I was thinking the other day about the reliability of Wikipedia, and for what purposes one should and should not trust it, and I came up with the following metaphor, which I thought I'd share with my Noble Readers.
Knowing something from Wikipedia is just as reliable as knowing something because somebody told you.
That's vague, of course, but that's the point. Somebody told you -- at a party or sitting next to you on a bus or in class (but was it the teacher or some auditing crank?) -- and that's it. Should you believe it?
I think that a lot of people's reaction to Wikipedia is to say we shouldn't trust it because, well, anybody could have written it (told it to you). And I have a lot of sympathy with this view, and the concerns that give rise to it.
But it's worth pointing out that in a great many instances in our lives, we do believe things that people "just tell us". We have to. Verification is a complex procedure, one that is time-consuming and resource-intensive.
If, in the course of recommending that you see the Lord of Rings movie, someone mentions that it won the Oscar for best picture, you're unlikely to interrupt them and inquire into their epistemological basis. You'll probably just nod.*
If someone's bitching that the city council has just cut the school budget again, you might disagree with them about whether or not it's a good idea, but you probably won't think to wonder if they're right on the facts. (Even though, every so often, complainers are wrong on their facts.)
And if we stop and ask someone directions, we rarely follow the question up by asking, "and how do you know?"
Of course we don't always. Sometimes something sounds fishy to us -- the CIA had a secret program to....! -- and, based on nothing else, we disbelieve it -- or suspend judgment, perhaps. This is an important filtering mechanism -- but one which is itself deeply flawed.
When should we trust Wikipedia? When we'd be comfortable with saying to the person next to us, "Hey, when was the battle of New Orleans anyway?" and believing their answer.
If you're just curious, then yeah, ask: maybe they'll know. Maybe they'll tell you. Maybe they'll be right.
If someone uses a word that you don't know, and you ask what it means, you'll probably get an answer. Usually it'll be right; sometimes their definition will be off or odd or tendentious. Sometimes it will be flat wrong. But you ask anyway, and keep going, because it's a decent procedure, meaning it works often enough to justify it.
If you are, say, a student turning in a school paper, though, you might want to actually look it up somewhere more reliable.
If you're a scholar, of course, you'd be wise to second-guess even the more reliable sources, and wonder what sort of errors creep into them, and why, and what is the basis of the supposedly reliable source anyway.
So should we trust Wikipedia? Sometimes. For some purposes. To some degree. It's neither the end of human understanding nor the sum of all human knowledge. It's just... somebody telling you something. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're half right, sometimes they're wrong. That's all there is to it.
Trust me on this.
* Interestingly, we're probably more apt to question an assertion that is someone's central point than we are one made in passing. On the other hand, we're probably more apt to remember it too, so maybe that's fitting. But our instincts on these sorts of things are often based on quite non-rational factors; it's worth remembering.