Wikipedia: A bigger problem than supposed liberalism

I don’t do many linkposts, but in this case it makes sense.

OK, every librarian knows that Wikipedia should only be a starting point toward verifiable answers. (No emoticon, but how many of you actually verify supposed information you see on Wikipedia, if you’re just answering a question rather than writing a formal paper? Not many hands up, are there? But let’s assume for this discussion that you all do what you know to be proper.)

Let’s suppose that you’re a faculty member who’s nervous about Wikipedia’s quality in a given area and tend to prefer that it really not be taken seriously in that area. Until you’re assured by another PhD. faculty member that, yes, the sources are excellent–and this faculty member should know, as he’s one of the People With Power at Wikipedia.

Then let’s assume that it turns out this faculty member actually has no advanced degrees and his faculty membership is part of his Wikipedia “identity” with no basis in the real wor.d

Problem? Well, Jimbo Wales didn’t think so, and neither (apparently) did lots of Wikipedians.

Until Jimbo was informed that this would-be-PhD was using his faux credentials to make points within the Wikipedia universe.

In other words: It’s OK to lie to outsiders about your credentials. It’s OK to lie to major media about your credentials. (How OK? Wales actually hired this guy after the external lies were exposed.) But it’s not OK to use your faux credentials to win points within the magic circle.

But that’s a short and probably faulty summary. Seth Finkelstein has put together a bunch of stuff (as has Nicholas Carr, but I’m linking you to Seth): here [1], here [2], here [3], here [4], here [5], here [6], here [7] and here [8], so far.

There may be earlier pieces I haven’t picked up. It’s an interesting story, and I tend to agree that the implications are more interesting than the facts. Do note that, if you want to find all the background, you’ll have to work from Finkelstein’s posts or some other set of posts–in the spirit of full disclosure as practiced at Walesopedia Wikipedia, big chunks of the background have been disappeared from the various discussion pages.

6 Responses to “Wikipedia: A bigger problem than supposed liberalism”

  1. Ryan Deschamps Says:

    Hey Walt,

    I am going to disagree with you on this one. Given any specific “credential over-stater” writing something on Wikipedia is not a disaster because any non-credential person can correct the individual’s mistakes. The point here is that credentials ought to mean less and accuracy ought to mean more. Given “The Wisdom of Crowds” (if you believe James Surowiecki), you should be able to get a fair approximation of truth, not necessarily because consensus dictates knowledge but because the writing has withstood the scrutiny of the populus.

    Using credentials to jockey for position in a discussion is a different story altogether though. Here the “Wisdom of Crowds” theory is mucked up — the “expert” has falsely given him/herself the upper-hand and potentially damaged the knowledge itself.

    I also think Seth overstates the role or purported role of Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not a model for society, it is an information resource and like all information resources, it requires a level of critical thinking in its use. There are lots of other resources out there to complement any wikipedia search.

    Further, if one includes in Wikiality also the criticism of Wikipedia, then you have a resource that is not so bad. I can also say, with complete honesty that I used Wikipedia to answer a question in a policy brief and then confirmed the information via a government (department of justice) website. In this case, the costs of error were quite high though.

  2. walt Says:


    I’m not sure what you’re disagreeing with. Or if you really are disagreeing. I didn’t make any big claim here.

    I think the apparent amount of, um, rot within the internal politics of Wikipedia–as vividly illustrated by this whole situation, Wales’ ham-handed handling of it, the “you can’t edit your own entry unless you’re Cory Doctorow” situation–is more of a problem with Wikipedia than its supposed liberal bias.

    But then, I think the supposed liberal bias is nonsense, so I don’t regard that as a problem at all. So if this is even a little problem, it’s a bigger problem than supposed liberal bias.

    Fact is, basing truth on reference to external sources still requires some regard for expertise because there are all sorts of external sources–and they disagree. At some point, “in-world reputation”–partly based on external credentials–becomes a significant factor. If that’s corrupt, it’s a problem. As you say.

    Do I think this is a disabling situation? Not at all. “A resource that is not so bad” would be my summary judgment on Wikipedia. I think that’s been clear in my C&I commentaries on Wikipedia.

    I thought this was an interesting story. I thought and think that the implications are more interesting than the facts. My interpretation of the implications may not be the same as Seth’s…

  3. Ryan Says:

    My mistake — I disagreed with the sentiment (or what I thought was the sentiment) of this paragraph here:

    In other words: It’s OK to lie to outsiders about your credentials. It’s OK to lie to major media about your credentials. (How OK? Wales actually hired this guy after the external lies were exposed.) But it’s not OK to use your faux credentials to win points within the magic circle.

    If the guy’s writing had merit, I think I could stand for the lie about credentials given the principles of Wikipedia, and I see a significant difference between lying about credentials on a profile page and using false credentials to gain influence in discussions.

    Now I see that you may not have been purporting this view. But I see the concordance on how the critics of wikipedia play directly into Wikipedia itself. Very interesting, but not surprising because the blog world, and even Google has been playing this game or years now.

  4. walt Says:

    Well, yes, there may be mild disagreement.

    I don’t think it’s OK to lie to outsiders about credentials. I have no problem at all with Wikipedians using pseudonyms and ignoring real-world credentials, but as soon as they assert real-world credentials, problems ensue if those credentials are false. Still, creating your own fantasy self on your profile page is pretty small potatoes as “not-OK” goes. As long as it’s nothing more than a fantasy self that silly people who go to your profile page might see, and you’re not referring people to that page to show off your expertise/credentials.

    I guess the difference is that, taking those three sins in order, I’d call the first one minor, the second one major, and the third one major–where Wales seemed to think that the first and second didn’t matter at all, while the third was major.

    The bottom line for me is that while I still use Wikipedia as a convenient starting point, in the back of my mind I’ll think “Walesopedia” as an alternate name and treat it accordingly.

  5. Seth Finkelstein Says:

    Ryan, there’s two topics I was addressing you may have misunderstood:

    1) The issue, to me, is NOT his edits. NOT. NOT. NOT.
    It was the use of his fabricated status as a tenured professor to *endorse* *Wikipedia*, when it has such academic credibility problems. That deception apparently didn’t bother Wales at all, though to be fair it’s not completely clear that he knew how extensive it was (his defense is roughly that he’s a busy man and that sort of thing escaped him – some critics don’t believe him, but there’s no smoking gun evidence to disprove it).
    The Wikipedians care that he lied to *them*, but that’s a separate and more complex issue.

    2) The “model for society” part is my critique about the marketing pitch for Wikipedia as a harbinger of a new era in social organization, where I think it’s more a middling cult that gets very good PR. That sort of hype has recently been very popular in certain academic circles, to gushing proportions these days. I dislike it intensely, but comparatively I’m just an obscure blogger who has no ability to affect the gravy train.

  6. walt Says:

    Seth, Thanks for the clarification. Of course, you are an obscure blogger who gets published in The Guardian–some of us are more obscure than others–but your point’s nonetheless well taken. Whatever Wikipedia may be, I agree that “model for society” is not what I’d call it…

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