SOCRATES: In the matter of just and unjust, fair and foul, good and evil, which are the subjects of our present consultation, ought we to follow the opinion of the many and to fear them; or the opinion of the one man who has understanding, and whom we ought to fear and reverence more than all the rest of the world: and whom deserting we shall destroy and injure that principle in us which may be assumed to be improved by justice and deteriorated by injustice; is there not such a principle?
CRITO: Certainly, there is, Socrates.
–Plato, Crito, 47c-d [trans. by Benjamin Jowett] [link]
It seems that Wikipedia is getting into trouble with the experts…again. As he explains in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education), Professor Timothy Messer-Kruse, an academic with years of experience researching the Haymarket Affair (i.e., an expert on the topic), ran into difficulty editing the Wikipedia article on the event because his suggested improvements constituted original research, contradicted the scholarly majority opinion, and lacked sufficient source attribution. Basically, Messer-Kruse attempted to correct commonly believed factual inaccuracies and was summarily shot-down.
Of course, the comments thread on the article exploded with academics crying foul against Wikipedia’s supposed disregard for truth and its supposed anti-intellectual populism. On the matter of truth, critics point to Wikipedia’s appeal to the “flash mob” of consensus instead of the authority of fact. On the matter of populism, scholars are peeved that Wikipedia gives non-experts the ability to rebuff experts. Messer-Kruse knows more about the Haymarket Affair than any of the editors on the Wikipedia page, so why should we give credence to their version of the facts over his? To the anti-Wikipedia crowd, this is yet more proof that Wikipedia is an inherently corrupt service. Then again, to other commentators, this is yet more proof that the expert is dead. The funny thing is, the ‘Haymarket Affair’ affair goes a long way in proving that both groups are wrong.
Consensus about the truth is not the same as truth by consensus
You see, Wikipedia does disregard truth. Wikipedia does give more weight to consensus. Wikipedia does allow non-experts to edit the experts. And, there’s nothing wrong with that. By its very design, Wikipedia has never been about adjudicating fact and fiction, or true from false. The epistemological project of Wikipedia is merely to report the facts and theories described by scholarly consensus, common knowledge, and reliable news sources. Put another way, Wikipedia is an exercise in descriptive epistemology (what people do believe); Wikipedia is not founded on normative epistemic principles (what people should believe). Actually, if anything, the whole farrago of criticism just goes to show that Wikipedia is surprisingly deferential to expertise, if not parasitic on it. The real problem is that many scholars are unable to accept this epistemological difference in the way Wikipedia works and they tend to treat it in inappropriate terms.
So, what are these descriptive epistemic norms? Wikipedia self-identifies three, the first of which is the core principle that “the threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth.” The intent of the verifiability criterion is to construct Wikipedia in such a way that (ideally) if Wikipedia is wrong about something, then that’s because the scholarly community is wrong about something (and not the other way around). In addition to the verifiability criterion, Wikipedia also includes two other core principles: “neutral point of view (NPOV)” and “no original research (NOR)“, both of which are intended to minimize the impact of non-expertise. NPOV effectively prevents the scholarly consensus from being overshadowed by fringe theories and NOR ensures that Wikipedia editors are not placed in the position of peer-reviewers. Together, the core principles are an attempt to ensure that Wikipedia remains a place of descriptive, rather than normative, epistemology. Both the critics as well as certain naïve supporters fail to appreciate that the goal of Wikipedia is to provide a consensus about truth, not truth by consensus.
Sure, there are editors who don’t abide by the rules and there are many putative facts and theories that lack acceptably verifiable sources. There’s also the problem that novice researchers use Wikipedia uncritically and shallowly. But, it’s not like more traditional scholarship is safe as milk, as even a cursory glance at the recent state of scholarly communication will prove. Of course, all this gets lost in the proclamations that Wikipedia has fundamentally changed the nature of truth or, conversely, in the comments to Messer-Kruse’s article, as the anti-Wikipedians throw red herring after red herring but never land a substantive criticism (and there are plenty…but “it’s not peer-reviewed” is not one of them)
What’s a non-expert to do?
So, Wikipedia is a descriptive project. But, where does that leave Messer-Kruse? Shouldn’t the Wikipedia article in question report his findings? Well, not necessarily, and I think this whole Messer-Kruse affair boils down to the more general problem of how non-experts are supposed to evaluate claims to expertise. This is a tricky problem: should novices accept expert testimony by fiat, or are there rational means for a non-expert to evaluate the experts? And it isn’t just tricky, it’s important; as Hume reminded us: “there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men” (Enquiry, Book X, Part I). If not a majority, then at least a substantial portion of our claims to knowledge ultimately rest on the testimony of others (for example, I know that David Hume lived in Scotland purely based on the testimony of his biographers).
But, many times, when we seek truth we are met with false claims to expertise: quack doctors, mail-order doctorates, falsified research, and so on. So, how are laypersons to determine which experts are reporting the truth? This isn’t a new question either. As Plato discussed in Charmides (cf. 170a ff.), for a non-expert to adequately evaluate the claims of an expert, it would seem that the non-expert would have to know as much about the topic at hand as the expert…which would make the non-expert an expert. Awkward!
This is where Wikipedia’s descriptive epistemology comes into play. By merely reporting the findings of the scholarly community, Wikipedia editors can avoid the trap and push normative epistemic issues back to the scholarly community. For the Wikipedia editor, it is the job of the scholarly community to decide the facts; in most cases, the Wikipedia editor lacks sufficient expertise. So, when a scholar like Messer-Kruse goes to a layperson and presents findings that contradict scholarly consensus, the non-expert can either become an expert or defer to scholarly consensus.
Now, I’m not really that big of a fan of Wikipedia, if only because I hardly use it. I’m not usually after simple, descriptive facts like “X number of people died in the Haymarket Affair.” I’m generally after theory, which the looking-glass of Wikipedia has a more difficult time reflecting. It’s not that Wikipedia is wrong about theory, it’s just that it lacks the depth and breadth of coverage I want. But, that’s just because at a certain level scholarly consensus ends.
So, if you think Wikipedia is flawed because it won’t allow non-experts to defer to a single expert, then you don’t understand Wikipedia. If you think Wikipedia has meant the death of the expert or the end of truth, then you don’t understand Wikipedia. And, just in case you were wondering, I think the Haymarket Affair article has been edited to incorporate most of Messer-Kruse’s suggestions.