Sunday, June 10, 2007

Trust us -- we're scholars!

I've just completed grading final papers for my six spring quarter classes, and am pleased to report that Wikipedia has not yet brought an end to education, truth, or even western civilization. My students gathered material from multiple sources, checked facts, and developed their own reasoned arguments based on the best available data.

For teachers who are still concerned over the evil menace of Wikipedia, though, the Online Education Database (OED) is offering Top 7 Alternatives to Wikipedia. It's an interesting list, in that it contains not only the predictable Scholarpedia and Encyclopedia Britannica Online, but also the conservative wiki Conservapedia, as an answer "Wikipedia's alleged left-wing bias."

By including Conservapedia, the OED (not to be confused with the Oxford English Dictionary) tries to balance an alleged leftist bias with one that is overtly right wing, as a matter of that site's stated policy. On Conservapedia, "The information found on this site is free of foul language, sexual topics and anything else deemed offensive by the site's editorial staff." One certainly doesn't wish for knowledge that would offend anyone's sensibilities, after all.

In short, OED find one cultural perspective acceptable because it results from a centralized editorial authority . . . but a different perspective unacceptable because it has emerged from the actions of a social network of volunteers with similar interests. Although the OED seems to be gently mocking in its tone toward Conservapedia, their own bias toward authority is clear.

The OED prefers information and knowledge to flow top-down from an acknowledged authority, rather than to emerge bottom-up from a community. Why? Because "it is hard to imagine that millions of anonymous users could accurately maintain a factual and unbiased living encyclopedia. Wikipedia is a non-profit site that is policed by hundreds of volunteers, yet very few of these volunteers have the experience and knowledge of a professional writer/editor. A cultural bias has seemed to have washed over many entries on the site, as general consensus replaces cold, hard facts."

OED prefers the model of Scholarpedia, where "Experts must be either invited or elected before they are assigned certain topics and, although the site is still editable by anyone like a wiki, updates must first be approved before they are made final." But implicit trust in this type of authority-based system is based on two shaky assumptions: 1) that the authority is disinterested in the way this knowledge will be used or interpreted, and 2) that the authority doesn't harbor any cultural biases of its own.

But anyone who's spent more than a few years in academia and research institutions knows that scholars and experts are never disinterested, or free of cultural bias. Their careers and professional reputations depend on how what becomes of the data and information they generate. It's almost impossible to put a half dozen PhDs from the same field in a room without witnessing internecine warfare.

It's not just on Wikipedia that "consensus replaces cold, hard fact." Knowledge has always emerged from conflict between competing ideas, viewpoints and factions. It does not descend like cooling rain from the heights of Parnassus, where saintly scholars confer in whispers. On Wikipedia, at least, the struggles, conflicts, errors and missteps that are part of the process of arriving at the truth are made public. I, for one, have no objection to my students becoming aware of that process.

I think it's appropriate for the academic community to be wary of Wikipedia, and to caution students not to blindly trust its facts. But the same caution should be given for all sources of information, including the alternatives to Wikipedia offered by the OED. Each is a human product with its own limitations, agendas and biases.

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