The Social Epistemology of Wikipedia

Papers from Episteme 6 (1) The Epistemology of Mass Collaboration

Tollefsen, D.P. (2009) WIKIPEDIA and the Epistemology of Testimony. Episteme 6 (1), 8-24.
Wray, K.B. (2009) The Epistemic Cultures of Science and WIKIPEDIA: A Comparison. Episteme 6 (1), 38-51.
Sanger, L.M. (2009) The Fate of Expertise after WIKIPEDIA. Episteme 6 (1), 52-73.
Magnus, P.D. (2009) On Trusting WIKIPEDIA. Episteme 6 (1), 74-90.

In this set of articles, philosophers considered the implications of Wikipedia on theories of testimony, taking various positions on its role and significance as a knowledge source. A common theme is what our use of a collaborative but mostly anonymous system tells us about human credulity. A further thread is how many of the cues we normally use to assess credibility are not available in Wikipedia. Although there still ways to determine how accurate its articles are, we don’t actually tend to use them in practice. In taking the philosophical tack, the authors join up our current knowledge seeking habits with traditions within philosophy, but also remind us of the huge power and reach of Wikipedia.

In the first article, Tollefsen claims that Wikipedia can count as testimony on the assurance principle – that the authors are providing some assurance about the correctness of the content. Moreover, it has many qualities of group testimony as distinct from the aggregation of individual testimonies. She notes that the more well established articles represent a balanced view of the topic (as we’ll see this is perhaps overidealistic and is not entirely corroborated by the other authors.), seen in a way as the settling of the group mind on an issue. As we don’t know the individuals or groups involved in authorship, we are also to some extent placing our trust in a system.

Tollefsen largely supports an ‘antireductionist’ approach to justification, where you you are justified in believing others as long as you have no reason to believe them insincere. In the case of Wikipedia, however, she concludes that default entitlement to trust does not hold, and that we need to treat Wikipedia more cautiously, like “talking to a child”. Later on, she notes that we monitor testimony by checking it against our background beliefs, and this is how we may choose to accept the content of articles.

Wray takes the approach of comparing the process behind wiki articles to the practices of scientists, and comes out more in favour of science as a sound knowledge making practice. He observes how hard it is to authenticate online claims, quoting Shapin that “trust is ubiquitous in knowledge societies”. He further notes that the reliability of wikipedia is based on ‘invisible hand justification’ – in that there is no one person in charge of quality assurance on an article.

Wray sees wikipedians as having less to lose than collaborating scientists and therefore less incentive to be honest and conscientious. That said, he does go on to note that the rush to publish in science is a knowledge anti-pattern and may lead to as many accuracy issues as the rush to post online, which he casts as a form of gossip.

Wray compares egoism and non-egoism as justification in testimony. An egoist approach would say that you need to know the character of the person testifying, and a non-egoist would say it is just enoughto be told someone else believes something. But he concludes that neither extreme really holds in Wikipedia – we dont know the reputation of the authors nor if they really believe what they tell us.

Sanger, a philosopher as well as one of the originators of Wikipedia discusses whether experts still needed now that non-experts can so effectively aggregate knowledge. He concludes, however, that the role of the expert has been too far downplayed in Wikipedia, as experts may be pushed out or ignored.

In conflict with Tollefsen’s views about the “balanced” article emerging over time, Sanger claims that article quality may be a function of the persistance and aggression of the article’s followers, not just the lifetime of the article. In content wars, experts may be driven off by aggressive amateurs with more time on their hands.

Magnus asks what it means to trust Wikipedia as a knowledge source. He notes that in the famous (though controversial) Nature study, Wikipedia proved more variable and slightly less accurate than Brittanica, though perhaps in Wikipedia omissions are more common than inaccuracy.

Magnus provides a useful list of cues that we may use in assessing written testimony including: authority, plausibility of style and content, calibration and sampling with usual sources. He notes that these come undone on Wikipedia. Authority is hard to determine – and not guaranteed with referencing. Style can be edited out. There is a real risk of plausible falsehoods in the content. Calibration may only occur on widely known, as opposed to more specialist portions.

Magnus offers some solutions: Follow sources, interpret the palimpsest – the evolution of the article – from the discuss pages, and link to the dated version of the page. All things that are possible, but even academics probably don’t do.

While the more cautious views on how we “should” treat Wikipedia presented in this journal are coming from experienced academics, I am fairly sure that the position of the average user – including students and teachers – is much more toward anti-egoism and anti-reductionism. Thomas Reid’s principle of credulity – that we are predisposed to trust our fellow man – certainly holds in the large part, especially as often there is not much at stake if we are taking on false beliefs. As the need for correctness increases, however, then so does the need to spend time (and cognitive resources) in assessing credibility.

One area that I felt was not well covered in these papers was the tendency for online information to be recycled. The verifiability principle mentioned by Sanger works well, though often means that large sections are lifted directly from pre-existing sources on the topic, many of which are available online, many of which are written by “experts”. I expect that there is research available on the extent to which Wikipedia articles are largely paraphrased prior texts, and will report it here if I come across it.

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