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Wikipedia’s Fundamental Flaw

with 12 comments

Truth and fact are at the core of an encyclopedia, be it “user-edited” or otherwise. Wikipedia is hollow at the core, because it subordinates truth to consensus and a passive compliance that it calls “civility.” This flaw has crippled its credibility, and will continue to do so as time marches on.

A thicket of Wikipedia “pillars,” “policies,” and guidelines give lip service to the truth, but the reality is different: Wikipedia’s users routinely remove verified facts from articles, and their actions are routinely upheld by administrators. As a result, no Wikipedia article can be considered reliable by its reader.

This is increasingly apparent in colleges, which have begun to forbid students from citing Wikipedia in their research. The general public is catching on as well, as a consequence of a series of revelations including a senior Wikipedia administrator’s fabrication of academic credentials (with the knowledge of Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales) and the revision of encyclopedia entries by corporations and government entities… including the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Wikipedia editors and administrators give a variety reasons, although sometimes no reasons at all, for Bowdlerizing articles and electronically blocking those who try to restore facts. Stripped to their essentials, those reasons boil down to some facts conflicting with the wishes of an ad hoc consensus of Wikipedians, generally a group (or “cabal”) of insiders. I would argue that the reasons given, infuriating as they might occasionally be, are almost beside the point. The critical issue for Wikipedia is that facts are merely inputs, and the truth is merely a perspective.

In virtually any system, it’s inevitable that various factions will arise, each with its own opinions. That’s not only tolerable, but if administered with skill and imagination, it is energetic. But factionalism delivers benefits only to a fact-based system, where two plus two equals four. In a fact-based system, a faction can own its opinion but not its facts. On Wikipedia, where opinions are ostensibly forbidden by a “No Point of View” rule, a faction’s only tool for advancing its opinions is to manipulate facts.

When facts are subordinate to consensus and passive compliance (”civility”), they’ll be manipulated at will. When facts are manipulated, there are no facts at all. Aside from the mortal damage to its credibility, a fact-free oeuvre poses a serious threat to Wikipedia, which operates in a fact-driven legal system that takes a dim view of those who play fast and loose with the truth.

Libel is defamation by means of the written word. Truth is an absolute defense to libel damages. If Wikipedia pursued and valued truth, as opposed to simply claiming it does, it could confidently include truthful criticisms, and even condemnations, of individuals and corporations in its articles. Since Wikipedia is indifferent to truth, it cannot argue that any particular fact asserted is actually a fact; rather, it must pull in its horns, even to the point of censoring facts from its pages.

Wikipedia’s response to the mortal danger of a libel judgment is its “BLP” (biographies of living persons) policy, which makes extraordinary concessions to the subjects of its articles. The BLP policy opens the door to the kind of obfuscation of fact, corporate apple-polishing, and government manipulation that has recently been found there. The policy is an implicit declaration that Wikipedia can’t be trusted because it doesn’t trust itself. Wikipedia doesn’t trust itself because, virtually by definition, it can’t trust itself. You cannot determine fact by a consensus of amateurs, and Wikipedia’s insiders know it.

A factional and fact-free system is prone to corruption, and you see it in Wikipedia’s administration. I use the term “administration” loosely, because in spite of there being a rising ratio of administrative activity to creative activity at Wikipedia, the organization is not administered in any systematic way.

There are rules at Wikipedia, but those rules are poorly written, and enforced in a contradictory, capricious, and chaotic manner. The result is that, in a very real sense, there are no rules. Wikipedia is a classic ad hocracy, operated a series of whims. Many, if not most, of Wikipedia’s administrators are teenagers, and like teenagers everywhere Wikipedia’s teenagers are prone to impulse and immaturity, and to ignoring mere formalities like “pillars” and “policies” as they might apply to themselves.

Thus, writers who stick up for facts on Wikipedia will often find themselves up against a phalanx of other writers determined to omit them, along with one or more administrators who are equally determined to omit them. Those administrators, who have been granted the ability to search Internet addresses, change articles, and exclude individuals from Wikipedia, are under no particular pressure to refrain from using their electronic tools.

Indeed, Wikipedia’s culture encourages blocking of “troublemakers,” holding consensus and “civility” above fact. As is often the case in organizations in general, insiders who are accused of misusing their authority are rarely contravened or disciplined. At Wikipedia, it gets worse: its founder, Jimbo Wales, has serious ethical problems of his own and is therefore in no position to hold others up to meaningful standards.

In mid-2006, a 24-year-old Wikipedia administrator, Ryan Jordan, gave an interview to The New Yorker magazine in connection with a profile of Wikipedia that appeared in the magazine. In that interview Jordan falsified his credentials, as he had done on Wikipedia itself.

Prior to Jordan’s fraud being exposed, Wales placed Jordan on an exclusive committee within Wikipedia, and then hired Jordan as an executive at Wikia, a venture-financed, for-profit company formed to capitalize on the success of the websites based on Wikipedia’s software. In the hiring process, Wales had to have encountered Jordan’s fraud, which was not trivial but included claims to hold jobs that he’d never held.

When The New Yorker exposed Jordan’s fraud, Wales defended Jordan. Only when The New York Times documented rising dissent within Wikipedia did Wales cut Jordan loose, issuing a misleading statement implying that he had been unaware of Jordan’s lies. In the debate that surrounded the issue, many Wikipedia administrators defended Jordan. They, and Wales, are still at Wikipedia.

Wikipedia doesn’t work because Wikipedia can’t work. It won’t be fixed by the departure of Jimmy Wales, if it happens, or by the departure of a particular administrator or the repair of an article or a series of them. Wikipedia has a systemic issue: it must address the hollowness at its core, and must do so in a way that is authentic and credible. I highly doubt that this can, or will, happen. In the meantime, people who care about the truth must tell the truth: about themselves, about life, and about Wikipedia.


Written by Pwok

August 28th, 2007 at 12:05 am

12 Responses to 'Wikipedia’s Fundamental Flaw'

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  1. Good post about truth-changing. Good to see it is being highlighted once more. I have always believed that this is the greatest problem with Wikipedia. The potential problem for it to change truth in to lies, then for those lies to be accepted as truth elsewhere, end up in the media, and then even be cited as sources back on Wikipedia again. I’ve seen it many times.


    28 Aug 07 at 3:21 am

  2. I like it! Great work.


    28 Aug 07 at 4:16 am

  3. Actually, I think most of Wikipedia’s core problem could be solved through the force of the marketplace, by allowing people to own articles, but having alternative versions of articles on contentious topics, with each version linking to all the others. Then people using Wikipedia as a resource (remember them?) would be able to see different takes on the facts, and even to vote on which versions are most well-written, least obviously wrong, etc., and rankings of each article could be simply displayed. (There’s no harm in someone lying if no one is listening to him.)

    But I don’t think Jimmy Wales is really interested in making Wikipedia better; he wants to cash in. And, whatever it is that he gets for letting people like JayJG control articles, he won’t get it if that control doesn’t include keeping alternative perspectives from seeing the light of day.


    28 Aug 07 at 1:57 pm

  4. I disgree with Dillinger’s prescription. If someone purports to publish an encyclopedia, truth and fact should not be offloaded to any other entity, including “the force of the marketplace.”


    29 Aug 07 at 10:12 pm

  5. Pwok, you seem to assume that truth and fact are readily available commodities. If they were, Wikipedia would probably work, but probably also would not be needed by anyone.

    You seem at once to want to do away with the totalitarianism of the “truth-indifferent” regime of Wikipedia, but replace it with an even more totalitarian regime that somehow will enforce the promotion of “the truth.” But you still need, and have not defined, a means by which to decide what really is “the truth” from among all the pretenders to that title. If you think that doing this in a way that does not tend strongly toward corruption is trivial, I assure you that you are sadly mistaken.


    30 Aug 07 at 12:36 am

  6. I’m not as pessimistic as you are about the ability of people to find facts and truth.


    30 Aug 07 at 6:59 am

  7. Probably you are confusing the profound ease with which people are convinced that they have found the facts and the truth with the more sublime and more difficult process of distilling a reasonable approximation of the facts and the truth from unreliable and often contradictory evidence. And then there is the process of convincing those who dispute your findings that they are wrong and must admit it and accept it; how much success has anyone ever had at Wikipedia in convincing SlimVirgin, for example, that some of the things she prefers to censor or, contrarily, to highlight in an article ought to be treated otherwise in order more accurately to portray the truth?

    You seem to think that the problem is not that SlimVirgin et al are authoritarian, abusive thugs, but rather only that they are somehow corrupted against conveying the truth. Frankly, almost any sane person who finds it in his interest to spend the amount of time necessary to control a volunteer effort like Wikipedia will only do so because of some propaganda intent; how do you imagine your mythical person who is only interested in the facts and the truth would be enticed to spend even 20 hours a week at something like Wikipedia? And how do you imagine you’d distinguish this person from those on Hasbara Fellowships and Exxon-sponsored climate scientists, when the latter two obviously have incentives to portray themselves as being objective?

    I suggest that you read the paper at this link, PWOK:


    30 Aug 07 at 3:32 pm

  8. Truth is difficult, but facts are not. Wikipedia doesn’t give any special status to either truth or fact. When it fails to do so, then all of its other problems are inevitable.

    You make a good point about the kinds of people who’ll persist at Wikipedia. Obviously, it are not a randomly-selected group. Indeed, some of them have an agenda that involves altering facts or arranging them in a misleading way.

    Those impulses could be couneracted if Wikipedia put fact and truth at the center of what it does. But that’s not what Wikipedia is about. It values consensus and passivity (which it terms “civility”) above all else. That’s why it doesn’t work.

    I don’t argue that this is the only problem at Wikipedia, but I do argue that it’s the critical flaw from which all others emanate.


    31 Aug 07 at 8:23 pm

  9. I wanted to add something: truth is difficult, but without facts truth is impossible. Therefore, when Wikipedia subordinates facts to consensus, it makes truth even more elusive than it already is.


    1 Sep 07 at 3:14 am

  10. There is something to what you say. On occasion, when I participated at Wikipedia, if someone insisted that something obvious be referenced, I would respond that unless and until someone denied the obvious, there was no need to reference it, and invited the nitwit to go on record denying the obvious in order to demonstrate a need for a reference.

    Mostly, it got me accusations of incivility, as you might expect.


    1 Sep 07 at 4:12 am

  11. Cabal spy trap:

    I think I’ll start a sockpuppet called “Lick Ma Nad.”


    1 Sep 07 at 4:17 am

  12. Blathersburg Address

    Four score and seven weeks ago eight pall-bearers brought forth on their wiki, a new project, conceived in infamy, and dedicated to the proposition that all baloney deserves a sequel.

    Now we are engaged in a great wiki war, testing whether that idea, or any idea so ill-conceived and so replicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate an abortion of that field, as a final resting place for those who gave their wiki-logins that that idea might blather on. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not abdicate — we can not replicate — we can not holler — upon this ground. The depraved Wikipedians, living and socked, who struggled here and there, have replicated it, far above our poor power to edit or retract. The blogosphere will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what silliness we did here. It is for us the fitful survivors, rather, to witness here the unfinished snerk which they who fought valiantly have thus far so glibly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great cleanup remaining before us — that from those alienated exiles we take increased passion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of revulsion — that we here highly resolve that these exiles shall not have struggled in vain — that this requiem, under Intelligent Design, shall have a new birth of wiki-freedom — and that liminal social dramas of the moonstruck, by the moonstruck, for the moonstruck, shall not perish from the backstory.


    30 Sep 07 at 3:10 pm

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