The Wikipedia paper

Sat 05 Aug 2006 12:45 AM

I have a draft of Epistemology and Wikipedia on-line. The paper has existed as detailed notes for quite some time, but I finally hammered it out as paragraphs. It is still waiting on some data, so there is a lacuna in the present draft. I will be presenting it at the Computing and Philosophy Conference next week, and hopefully the lacuna can be filled by then.

The paper concludes with the claim that Wikipedia "frustrates the methods by which we judge the claims of traditional information sources like encyclopedias. This does not mean that Wikipedia is worthless or that we ought not use it at all. Yet it does mean that we should be wary of it and that we should try to develop methods which are suitable to it."

In an earlier draft, I surveyed some cautious ways in which we might use the Wikipedia:

1. Wikipedia entries often contain links to related pages around the web. I know people who exploit this feature and visit the Wikipedia when looking for relevant links. It lets them get at a page quickly, without trying to coax the relevant URL from a search engine. This is fine, but it does not involve actually trusting a claim made in Wikipedia itself.

2. I use Wikipedia to keep track of comic book plots, since I no longer actively read comic books but have friends that do. For topics that have a dedicated fan base, the Wikipedia articles are well tended.

3. It is tempting to say that we can rely on Wikipedia when looking up trivia: Although the Wikipedia might mislead us, the cost of being misled about trivia would be low. This seems wrong to me.

Suppose I consult Wikipedia on some matter that does not seem important, and I come to believe whatever Wikipedia has to say. At a later date, when the topic is more important, I remember what I read without remembering where I read it. There is debate among epistemologists about whether detaching a belief in this way is ever responsible, but it is certainly something that happens. It is a danger of consulting Wikipedia. I wish I could quantify this danger, but I do not know enough about the psychology of belief to say anything more precise.