MacGyver. Bart. Doogie. Theo. If you were a boy in middle school in the early ’90s, the playground arguments over who was the coolest guy on television featured some predictable characters. I’ll admit I thought these guys were pretty rad but, at the time, the television personality I most wanted to be was “the kid with a report due on space”:
That’s Donavan Freberg–the Encyclopedia Britannica kid–and when I was 13 I thought he was the coolest guy on television. I wanted to be the Encyclopedia Britannica kid. Of course, now, in retrospect, I’ll admit that in the pantheon of late-’80s/early-’90s, irritating advertising campaigns, the Britannica Kid ranks somewhere between the Noid and Richard Lewis selling juice boxes. But, at the time the Kid had something I wanted: he could get away with back-talking the grown-ups. From his first appearance “eating fiber and all that stuff” to his infamous red-shirted condescension, the Kid never failed to answer that timeless question: “What if Doogie Howser was an asshole?” Throughout the ad campaign, the Kid constantly belittled and mocked the Announcer and the audience (and his hair stylist) and he always got away with it…thanks to his Britannica-enhanced super-brain. The Kid taught me that even though adults were authority figures, access to knowledge was the great equalizer.
The Micropædia(or “the encyclopedia wars”)
Why do I bring this up? Well, as the Gray Lady reports: after 244 years Encyclopedia Britannica is stopping the presses and calling it quits on print. As the editors of the EB were quick to point out, Britannica will continue to exist as an online publication, but the cancellation of the print-version has lead to quite a bit of emotional outpouring. The feel of the print, the “countless hours of entertainment and wanderlust”, the inspired awe, the cookies-and-milk comfort of “Grandma’s living room,” and…excuse me…I’ve just got a little dust in my eye.
Of course, all this outpouring is accompanied by a strong emotional backlash against Wikipedia; so strong you’d think that Britannica was calling it quits across the board and prostrating themselves before the capricious evil of “the crowd.” Comments are angrily excited that this means the “death of knowledge” and conversations invariably turn to crowd-sourced alternatives. The conservative old-guard issues ill-informed arguments against “Opinionpedia“, decries the fact that “on any given topic…Wikipedia is likely to contain thousands of howlingly incorrect statements“, and laments the “Dark Ages upon us.” In defense, some Young Turks laugh at Britannica “running on the fumes of history” and declare Wikipedia the “winner” of an ill-defined contest with continually moving goalposts. If anything, it just goes to show that the trolls live under both sides of the bridge. For my part, whether it’s 32 volumes of Britannica, or 1,643 volumes of Wikipedia, when it comes to how I acquire knowledge, I tend not to summarily accept or reject information based solely on where it’s published. The former is deferential gullibility, the latter is abject cynicism, and neither are reliable paths to knowledge. (Of course, not every commentator is crying foul and, interestingly, many of the most calm and measured responses come from Wikipedians.)
Anyway, I don’t want pick sides. For me, these encyclopedias are profoundly different resources and each deserves praise and blame for various intellectual virtues and vices. Neither is a replacement for the other because in many cases each does well what the other does poorly. What I find more interesting are the questions raised by the Britannica versus Wikipedia debate on matters of testimony. I don’t mean testimony in the courtroom sense. I mean testimony in the epistemic sense: assertions of fact offered as evidence. For example, the only way I know my date of birth is through the testimony of others–specifically my parents, the hospital, and the Social Security Administration. Given that most of our claims to knowledge rely on testimonial evidence, it’s important to think about how we should evaluate testimony. In the case of encyclopedias we need to ask whether we should “trust” the crowd-vetted factual claims in Wikipedia, or whether Britannica is more trustworthy because it relies on (putative) experts. These questions aren’t new, but I think it might help to provide some context.
The Macropædia (or “two views on testimony”)
Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Reid argued that we have an innate “principle of credulity“, which he described as “a disposition to confide in the veracity of others.” The idea is that claims to fact or knowledge are trustworthy unless otherwise shown. By corollary, we have the “principle of veracity”, which is a natural disposition to make claims that are factual. For Reid, testimony is prima facie trustworthy and should be trusted in the absence of clear evidence of deceit. This view is known as anti-reductionism about testimony. In contrast, there’s reductionism about testimony, with which the Scottish bad-ass David Hume is associated. Hume argued that testimony is always reducible to more basic forms of inference; testimony is always “founded on past experience” (Of Miracles, p. 117). So, on the one hand there’s Hume the reductionist who would hold that we should only trust the claims made in an encyclopedia insofar as we have further, non-testimonial evidence that the claims are likely to be true. On the other hand, there’s the anti-reductionist Reid who would hold that testimony in and of itself is trustworthy provided there is no countervailing evidence. You know what? Here’s a great online, peer-reviewed encyclopedia article that explains the difference. Moving on…
If we concede to the pro-Britannica extremists their arguments, then what we can accept as fact becomes limited to just those information resources that include independently, inductively verifiable causal chains of evidence from direct perception to justified belief: in other words, Hume’s reductionism. The problem, of course, is that what we can then accept as fact becomes circumspect to the point that virtually none of our claims to knowledge will count. For example, based on his online profile, I think I know that Joe Grobelny lives in Colorado but, lacking any direct and independent evidence about either his whereabouts or his trustworthiness, the reductionist would say I am not justified in believing it. Same goes for Wikipedia: lacking direct and independent evidence about the trustworthiness of Wikipedia editors, we shouldn’t trust the claims in Wikipedia. For the global reductionist, Britannica offers both quality information, and independent evidence (credentialed experts, rigorous fact-checking, etc.) that the information is trustworthy. In the early days of Wikipedia, The Economist provided a funny example of the reductionism inherent in the anti-Wikipedia crowd:
Somebody who reads Wikipedia is “rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom,” says [Robert McHenry, Editor-in-Chief of Britannica 1992-1997]. “It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.” One wonders whether people like Mr McHenry would prefer there to be no public lavatories at all.
Of course, this sort of global reductionism is problematic because, in the majority of cases, we don’t have independent evidence to support the trustworthiness of testimony. But, as the anti-reductionists will argue, that’s okay. All we need is some sort of epistemic principle to the effect that sometimes we are justified in believing factual assertions, even in the absence of independent evidence. For example, the non-reductionist can argue that we ought to accept testimony insofar as testimony is a reliable source of truth. Wikipedians often resort to this stance when confronted and, as numerous studies have shown, Wikipedia is, indeed, as reliable a source for true claims as Britannica. That doesn’t mean that everything in Wikipedia is true, only that most of it is, and therefore we are justified in believing what we find in Wikipedia (so long as the claim being considered isn’t undermined by countervailing evidence). Same goes for Britannica.
Propædia (or, “I didn’t understand any of that other stuff”
Encyclopedias are sources of testimony and our epistemic attitudes towards Wikipedia and Britannica are reflections of our general attitudes towards testimony. Those who insist on only believing what can be independently and directly verified are in the reductionist camp. That’s a legitimate position, but the onus is on the reductionist to account for the majority of cases where we lack direct evidence. Honestly, if you read the arguments of the more extreme pro-Britannica you’ll see that they are committed to incredulity about not just Wikipedia, but also to the majority of knowledge claims. When you say you flat-out refuse to accept the truth of a claim if it hasn’t been vetted by credentialed experts, you’ll have to be skeptical about the majority of your beliefs including, for example, your own birthday.
On the other hand, if you point to the reliability of Wikipedia as evidence of its trustworthiness, you may be adopting an anti-reductionist position. Again, this is a legitimate position, but the onus is on the anti-reductionist to provide an account that avoids mere gullibility. The anti-reductionist needs to describe the special, epistemic norms that are unique to beliefs based on testimony, and that’s a big task. I think Wikipedia’s core content policies are great step in the right direction, but there’s plenty more work to be done. Personally, I’m in the anti-reductionist camp and I see a veritistic social epistemology as the best way forward.
So, the debate over the virtues and vices of Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia is important because it allows us a lens through which we can look at broader issues involving belief and justification. If we categorically dismiss Wikipedia because it hasn’t been vetted, we’re tacitly adopting skepticism about almost everything we believe. If we blindly embrace either Britannica or Wikipedia, we’re just gullible. I’d like to think there’s a middle way and I’ll probably revisit the role of testimony in information science in future posts. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I never did get my Britannica. But it’s just as well…I mean, have you seen the Britannica Kid recently? I should have picked MacGyver instead.