Wikipistemology February 6, 2015

The blog Only a Game had a wonderful post recently about the issue with Wikipedia, which is not about the information that is in many of the articles, but about what can be known to be behind them, and thus the confidence that one should or should not place in them. Here is a quote:

The Wikipedia knows nothing, or rather, someone using the Wikipedia cannot know anything from that alone. Whoever refers to a topic on the Wikipedia cannot be said to possess justified true beliefs (i.e. knowledge, conventionally construed), because no-one who edits the Wikipedia has been credibly selected for expertise, creating a gap in justification. Wikipedia editors have self-selected based on personal interest – which is why there are so many articles about (say) Star Trek and videogames. This process could still convey expertise – it frequently does about as well as any other encyclopaedia! – but we are never certain that it has done so in a subject we ourselves know nothing about. Even when Wikipedia provides correct information we cannot know it has done so, and thus can possess no justification for claiming that we do. I say this as someone who uses and even edits the Wikipedia on a regular basis, and who appreciates its remarkable virtue as a public database. It is not that particular resource that I am questioning, but the very idea of databases as a means of knowing. Kn0wledge, whatever it might be, becomes tainted with doubts when it is compiled using the kinds of techniques that lie behind the Wikipedia – and this in turn raises interesting questions about all our knowledge.


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  • IconoclasticNan

    Indeed it does !

  • Straw Man

    I hesitate to get into this debate, because I’m generally allergic to philosophy, but overall, Wikipedia is probably at least as trustworthy as your mother. And since most of your “knowledge” of how the universe works came from your mother, I’d say that the argument above proves too much.

    Or rather, perhaps it invites a meta-argument about the meaning of “justified.” Whether or not your belief is “justified” is itself a subject of “knowledge”: your belief that your beliefs are justified, is itself a belief that may be justified or unjustified. If you’re generally satisfied with, “My mom taught me this when I was 3,” then you should be about equally satisfied with, “I looked it up on Wikipedia.” More, even: mothers are a real crapshoot. You might get a mother with a PhD and rigorous standards of intellectual integrity, but more likely (depending where you live) you got a fundamentalist redneck with a high-school education.

    Switching gears and speaking as a mathematician (did you wonder where I developed my allergy to philosophy?), I’d say that “justified true beliefs” is a horrible definition of “knowledge.” As alluded above, “justification” is itself a subject of knowledge, so we have an infinite regress already. How do we know that we’re justified in believing we’re justified in believing we’re justified in believing Mom wouldn’t lie to us? And as for “true,” whoah nelly! If knowledge has to be true to be knowledge, then how can we know whether anything is knowledge? At best we believe things to be true. But is that belief justified? Ah, whoops! Apparently “true,” like “justified,” is itself a subject of knowledge…

    • I think you’ve made a good case for why we should not simply trust information we got from our parents, at least once we have become adults, rather than a case for trusting Wikipedia. 🙂

  • ChrisBateman

    Hi James,
    Just to let you know that this humble little blog series is now a book, also called “Wikipedia Knows Nothing”!

    It’s a Free PDF, paid paperback or ebook, published with a Creative Commons licensed by ETC Press at Carnegie Mellon:

    Thanks for taking an interest in my work!