among other distortions still going on. And given most educated Catholics knowledge of church history, Wikipedia can not do worse.

Isn't Wikipedia's view of truth-discovery more or less the same practical approach that professional journalists use when presenting potentially controverisal information - i.e. present it as objectively as possible; and in a way that is likely to offend as few readers (particularly influential readers) as possible? Granted the processes are not identical, but both ultimately rely on the reason of the author and the feedback of the reader.If that is so, then why would the NY Times be a better guide to truth than Wikipedia?

"It seems to me that what gives one cause to worry about Wikipedia is not that it contains potentially inaccurate information, but rather, that it suggests the illusion that facts can be offered irrespective of a point of view and that reality is one and the same with consensus. "I believe that one can see this dynamic in miniature in on-line discussion forums (including this one): at some point, a consensus is reached; and/or, one of the disputers runs out of time or gives up on pursuing the debate; and the result is a sort of consensus, or quasi-consensus. What's interesting, though, is that if one hops from list to list, one finds different "consensuses" on the same topic. And istm that a forum's "consensus" does indeed depend at least in part on the point of view of the participants.

Jim, as soon as I stop hyperventilating, I'll be happy to explain to you how Wikipedia is different from responsible journalism, or even journalism as practiced by the NYT.I'll try drinking some Vernor's ...

Eric, please define "kitsch". My worry is that wikipedia is the next "gospel" for the young impressionable minds trying to write a report for school. Since when does a fact have to pass the consensus test?

I lean much more to the postmodernist side of the spectrum and in that regard see Wikepedia as supporting a postomodern as opposed to Objectivist paradigm. As the article notes:"This is my truth, tell me yoursThe more subtle twist has to do with the philosophical concept of truth. Ayn Rand believed that truth exists independently of the minds and opinions of people. This ran directly counter to the postmodernist view that there are many truths, depending on the perspective of the observer. And Wikipedias process seems, on the face of it, to assume the postmodernist rather than the Objectivist stance. The truths described in its millions of articles evolve over time and through the dialectic of editing wars, leading to a new and fuzzy concept of reality dubbed wikiality. Ayn Rand would be turning in her grave, thinks Mr Sanger."As for Jean's point, it is addressed in the article. "A deletionist wonders what message it sends when there is more knowledge available about Pokmon characters than about quantum mechanics; an inclusionist responds that the Pokmon articles do not preclude the addition of more articles about quantum physics."As for consensus, that is also dependent on one's cultural milieu.As for the post on Roman Catholicism, Ionly read the first paragraph. While I do not agree with the premise that the church can be deduced from its organization (which is the operative one in the piece), I certainly acknowledge that for many Catholics the official teaching of the RC Church as enunciated in Lumen Gentium and amplified in Dominus Iesus certainly supports that perspective. I therefore cannot say that the piece is factually in error - only that it is incomplete in that there are other truths that need to be included. But Wikepedia is not a theological text, it is a reference and on top of that it CAN be edited.I did spot one factual error and that was "The Church community is composed of an ordained ministry and the laity.[9] Both groups may become members of religious communities such as the Dominicans, Carmelites and Jesuits". Laity may not become members of the Jesuit order. As a complete aside, contrasting truth claims can exist simultaneously in the same body. Guess what architect of Dominus Iesus wrote this as a theologian:"Thus the word "catholic" expresses the the episcopal structure of the Church and the necessity from the unity of all the bishops with one another; there is no allusion in the Creed to the crystallization of this unity in the bishopric of Rome. It would indubitably be a mistake to conclude from this that such a focal point was only a secondary development, In Rome, where our Creed arose, this idea was taken for granted from the start. But it is true enough that it is not to be counted as one of the primary elements in the concept of "Church" and certainly cannot be regarded as the point round which the concept was constructed. On the contrary, the basic elements of the Church appear as forgiveness, conversion, penance, eucharistic communion and hence plurality and unity: plurality of the local Churches which yet only remain "the Church" through incorporation in the unity of the one Church. This unity is first and foremost the unity of Word and sacrament:the Church is one through the one Word and the one bread...One thing is clear: the Church is not to be deduced from her organization; the organization is to be understood from the Church. But at the same time it is clear that for the visible Church visible unity is more than "organization". The concrete unity of the common faith testifying to itself in the word, and of the common table of Jesus Christ, is an essential part of the sign which the Church is to erect in the world."Ratzinger - Introduction to Christianity

Bill, thanks for the compliment, but my advisor would likely cringe at the suggestion that I remain a doctoral candidate forever. I have no doubt that the history books often do no better than Wikipedia, but at least they usually own up to the fact that they are written by named authors, who can usually be properly vetted by the scholarship, thus, locating them in the discusion.Denise, kitsch is a hard term to define. It is typically used in art criticism to identify a work as somehow lacking authenticity, because it seems to have no discernable connection to "reality." For example, Thomas Kinkade paintings could be considered kitsch, as they present a disposable, sentimental world lacking the seriousness that comes with an honest struggle to translate one's experience into aesthetic expression. I use it to refer to Wiki-knowledge, because I fear a similar leveling of the experience of coming-to-know, which often involves an earnest struggle with the material at hand, is happening such that real questioning and discernment of data is shoved aside in favor of the easy, commonly-held answers. For grade school students, this certainly means an underdevelopment of the critical thinking involved in synthesizing various view points on a report topic in the attempt to adjudicate for oneself the relevant information.

If I were a teacher, I definitely wouldn't allow students to use Wikipedia as a source, but I have to say that I refer to it all the time and have never found any problems. Of course I tend to use it for things like information about celebrities who have recently died. By the way, did you know Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea and danced in the Ballet Russes as Celia Siderova and Maria Istromena? Fortunately she married Nico Charisse, or we might know her today as Syd Finklea. (Syd may possibly have been a nickname resulting from a younger sibling being unable to say "Sis.") Try finding that in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Regarding kitsch"It's Keane. It's pure Keane. No it's greater than Keane. It's Cougat."(from Woody Allen's Sleeper)

Eric, may we know what your doctorate will be/is in?

Bernard Lonergan waxed ironic about people who think that truth is so objective that it doesn't have to reside in any one's mind. Aquinas said that there are eternal truths only if there is an eternal mind, and he thought that reality was attained by us humans by making true judgements: Ens per verum innotescit. But if it is true that I can't know reality except through the use of my mind, this does not mean that one can simply say that I have my truth and you have your truth, and leave things at that. There is actually a self-transcendent dimension to true judgments: my judgment that "X happened" I do not believe applies only to me; it implies also that anyone who judges the evidence intelligently and reasonably will also conclude that "X happened," and that anyone who judges that "X didn't happen" is mistaken. Insert "The holocaust" in place of "X," and see whether you think this is true. This might be a counterweight to Eric's reference to an article on Roman Catholicism.That "All knowledge is perspectival," if meant in a relativising sense, is actually a self-refuting claim.

Im going to chime in because my history department (at Middlebury) hit the headlines a year or so ago, when it issued a Bull forbidding the use of Wikipedia as the sole source. The question arose when our historian of Japan received two term papers, both reporting that the Shimabara rebellion (1637-1638) was an uprising against the (mostly Portuguese) Christian missionaries of the day. Of course, as you all remember from 8th grade history, it was a rising of mostly Christian peasants against a particularly ruthless overlord (daimyo) at a time when Christianity was being thoroughly persecuted. Edward Said, incidentally, though writing before Wikipedia, makes the same error about Shimabara in his Orientalism, and wrong though it is, it fits his thesis admirably. (No criticism of Said implied; I admire his book considerably). Wikipedia now reports Shimabara accurately (I just looked). But of course the original was simply an error, and had little to do with the possibility of truth, whether it exists, and how one reaches it. Certainly, anyone who relies on "fact" to arrive at truth is in for some trouble. There is, after all, virtually an infinite number of facts, and historians (or indeed anyone, including journalists) have to pick and choose. In so doing they construct narratives which may look like true versions of the past to us in the present (and may even look true sub specie aeternitatis), but the narratives themselves are often (usually?) constructed to try to make sense out of this infinity of facts. Journalists (remember that they work under deadlines) are no different, and the imagined discrimination between "news" and "opinion" we so often find in our newspapers is just that imagined. The choice of what they write and print as "news" may not be required to fall in line with the "opinion" of the editorial page; but they are opinions nonetheless.Photographs, too. Im put in mind of an NYT photo run some years ago reporting on a papal Youth Congress; it was of a girl, perhaps 11-12, who had just presented a bouquet to the pope and was leaving the dais, BUT the pope looked as if he were reaching out to her with a leer in his eye, ready to grope, and she looked absolutely terrified. This, just as the news of the sex scandal was breaking all over the front pages. Someone chose that photo among presumably hundreds of others more benign, and the NYT chose to run it to make an editorial point in its "news" section, doing so without having to resort to words. So we all pick and choose when we try to make sense of the past, whether its yesterday or thousands of years ago. Good historians, presumably like good journalists, or philosophers, or theologians, must always remember their findings, reached after exercising the best possible judgments, only approach capital T Truth (as opposed to "truth" in scare quotes). And though we do our best, we must remember that Truth exists only in the mind of God.Which I think is what Aquinas (referenced above) is talking about. And makes nonsense of the statement that you have your truth, I have mine, and theyre both equally valid.

It seems to me that the problems the article presents include some fundamental epistemological and semantic problems that philosophers have debated for eons. I won't touch the epistemological ones, except to say that even for Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas thoughts about contingent things can at best be only a matter of opinion. (Aquinas is not consistent about this -- but he says it sometimes.) We can never know with certainty whether or not thoughts about contingencies are true, and that includes all thoughts about the things which constitute the created world. However, it also seems to me that two of the semantic problems can be clarified, viz., the meaning(s) of "fact" and "truth/true". As I understand its uses in ordinary language, "fact" refers to a reality or situation which exists independently of any thoughts about it, e.g., 'The hardware is new'. However, in some cases *thoughts about* objective facts (or purported objective facts) are themselves sometimes called "facts". For instance, 'It is a fact that Pope Benedict thinks that abortion is wrong' and 'It is a fact that Wales agrees in part with Rand'. As to "truth/true", sometimes those words simply refer to purported objective facts, as in, 'The truth is that Libby did contact Russert about Plame'. But sometimes it refers to *thoughts about* such purported facts, e.g., 'My thinking is that Pope Benedict lives in Rome'. In the latter example 'Pope Benedict lives in Rome' refers to my thought about a purported fact. Then there is the most fundamental semantic problem of all: language is *essentially* ambiguous: because a word can mean anything, it can mean everything, and there is no way of getting into other minds to find out the speaker's own meaning(s) in any given instance. Yes, we're now embroiled in the seemingly intractable contemporary problem of "other minds". So how can we judge the value of any purported consensus? What justifies accepting *any* authority or group of authorities as truth-tellers? There's the great epistemological problem of the day, which I might add, relates both to Wikipedia's concensuses (if there are any) and to the theological concensuses (if there are any) of Catholic bishops, i.e., Tradition.

Some differences between Wikipedia and a newspaper:1. Wikipedia posters are generally anonymous. We don't know who these people are, how they're vetted or trained, and they have no stated professional ethics such as those promulgated by the Society of Professional Journalists.2. Newspapers do make mistakes because they don't always have all the information at hand at deadline. Wikipedia makes mistakes because posters just don't bother to check already established facts. Here's an analogy that might help: Your family doctor might not get your diagnosis right until all the lab tests are in. Does that mean you should rely on Web M.D. instead? I don't recommend it.3. If you pick up a newspaper, you at least have to glance at the front page before you turn to the funnies. There's a chance you'll get a sense of what somebody who's fairly well informed thinks you might want to know about to be an informed citizen. On Wikipedia, you just wallow around in your own narrow interests. Like Pokemon characters. Or, put another way, would you rather get your information on the presidential candidates from Wikipedia? Or the much-reviled New York Times? I'd argue that most reporters (and historians, I think) know that neutrality and objectivity are fictions. However, I think that you come closer to NPOV by reading two or three newspaper accounts of an event rather than going to Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not allowed as a source in our J-school.

"1. Wikipedia posters are generally anonymous. We dont know who these people are, how theyre vetted or trained, and they have no stated professional ethics such as those promulgated by the Society of Professional Journalists."True, Jean, and these are some of the biggest drawbacks of Wikipedia. However, many Wikipedia articles do include bibliographies of books and other sources which are written by already vetted authorities. True, they don't give page references, but that's not insurmountable. Furthermore, it is also true that many historical sources are also anonymous, and non-anonymous historians often rely on these anonymous sources. sometimes to their sorrow. An advantage of Wikipedia is that it at least lets us know about new topics in a discipline that are being explored, whether or not the topics are competently explained. The problem is greatest in the Humanities, I think, because literature is largely a matter of interpretation of words, not of physical data, as in the science"Newspapers do make mistakes because they dont always have all the information at hand at deadline. Wikipedia makes mistakes because posters just dont bother to check already established facts."Having had some strong training in ancient and medieval philosophy, I know from experience that there really isn't such a thing as an "already established fact", not in the sense of an objective, independently existing fact. The medieval period in particular has been misrepresented for hundreds of years by partisan academe, and it is only now being discovered by academe.In other words, at best what we have is what the philosophers call "warranted beliefs", and some beliefs have more and better warrants than others. The question is: how do we establish which are the better warrants?Yes, I'd prefer the New York Times to Wikipedia for information about current events, and since cable TV especially, we sometimes have the opportunity to see and hear NYT reporters saying their say and being queried by other reporters, so we get to know both their strengths and weaknesses sometimes.I would ask: would you rather have no college education or Wikipedia?"If you pick up a newspaper, you at least have to glance at the front page before you turn to the funnies. Theres a chance youll get a sense of what somebody whos fairly well informed thinks you might want to know about to be an informed citizen"True, but newspapers are mainly about news, not about past events or theoretical events or literature or new books in all sorts of disciplines. Further, journalism schools cannot prepare their graduates to be experts in all areas, but many newspapers have reporters writing about topics which involve many different discipllines, for instance, about ecological and econnomic matters. Only the rich papers can afford to have their reporters consult with authorities before writing their articles. That, it seems to me, is the big difference between the NYT and most other newspapers -- it has (or had) lots of money. And editors are subject to the same limitations as reporters. They just don't have time (and the brains) to become experts on every topic. This limitation holds true of old newspapers as well, newspapers which are taken as primary sources even though little is really known about their editors or reporters competence or veracity. Note that even when reporters confer with vetted authorities, the reporters writings are not usually acceptable in learned journals. Or are they?In other words, it seems to me that articles by reporters who are not experts in a topic have some of the same drawbacks that honest contributors to Wikipedia have, though I agree that, because reporters are not anonymous, they are less likely to lie. The problem for both is: which articles are by writers who are both honest and competent? True, the problems are less acute for newspapers.(Notice how many times I've used the word "true"? There's irony for you :-)

Ann, your response, as always, is more nuanced than anything I put up here, and I don't disagree with any of it. I simply object to the notion that those who write for Wikipedia are doing the same thing as reporters or that they're doing it as well as reporters. At least newspapers still put bylines on stories and the names of editors on the masts so you know who to complain to if they get it wrong. Whom do you blame at Wikipedia? Who owns it? Who writes it? Who decides when to update it? I suppose what really bothers me about Wikipedia, Google and IMDb, the Third Person in the Information Trinity, is that my students use them to the exclusion of everything else. Which isn't the fault of the Wiki/Google/IMDb.But even though our university's searchable databases are just as easy to use as Wiki/Google/IMDb, and even though I show the students how to do media searches through the e-library, the students keep going back to their three-headed e-gods.And the library budget gets cut a little more because nobody's using the databases.

So, just to clarify: I don't really think Wikipedia is inherently as reliable as a newspaper.I was referring specifically to the ways that newspapers report on controversial topics. e.g. if you're a reporter, how do you refer to a pro-choice public figure in your story. "Pro-choice"? "Pro-abortion"? "Anti-life"? Not that I'm a journalist. but as I understand it, at least some newspapers have style books that guide their writers. And my suggestion is that one of the style book's functions is to minimize controversy by helping writers avoid inflammatory words and phrases, because after all newspapers, besides providing an indispensable public service, are also commercial enterprises that rely on the good will of subscribers and advertisers to stay solvent.The NPOV process described in the Wikipedia article strikes me as another process geared toward conflict resolution/avoidance.Whether "lack of controversy" = "truth" is another matter. I happen to believe that one of the dysfunctions in our culture is that most people choose conflict avoidance at the cost of truth.FWIW - I don't use Wikipedia regularly, but some of the articles in Wikipedia are quite good, and amply annotated. E.g., their article on the minimum wage is informative, balanced and strikes me as factual. I do get it, though, that the authors are anonymous and there is no intrinsic motivation on the part of contributors and editors to be diligent and honest.

Jean --I can understand your frustration. It seems to me that one of the problems is that colleges, except in journalism departments and in the sciences, do not require that *all* students learn the necessity of evidence for making warranted judgments. Even If a kid is a science major, she will learn it in spades but won't necessarily learn that *all sorts* of judgments require evidence. The result is that people regularly use the word "feel" instead of "know" or "have reason to think" -- 'I feel that McCain is the better candidate', 'I feel that abortion is not wrong', 'I feel that the current administration is not really a failure'. It's the old 'Just trust your gut and all will be well' syndrome. It's the approach to life that gave us Bush, the great gut-truster. It's scary,Jim --Yes, we avoid conflict, and yes the manipulation of thinking by the use of words is one way to do it. Jean --Do yournalism public relations courses teach kids how to do such manipulation? It's such a common public relations ploy that I'm wondering if it's taught in college.

"And my suggestion is that one of the style books functions is to minimize controversy by helping writers avoid inflammatory words and phrases, because after all newspapers, besides providing an indispensable public service, are also commercial enterprises that rely on the good will of subscribers and advertisers to stay solvent."Norm Goldstein, the editor of the AP Stylebook, gave an interview a couple of years ago about the term "Social Security reform" that reporters were using. AP editors were lobbying for the more neutral "Social Security changes," because "reform" implies something was wrong with the system--which it was felt reporters ought not to suggest.There is much soul-searching among editors and reporters about language use. Often, they don't get it right, but they try.To suggest they're doing this to mollify advertisers and stay solvent is a hoot. The biggest loudest arguments at my newspaper was always between the news editor and the ME, usually ending with the news editor drawing an imaginary line with his foot between the ad and editorial departments and telling the ME to "get back on your own side of the building!"The line between editorial and advertising in commercial broadcast news seems mushier."Do your public relations courses teach kids how to do such manipulation? Its such a common public relations ploy that Im wondering if its taught in college."No. They're taught to think like reporters and feed reporters legitimate positive news on behalf of their clients, e.g., the public library's free computer classes helped a homeless man get a data entry job with a local business.They're also taught how to handle crisis communications in an ethical way. Usually the best way to make a problem go away quickly is to get the whole ugly truth out, apologize, and focus on what the remedy will be. Sometimes we've done crisis communications case studies. Students break up into teams and have to field questions about a crisis from a reporter (me). Teams don't know how much the reporter knows about the situation. Some teams tell the truth. Some lie or withhold information. I write my story based on their information and what I know. When they lie, that becomes the main thrust of the story. They're horrified at how awful they've made themselves and their companies look.I like to think this teaches them to never do it again.But I have to say that in the "real world," disinformation and withholding information is still the strategy a lot of professionals still fall back on, either on their own gut reaction or on the insistence of higher-ups. With apologies to Eric, because this has nothing to do with Wikipedia.

Jean, no apologies necessary. I was hoping this would inspire a more general discussion about truth-seeking. It's great as a journalist to reflect on our own epistemic presuppositions as we go about our business. Thanks for all the great discussion!

Thanks for the enllightenment, Jean, and I'm sorry if I was suggesting that newpaper people are taught to be dishonest. It's the some of the PR people I don't trust. It's all so complex.

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