What I'm reading now

Fri 29 Jun 2012 12:09 PM

In What to believe now [Amazon/GoodReads], David Coady sets out to do applied epistemology. Most of the book is about expertise and democracy,* which is fine. With the caveat that I haven't read it all, I'll lament that fact that most of the book seems to be Coady summarizing and critiquing Alvin Goldman's work on these topics. Missing, for example, is any discussion of Harry Collins' work on expertise.

Wikipedia is discussed for three pages in the conclusion, and I'll focus on that because he quotes me. Coady writes:

Most contributors to Wikipedia, unlike most rumor-mongers, see themselves as engaged in a single collective enterprise. This enterprise is governed by rules, and Wikipedia has a hierarchy that seeks to enforce those rules. So, when P.D. Magnus characterizes the claims made in Wikipedia as "more like 'claims made in New York' than 'claims made in the New York Times" he is mistaken. ... Wikipedia is a reasonably reliable source for a reasonably wide range of subjects because of the contingent fact that it has a reasonably good culture at the moment.

Perhaps the rhetorical flourish in the passage he cites overstates my point, because claims in Wikipedia fall under one institutional umbrella in a way that claims made in New York do not. But my point is that there is sufficient variation in the quality and reliability of Wikipedia articles that it is wrong to treat them all together. Even though it is 'reasonably reliable' across a 'reasonably wide range', it is better to pay attention to the kind of article that you are consulting. Wikipedia is large enough that it is better to think of it as multiple overlapping communities, rather than as a single monolithic culture.

* EDIT: As Coady points out in the comments, there are also chapters on rumours, conspiracy theories, and blogging.


from: David Coady

Thu 12 Jul 2012 04:26 PM

It’s not true that “most of the book is about expertise and democracy”. There is one chapter on each of these topics. You’re right of course that the reliability and quality of Wikipedia articles depends a lot on the subject matter. But that’s just as true of the New York Times. It’s quite reliable when it comes to reporting on local crime or sports results, but it has proven to be quite unreliable when it comes to reporting on middle-eastern politics or Wall Street corruption.

from: P.D.

Thu 12 Jul 2012 06:35 PM

David: I didn't mean to misrepresent the contents of the book. I was thinking about the chapters rumour and blogging to be continuations of the discussion of expertise and democracy, played out in the details. But the details matter.

I suspect we don't really disagree much about Wikipedia. The thing about a newspaper is that it explicitly has different departments. Because parts of Wikipedia are not institutionally divvied up, it is tempting but wrong to talk about the culture of Wikipedia as if it were one thing. Your saying that it "has a reasonably good culture" is misleading, then, especially if we agree that responsible use of Wikipedia requires sorting out whether the article you are checking is one where it is trustworthy.