Can We Trust Wikipedia?

Boaz Miller

Wikipedia is increasingly becoming the first and often only source to which many people refer for getting information on many subjects. It has several features that distinguish it from traditional sources of knowledge: It is democratic, collaborative, and constantly changing.

But can we trust it? The aim of this post is to review some of the arguments for and against trusting Wikipedia, and arrive at some tentative conclusions.

The Case against Trusting Wikipedia

Wray (2009) makes a comparison between the epistemic culture of science and Wikipedia, from which he draws the general conclusion that Wikipedia cannot be trusted. Wray makes two central claims:

  1. Unlike scientists, Wikipedians are not experts in the fields on which they write, hence they lack the necessary epistemic competence to produce reliable knowledge.
  2. Unlike scientists, Wikipedians are anonymous and do not care about their reputation and credibility, which are the forces that drive the “hidden hand” of credibility in science.

There are, however, several difficulties with Wray’s claims. Wray does not distinguish between different forms of expertise. While most Wikipedians may not have contributory expertise, i.e. the expertise needed to successfully participate in scientific research, many Wikipedians, e.g. doctors and engineers, may have interactional expertise, i.e. they can read and understand scholarly sources in their professional fields. Some may also have experience-based expertise, i.e. non-credited knowledge of special domains (Collins & Evans 2007).

Anonymity has its epistemic advantages. It mitigates the negative effects of unjustified social stereotypes in credibility assessments (Fricker 2007), and enhances critical outlook (Rains 2007). A significant number of Wikipedians in fact do reveal their material identity online. They tend to do that more than users of other online forums (Amichai–Hamburger et al 2008).

Wray does not distinguish between identity and identifiably (McLeod & Leshed 2011). While many Wikipedians do not disclose information that may identify their material identity, they reveal other components of their identity, which are relevant to their epistemic assessment (Amichai–Hamburger et al 2008).  In particular, many Wikipedians include links to articles they have previously worked on, allowing other users to learn about each other’s interests and levels of expertise (Kuznetsov 2006).

Moreover, online users tend to construct virtual profiles that resemble and moderately improve on their material identity (Messinger et al 2008). They tend to be engaged in maintaining their virtual identity’s reputation and care about it as well as that of their material identity (McLeod & Leshed 2011). And Wikipedians report recognition as one of their motivations, and Wikipedia has an intricate system of bestowing recognition, honours and rewards, such as “Featured Articles” (Kuznetsov 2006).

It is also worth mentioning that the existence of a “hidden hand” of credibility in science is disputed (Solomon 2001).

The Case for Trusting Wikipedia

Drawing on considerations from the epistemology of testimony, Tollefsen (2009) argues that there are good reasons to trust Wikipedia, and they are improving as Wikipedia is slowly maturing.

She argues that Wikipedia can be characterized as a mix of Wikipedians’ individual testimonies, and the group testimonies of Wikipedia as a collective body. She further argues that Wikipedia has institutionalized mechanisms of critical discussion and quality control, by which it evaluates Wikipedians’ individual contributions (testimonies).

As a consumer of group testimony, a Wikipedia reader may trust, to some extent, these mechanisms. He can also critically evaluate the content of the articles in light of his previous background beliefs.  By doing so, so Tollefsen argues, the reader may satisfy the conditions for forming warranted testimonial beliefs on a reductionist account of testimonial justification. (If you are not familiar with these terms, the claim is roughly that we have a right to trust Wikipedia, which is similar in strength and scope to the right that we have in ordinary circumstances to trust the say-so of other people, such as teachers, doctors or random strangers we ask for directions.)

As I argue in the next section, however, Tollefsen’s account overlooks systematic features of Wikipedia‘s epistemic design, which are endemic to it.

Reasons for Concern

Both accounts have misidentified the salient reasons for concern. I identity four such reasons:

  1. Inaccessible Academic Content – Most quality academic content is found either on closed online databases, such as JSTOR, which require subscription, or in academic libraries, which are largely inaccessible to the general public.
  2. Long Testimonial Chains – In the absence of direct accessibility to primary research, Wikipedians rely on second- and third-hand sources. Much of these sources are simplified and popularized accounts of scientific research, which tend to distort it (Miller 2009).
  3. Lack of Tempered Equality of Intellectual Authority – Longino (2002) requires that in a knowledge-producing epistemic community, intellectual capacity and relevant expertise be the only criteria by which people are given the right to participate in the collective discussion. Due to Wikipedia‘s democratic nature, this is not the case there. Lay users have an equal say as experts and they often dispute experts’ claims, wear them out in tedious discussions, and eventually drive them away.
  4. Insufficient Social Diversity – Social diversity has a significant epistemic role in facilitating critical discussion in which different perspectives are represented. The Wikipedians’ population sometimes seems too homogeneous, consisting mostly of exactly those like-minded of people who find intellectual online activity to be satisfying.

Tentative Conclusions

There are good reasons to trust Wikipedia articles on issues such as popular culture or current events, on which there are amply available sources and many people with relevant expertise.

There are also moderately good reasons to trust Wikipedia articles in areas such as medicine, engineering, and undergraduate-level science, in which there is reason to suppose there is a sufficient number of Wikipedians with the required interactional expertise.

There are few good reasons to trust Wikipedia articles on issues that require specialized expertise and on which there are few available reliable sources, such as advanced science, history of science, current philosophy and the like. There are reasons to suspect this will not improve with time.

References

Amichai–Hamburger, Yair, Naama Lamdan, Rinat Madiel & Tsahi Hayat. 2008. Personality Characteristics of Wikipedia Members. CyberPsychology & Behavior 11(6): 679-681.

Collins, Harry M. & Robert Evans. 2007. Rethinking Expertise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kuznetsov, Stacey. 2006. Motivations of Contributors to Wikipedia. ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society Archive 36(2).

Longino, Helen. 2002. The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McLeod, Poppy L. & Gilly Leshed. Forthcoming, 2011. As Long as They Don’t Know Where I Live: Information Disclosure Strategies for Managing Identity in Second Life. In Reinventing Ourselves: Contemporary Concepts of Identity in Virtual Worlds, eds. Peachy & M. Childs. New York: Springer.

Messinger, Paul R., Xin Ge, Eleni Stroulia, Kelly Lyons, Kristen Smirnov, & Michael Bone. 2008. On the Relationship between My Avatar and Myself. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 1(1): 1-17.

Miller, Boaz. 2009. What does It Mean that PRIMES is in P? Popularization and Distortion RevisitedSocial Studies of Science 39(2): 257-288

Rains, Stephen A. 2007. The Impact of Anonymity on Perceptions of Source Credibility and Influence in Computer-Mediated Group Communication: A Test of Two Competing Hypotheses.  Communication Research 34: 100-125.

Solomon, Miriam. 2001. Social Empiricism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tollefsen, Deborah P. 2009. Wikipedia and the Epistemology of Testimony. Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology 6: 8‑24.

Wray, K. Brad. 2009. The Epistemic Cultures of Science and Wikipedia: A Comparison. Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology 6: 38-51.

Boaz Miller

About Boaz Miller

Boaz Miller is a postdoctoral fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Tel Aviv University. He has a PhD and MA from the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST) at the University of Toronto. His areas of specialization are philosophy of science and social epistemology. He works in the intersection of philosophy of science, analytic epistemology and science and technology studies. He studies scientific expertise, the relations between knowledge and consensus, and the relations between social values and evidence. He has a BSc in computer science and "Amirim" Interdisciplinary Honors Program from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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15 Responses to Can We Trust Wikipedia?

  1. P.D. Magnus says:
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    I think that Can we trust Wikipedia? is the wrong question. For one thing, we all do use it. Pretending that the question is whether or not to use it at all is disingenuous. For another thing, Wikipedia articles are highly variable in quality. Different communities of users contribute in differen...

    • Boaz Miller Boaz Miller says:
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      I agree. Articles on Wikipedia deserve differential trust. My aim was to try and come up with principled ways to distinguish between different articles based on how much trust they deserve.

    • Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
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      Actually, I think "the" right (more interesting) question is: What is different about knowledge produced by Wikipedia than knowledge produced through other means? Brad Wray is right that the community structure and norms of Wikipedia are different than those of science, but it doesn't follow that th...

    • W. Dean says:
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      “How can we use Wikipedia?” isn’t the right question either, unless it’s a rhetorical question and the answer is that we can’t. The only reason to use Wikipedia (or any other encyclopedia) is as an authoritative source. But we can’t cite Wikipedia as an authority because its authorities ...

      • Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
        [+]

        But not even "we" when "we" means "academics" only value authoritative or citable sources. Wikipedia is, as you imply, useful for getting an introduction to a subject, but I think we can also gain knowledge from Wikipedia---that is, beliefs gained through reading Wikipedia can in many circumstances ...

  2. Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
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    Great article Boaz. I have some concerns with your reasons for concern, however. Regarding 1 & 4, my understanding is that a large portion of Wikipedia editors, particularly of those articles requiring "specialized expertise" that you trust the least, are graduate students. This means that many o...

    • Boaz Miller Boaz Miller says:
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      The demographics of Wikipedians is an empirical question, and I hope that somebody has studied it. I'll try to look for some studies when I write my paper to avoid mere speculations. There are no doubt graduate students working in Wikipedia, but my impression is that most contributors are amateurs. ...

  3. Gilly Leshed says:
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    In a highly publicized Nature article, Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica were found to be similar in their accuracy on 42 articles that were sent to experts for review (Giles, 2005). This was considered surprising to some, and natural to others, given the democratic nature of Wikipedia article w...

    • Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
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      Thanks Gilly! I think we need a “like” button on here.

    • Boaz Miller Boaz Miller says:
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      Hi Gilly. Really great comments! I will read the sources you list. I am sceptical about the wisdom-of-the-crowd-argument. There are general problems with it such as impassibility theorems (incoherent group sets of beliefs), herding, group polarization etc. But frankly, my best argument is the bell ...

      • Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
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        But the collective knowledge of a group != the knowledge of its median individual. Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds isn’t arguing that the average individual knows just as much as any expert, but that average individuals making collective decisions often perform better than experts.

        • Boaz Miller Boaz Miller says:
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          But what's the argument for that? Is it based on some version of Condorcet's theorem? I find good no reason to suppose that in most matters requiring specialized expertise most members of the crowd will have higher than .5 probability to reach the truth. If that were the case, we could decide almos...

          • Mike Thicke Mike Thicke says:
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            The argument of the book is empirical: that in many situations crowds of non-experts actually do out-perform isolated or small groups of experts. The argument for why is something like mistakes cancel each other out and what is left over is true (this is obviously approaching caricature of his actua...

            • Boaz Miller Boaz Miller says:
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              I'm not one of those philosophers who say, "yeah, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?". In the case of Wikipedia, there is great variability in quality, and quality is not correlated with how impressive or well referenced an article is, as in the case of The Scientific Method I gave as...

  4. Eleanor Louson Ellie Louson says:
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    Great article Boaz! One topic you didn't get into was vandalism. Certain topics on Wikipedia have been well-known targets of vandalism (see especially the history of Nickelback's Wikipedia page *warning: contains mature language* http://www.buzzfeed.com/peggy/a-complete-history-of-nickelback-wiki...

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