Truth and authority

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Joi Ito points to an article by a reporter talking about the untrustworthy nature of Wikipedia. It would seem that a school librarian wrote to this reporter saying, that Wikipedia is …not an authoritative source. The librarian, Susan Stagnitta then continues:

“Anyone can change the content of an article in the Wikipedia, and there is no editorial review of the content. I use this Web site as a learning experience for my students. Many of them have used it in the past for research and were very surprised when we investigated the authority of the site.”

Phil Ringnalda also wrote on this (a post that did not show up in Bloglines–is it real, then?), and I gather that Morbus Iff has been mixing it up with the reporter, a gentleman by the name of Al Fasoldt.

(I liked Morbus’ question at the end: “Tell me dear readers, is Morbus Iff anonymous?” We could extend this already complex topic to include the concept of authenticity, as well as authority and truth, but my head would implode messily from the effort.)

What makes this even more interesting is that it would seem Fasoldt wrote the article warning of the dangers of Wikipedia under his name, Fasoldt, but wrote in support of the wiki, previously, under a pseudonym, Dr. Gizmo:

In a column published a few weeks ago by my companion Dr. Gizmo, readers were urged to go to the Wikipedia Web site at www.wikipedia. org/wiki/Main Page , an online encyclopedia, for more information on computer history. The doctor and I had figured Wikipedia was a good independent source.

Leaving aside the ramifications of refuting one’s own story, and doing so in the third person, the topic of trust, truth, and authority is a compelling one.

For instance, I do find the Wikipedia to be a good resource. Do I trust the information written there? Let’s say that I trust it to be ‘a’ good source of information, but not the only one. It makes a good start when one is investigating a topic because the material at the wiki usually contains new perspectives, new avenues to explore on a specific topic. So yes, I do trust it to be a good resource…just not the only one.

A case in point of what the wiki can provide can be found in the recent discussions on the Japanese Internment camps. The Wikipedia entry on this topic provides facts that can be verified, such as the name of the camps, bills passed, and major participants in the internment process; or photos taken during this time, such those from this collection of photos of Manzanar by Ansel Adams.

(Though I personally found Adams formal style and obsession with creating ‘beautiful works’ resulted in photos that border on characterization at times.)

The site also reflects opinions, including those categorized as ‘dissenting’, mixed in with the facts. It is the opinion that usually reflects the changes the most, and I imagine it is this that caused much of the consternation with the librarian. But it is this that makes the Wikipedia just such a valuable resource.

The material in the articles can be fascinating, but no more so than that found behind the scenes. You only have to look at thediscussion or view the change log associated with the article to not only see how the topic has evolved, but the justifications for evolving the topic given by those who have made edits. You can learn as much for the reasons changes were made as you can by the changes themselves.

As for the more traditional works on the Japanese Internment, people have discarded the more researched and scholarly writings as the work of fusty out of touch historians with only a partial understanding of what was really happening. Even when a the work was considered ‘authoritative’, and annotated with thousands of pages of documents and the testimony of many who participated in the camps, the work is rejected.

The reason, according to those with more modern views, is though the authors could be considered ‘authorities’ on the topic, they don’t have the ‘truth’ because the truth, in this instance, is held by those who have new, and fresh insight into the existing material–they have reached an epiphany the others, weighed down by the mass of research material and outdated ideas, can’t hope to achieve.

According to these blessed with such insight, they have truth without authority, while the historians have authority, but can’t possibly understand the truth. Who you trust then, depends less on authority or even truth than it does on who you want to believe–literally whose interpretation rings your bell the most.

So much for authority and truth.

That poor librarian’s students would have a difficult time with this topic, as they discover that finding a source that can be trusted isn’t a simple matter of finding an authority who has the truth’; but they couldn’tcould do worse than to start at the Wikipedia, which at least promises to be interesting, if neither truthful nor authoritative.

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