Friday, September 25, 2009

Knowing-How and Knowing-That with Wikipedia

Wow. First of all, these four articles took me a long time to get through. I want to re-read these articles again, but I shall post first to solidify some ideas that are flummoxing their way through my head.

In my defence, I am not claiming this to be an intelligent response. If you have read the two philosophy articles, you will get that joke. Or maybe not.

I think this essay is examining the how and what of Wikipedia. My post, not the four essays. The argument as it stands is that Wikipedia is either a good or bad place for students to visit for knowledge. For instance, how does one know who is posting a specific sentence? I know that there are instances of plagiarism on Wikipedia, and I know there are instances of excellence. How do I arrive at that knowledge? You might say that I should do more research, but then I would counter with how should I go about starting that research?

Knowing that Wikipedia is a place for the general masses to assimilate various bits of information does not give me the know how of what to do with that information. I can only ask questions of Wikipedia and attempt to verify or discredit that information.

I am convinced that intelligent people can utilize Wikipedia in a meaningful way, but I am equally convinced that intelligent people can and do utilize Wikipedia in a foolish or silly way. Does this mean that Wikipedia itself is a poor source of information or a vast supplier of mis-information? Honestly, I could not at this point tell you.

I had previously thought of Wikipedia as a perfectly valid, if someone skewed, source of information. I think that I still do view it in this light, but increasingly only as a starting point. The points of Wikipedia that I view to be most valid are the references and discussion sections of the articles. I find that the discussion section of an article will contain pertinent information to the validity or meaning of the article. The references provide a starting point for deeper research of a general area of study. In this respect, Wikipedia is a much more valuable resource than many other online reference tools.

On the other hand, students have demonstrated to me that they are unwilling or unable to utilize Wikipedia in a responsible way, and treat it as a valid source of information without little consideration. I have taught students to use the articles of this encyclopedia as a starting point for research, but all too often they quote the article and use the original reference of the information as their citation.

Another consideration that I have is that we are historians. As Ryle pointed out, we know how to conduct historical research. Should we then work with Wikipedia in a historical sense? What I mean is this: Should we take what we know how to do, and apply it to wiki articles in such a way as to construct a higher meaning out of the jumble of facts that dominate the website? Or should we take our historical knowledge and glean important facts from wikipedia, online using it as a stepping stone on our way to intellectual discovery?

Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know, and what that means to us as everyday people. How then can we establish a reliable epistemological viewpoint on wikipedia? How can we say that we know a specific article on the website is useful or non-useful? You might indicate that it is useful if it is factual, but it might also be useful if it is non-factual. A non-factual entry might be useful in spurring discussion of the facts and an evaluation of how that article is being presented. New research is rarely beneficial if it is simply restating old ideas; but it is very beneficial when it takes previously touted ideas and turns them on their head. To quote science fiction, "They said we would never break the sound barrier: It has been broken. They said we would never go faster than the speed of light, but interstellar travel is common." (I think that this is from Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, but I cannot be certain.) Science, and I would say History, are full of examples where firmly held beliefs were discovered to be false, resulting in a furthering of the field. You can, if you so choose, look at this like the Hegelian dialectic: Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. One idea leads to another which results in a third more powerful idea.

Over all, I think that Wikipedia is both too young and too old. It is too young in that academia is uncertain about what to do with it, and it is too old in that the internet seems to be moving beyond the amature-hour version of crowd sourcing. I look at websites like, which have ranking systems and pay structures to encourage meaningful articles. Is wikipedia past its prime? A recent NPR report evaluated this question and decided that maybe it is. Maybe Wikipedia will cease to exist in a few years and other ideas will replace it.

Only time will tell. In the meantime, academics such as ourselves must wrestle with this behemoth in the room.

1 comment:

  1. In my estimation Wikipedia is an educational opportunity. I like how you have positioned WP at adolescence. It seems like what happens next will be very formative. Teachers can abandon the resource and its open, messy (democratic?) structure or they can seek to understand and properly appropriate it. It's a pedagogical question in my estimation. I'll check out I wonder how it compares to and for that matter how articles from Helium stack up against WP. The byline in Helium certainly distinguishes it.