In Praise of Wikipedia

I’ve always viewed libraries, books, and encyclopedias with a sense of awe. I remember my parents buying us a copy of “The World Book Encyclopedia” when I was in grade school. I struggled to understand entries in “The Encyclopedia Britannica” in my early teens. I remember feeling sadness and anger reading of the burning of the great Library of Alexandria in the third century A.D. and more anger watching newsreels of the Nazis burning books. 

About twenty years ago a new, more accessible source of information appeared, an open collaboration encyclopedia called Footnoted, up-to-date information with embedded links to related and explanatory articles and source materials was a dream come true. The physical and financial barriers of paper dictionaries, out-dated encyclopedias with appended “Year Books,” and the time barrier of weeks waiting to acquire a key book–Wikipedia lowered all those impediments to learning. 

No source standing alone is perfect. Wikipedia is a start, a jumping off point, an orientation aid for further inquiry. Wikipedia became, and remains to this day, my go-to source for basic information–and for links to other material.

A few years ago, I had an online exchange with the wife of a high school classmate of mine, a classmate who, at the time, was an Evangelical pastor in Ohio. In response to something I wrote she declared, “Wikipedia is not a reliable source.” I probed her statement. She meant it in a very basic way. She deeply distrusted Wikipedia. She found articles in wikipedia that challenged her perspective, among them, articles connecting to works in scholarly journals that discuss the Bible as an historical document, articles discussing the scientific understanding of geologic time, articles discussing evolution. From my Fundamentalist friend’s point of view, these articles all ran counter to her basic beliefs. Any source that discussed these issues openly was too liberal and too challenging to her understanding of the world. That is what she meant by unreliable.

On December 22, Redoubt News published an article in which Heather Scott (Idaho State Representative to Boise from north Idaho and a compatriot of Matt Shea) responded to the Rampart Report (the investigation of Matt Shea initiated by the Washington legislature in response to his “Biblical Basis of War”):

Reminding all “free thinking” Idahoans that the following facts and unanswered questions really do matter when drawing your own conclusions, Scott says that the unbiased integrity of the Rampart Group’s reporting is in serious question when their top four information sources relied upon include the biased Wikipedia, The Southern Poverty Law Center, Portland uber-left journalist writer Leah Sottile and The Inlander reporter Dan Walters. [the bold is mine, the ironic quotation marks are not mine.]

My friend’s wife and this comment by Heather Scott point out a growing epistemic distinction in our country (and the world?), a basic difference in attitude around knowledge and where knowledge comes from. The distinction is not absolute, but, rather, a fuzzy continuum within which individuals may, on the one hand, subscribe to science and empiricism, a world view based on evidence and experiment or, on the other, to a literal interpretation of an ancient text. Such “Fundamentalism,” a state of mind found among some adherents of most religions, categorically excludes consideration of any data or idea that challenges the received textual wisdom, excludes such suspect data or ideas as motivated by evil forces.

The next time you hear someone question whether Wikipedia is a suspicious source, engage them. Ask them what they consider their valid starting point for learning. Listen and learn. I, for one, am leery of having people represent me in government whose expectations of the future are narrowly focused on interpretation of ancient texts and exclude the broader landscape of shared human knowledge and understanding.

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. Apparently, Redoubt News readers aren’t “free thinking” enough to look at the Rampart Report themselves. I downloaded a copy. A friend electronically converted the pdf into a searchable document. (Which I will send you, if you Reply to this email and ask.) There are 236 footnotes to the Rampart Report, a mere sixteen of them link to wikipedia. Heather Scott’s assertion that “biased Wikipedia” is the first of the “four top information sources” for the Report is a lie–or she never looked at the document itself and she is expounding out of ignorance. In the echo chamber of Redoubt News and the Far Right you are suspect if you consider the knowledge base that hundreds of thousands of contributors have assembled as Wikipedia. Is Scott and her movement so insular that wikipedia is considered the work of the devil?

P.P.S. Wikipedia self corrects. I once looked up the biography of a female actor I’d just seen in a movie. I was struck by an obviously inappropriate and nasty assertion I found there. I contacted via email someone involved with Wikipedia and asked what the procedure was to correct this malicious entry. I was told that the first thing I should do was wait a day, that there were volunteer editors attuned to such malicious changes. Sure enough, the next day I checked and the malicious entry was gone–and my confidence in most of humanity restored. Of course, not all such changes are as easily detectible or correctable, but a huge number of volunteers keep watch. You can read more about the Wikipedia Community and the corrections of vandalism on wikipedia by clicking those links to articles…on wikipedia. I contribute to the Wikimedia Foundation regularly. (It is a 501(c)(3), donations are deductible.) I’m convinced it is a good cause.