By Anthony Gill, November 20, 2009 in Outside the Classroom
This is more of a confessional than it is a blog posting. I need to come clean. I’m looking for absolution. For what, you ask? I use Wikipedia. Yes, I said it! I use Wikipedia, that online encyclopedia written by “who knows?” and “from who knows where?” My guess is that many readers are shrieking in horror (although some of you are doing your screaming with a twinge of guilt as well). How could you?! We constantly tell our students not to use Wikipedia as a source of information when writing essays. A reference work written (supposedly) by lay people without any specialized training is bound to be filled with inaccuracies and bias. Wikipedia is the garlic and wooden stakes to academia’s scholarly vampires. Am I ashamed? Yes, a little bit. If behavior is any indication of a guilty conscience, I do turn off the lights of my office, close the door and pull down the window shades. Let it be known, though, that I do not use Wikipedia when conducting research. I only use it to look up bits of information for my courses.
So why am I telling you this? Well, maybe because I don’t think Wikipedia is all that bad. In fact, it might even be a good thing. Admittedly, my feelings are mixed. In short, I find Wikipedia a very troubling institution because it is not written by scholarly experts with advanced training and is not supervised by a board of our most highly educated elite. The reason I like Wikipedia, on the other hand, is that is not written by scholarly experts with advanced training and is not supervised by a board of our most highly educated elite. Perhaps a more detailed explanation is in order.
Let me begin by admitting to be a fan of Friedrich Hayek, Adam Smith, and the rough-and-tumble competition of relatively unfettered markets. And what is Wikipedia? Well, it is a reasonably close institutional representation of Hayek and Smith’s ideas in the realm of knowledge. Nearly anybody, as far as I can tell, can register as a contributor and create an article. Is that article likely to be biased in favor of the author and filled with inaccuracies based upon the author’s lack of knowledge? Yep. However, any other registered user can add to, challenge or flag an entry that they deem is problematic (e.g., lack of citations). This is just like any market. The first mover (or producer) gets to define the terms of a product (e.g., a cell phone). Consumers get to provide feedback on the product by snapping them off the shelves or by rejecting the new gizmo altogether. Eventually other producers will enter the market with ideas how to make the product better. Admittedly, Wikipedia isn’t a full-fledged free market of ideas; the company that hosts the Wikipedia site maintains several editors who constantly check entries for general “weirdness,” but for the most part they serve to keep the exchange of information flowing rather smoothly rather than serving as authoritarian gatekeepers.
In my experience in using Wikipedia, I have noted a few inaccuracies and several entries do appear to display a particular bias in favor or against the topic. For the most part, these are people, events or ideas that are controversial to begin with and one can clearly see the bias. And if one is using Wikipedia to learn about a political candidate, one should immediately assume it was written by a partisan author. But for the most part, I have found the basic factual information in Wikipedia to be reasonably accurate. When I need a reminder when the Whiskey Rebellion occurred and who the major players were, Wikipedia generally comes through for me.
That said, what is the alternative? The alternative is an encyclopedia written by a select group of “experts” who have been contracted to write on a particular topic. Having been one of these “experts,” I can tell you that this process has its flaws. So-called scholarly experts are not immune from including their biases or inadvertently including inaccuracies. Sounds like Wikipedia. The problem with the more scholarly type of encyclopedia, though, is that it has a greater air of authority and as such gives the impression of objective, error-free scholarship. At least it is widely known that Wikipedia entries are probably written by people in their bathrobes who have an intense interest in a topic but might not have the proper academic pedigree. Moreover, when a scholarly encyclopedia is committed to a print edition and shelved in a library, it cannot be altered and becomes revered for its permanence. At least Wikipedia can be altered on an almost immediate basis as new information comes to light or as inaccuracies and biases are exposed.
And this is what bothers me about Wikipedia. And I think it is also what bothers most of my colleagues even though they will never admit it. The main problem with Wikipedia is that is isn’t written by me, the self-anointed expert. How dare somebody write the entry on religious liberty, my field of specialty! I spent all this time in graduate school and the common folk are supposed to be coming to me for information, gosh darn it, not the other way around. Wikipedia is a direct attack on my scholarly authority, if not my whole reason for being!* Having come to this realization, I find myself comfortable enough to now admit to being a casual (not yet addicted, mind you) user of Wikipedia and celebrating the triumph of Hayek’s emergent order in the world of ideas. Now if you excuse me, I have to slip into my bathrobe and register for a contributor account to a certain unnamed website.
* Admittedly, I am also irked by the fact that Wikipedia has yet to have an entry about me, detailing my life’s work. They have an entry on “pizza delivery.” I can’t be less important than “pizza delivery,” can I?
Anthony Gill is professor of political science at the University of Washington. His most recent book is The Political Origins of Religious Liberty (Cambridge University Press). He can be reached at email@example.com.