The Wiki thicket

Wikipedia, the “user-generated” online encyclopedia, has gradually become the research tool of first resort on the Web. Nielsen//NetRatings now reports that Wikipedia was the top online news and information destination in May with 46.8 million unique visitors.

That domination should grow, based on usage trends and the search-friendliness of Wikipedia’s massive and constantly growing database, with its more than seven million articles in some 250 languages.

Jonathan Dee recently noted in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (“All the News That’s Fit to Print Out”) that Wikipedia has moved beyond its original mission of free reference and has morphed into a leading spot news provider. Millions turned to the site for updates after the Virginia Tech murders and the arrests of several young Muslim men in an alleged plot to attack Fort Dix.

Issues of accuracy

Yet Wikipedia has its detractors; if you use the site, you understand some of their concerns about the site’s reliability and accuracy. These critics question the “wisdom of crowds” (the site’s volunteer collaborative editing process with its emphasis on consensus over credentials) and point to Wikipedia’s inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Many college professors, wary of the quality of the online encyclopedia’s entries, prohibit students from citing Wikipedia as a reference. Author Nicholas Carr has decried what he calls the “cult of the amateur,” arguing: “What the Wikipedia community should do is put a warning notice on the top of every page: ‘WARNING: This page may include factual errors.’”

There is no question that Wikipedia must be employed with great caution. (I would look for an independent corroboration of any information you find on it). Despite its flaws, however, it can be used as a helpful starting point in research, a usefulness Carr concedes (just as an initial Google search is valuable for its quick scan of what the Web offers on a given topic). Wikipedia often provides a bibliography and a number of source citations from credible authors or institutions that can be used to dig further.

Moreover, researchers and scholars can testify that the problem of omissions, errors, and distortion is not confined to the Internet; as the Modern Language Association notes, sources are not “equally reliable or of equal quality,” whether in print or on the Web. Flawed sources, and flawed information, existed long before the creation of the Web; peer review and other checks-and-balances were developed to root out error in academic sources. The open access model of the Internet, where traditional information gatekeepers (librarians, academics, editors) hold less sway, leaves individual users to figure out what information is credible, accurate, reliable, and relevant. In the past, researchers confronted the challenges of access and scarcity; today they must struggle with an embarrassment of riches, a glut of information, accessible at the click of a mouse.

Evaluating information

Whatever the purposes of your research—whether for a marketing report, college paper, newspaper article, or for personal education—the key is to evaluate the quality and validity of the information you find. It’s vital when you are developing assumptions and reaching conclusions that your factual foundation is solid. (The dangers of GIGO—garbage-in-garbage-out—apply not only to computer programming, but also to critical thinking).

The careful researcher reviews the raw source material (ranging from published reports or documents to personal interviews to scholarly articles to Web blogs and postings) and looks to establish basic facts, to balance conflicting accounts, and to independently evaluate each source (all the while alert to potential error, distortion, and incompleteness.)

This evaluation should take into account five key factors in establishing the accuracy and validity of information, whether it is found by surfing the Web or in the dusty stacks of a university library. The five are:

  • Authority. Who stands behind the information? Is it from a primary or secondary source? What expertise do authors or editors have, if any? What are their credentials, academic or professional? Is the information subject to peer review or an established editing process? If documents are involved, where did they come from? Who vouches for their authenticity?

    Clearly these questions reflect a bias towards establishment sources (academics, scholars, scientists, journalists), where there are professional standards and practices, and where authors or editors are generally selected for their expertise. This kind of authority does not automatically mean trustworthiness (witness recent embarrassing scandals involving plagiarism and falsification in journalism and academia), but there are more checks-and-balances and accountability when established institutions are involved.

  • Point-of-View. What are the biases or prejudices of the creator(s) of any given information? Are they neutral or partisan? Are they looking to advance a cause or ideology? Do they try to pass off opinions as facts? What other motives may be at work that could introduce bias (personal aggrandizement, professional jealousy, institutional pride, etc.)?

  • Transparency. How easy is it to trace the origins of the information? Are there citations or references? Can other researchers access the information (especially important with primary source documents)?

  • Scope and Depth. How broad and deep is the information? What questions can this information help answer? How much detail is offered? What is missing?

  • Accuracy. Has the veracity or accuracy of the information been challenged? Does it match other sources of information on the same topic, or on the facts? How current is the information? Is it the most up-to-date?

Asking and answering these basic questions will naturally reduce the amount of information you need to consider. Some sources will prove unreliable or biased; some will not offer enough detail; experienced researchers recognize that they will have to weed out and discard information as part of the process. At the end of this review, ideally you have refined your collected information into the most accurate and reliable research findings.

As more and more information migrates to the Web, the need for careful evaluation and examination (what the British call “vetting”) will grow. While Google’s plans to digitize the contents of the world’s libraries have been scaled back, largely because of legal concerns from publishers, information is nonetheless being transferred to the Web at a staggering clip. It is not hard to imagine a future where one mark of an educated person will be their ability to navigate this amazing digital repository of information, sorting and evaluating and extracting the information they need, confident of its relative reliability and accuracy.

This essay has also been published through the At Work Newswire.


; ; ; ;Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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June 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

Rumsfeld’s shameful legacy, democracy at risk in Asia, and other observations…

With a tip of the cap to legendary New York newspaperman Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

DONALD RUMSFELD’S SHAMEFUL LEGACY at the Defense Department is spotlighted in Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker article “The General’s Report.” Hersh’s piece is based on interviews with retired Army Major General Antonio M. Taguba; Taguba makes it clear that Rumsfeld and much of the military brass knew about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib when they were publicly claiming ignorance in sworn testimony before Congress.

Taguba had been tasked with investigating reports of abuse, although he told Hersh that he was prevented from investigating the involvement of higher military and civilian authorities outside of those MPs responsible for security at Abu Ghraib.

Taguba’s argument is that Rumsfeld and his staff failed the nation; he is quoted at length in the article on the conflict between the military values of “loyalty, duty, honor, integrity and selfless service” and what he saw first in investigating Abu Ghraib. Taguba also said:

“…I know that my peers in the Army will be mad at me for speaking out, but the fact is that we violated the laws of land warfare in Abu Ghraib. We violated the tenets of the Geneva Convention. We violated our own principles, and we violated the core of our military values. The stress of combat is not an excuse, and I believe, even today, that those civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable.”

As the then Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld had final responsibility for the conduct of the U.S. military; in this latest New Yorker piece, and in others, Hersh has shown that Rumsfeld personally approved interrogation tactics used at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. He should be held accountable, legally and morally, for what occurred on his watch.

AUTHOR SAM TANENHAUS LOOKS at American politics—Left and Right—over the past last six decades in his New Republic piece “From Whittaker Chambers to George W. Bush; The End of the Journey” and draws some interesting and critical comparisons between the Cold War battle against international Communism and today’s struggle with international jihadism. Tanenhaus concludes: “Yes, we are now in conflict with a grim adversary, but not with an opponent superpower, nor with anything resembling an empire, and it does no good to pretend otherwise. Not every good fight is a millennial fight.”

SADLY, BARRY BONDS WILL BREAK Hank Aaron’s home-run record (of 755) in the next few weeks. But, as the Associated Press reminds us, Bonds has been “dogged by questions of possible steroid use” and a dramatic change in his body “over the course of his career.” That the Giants slugger has been voted an All-Star game starter by the fans serves to highlight the denial of Bonds’s sordid past. By refusing to confront, and stop, steroid use, Major League Baseball will now see one of sport’s most treasured records tarnished. Say it ain’t so…

MITT ROMNEY IS GETTING BAD PRESS OVER HIS TREATMENT OF THE FAMILY IRISH SETTER. USA Today‘s On Politics blog notes that a Boston Globe profile of GOP presidential hopeful Romney has stirred a mini-controversy because of this anecdote: “In 1983, Romney’s dog made a 12-hour trip from Boston to Ontario in a kennel lashed to the top of the family station wagon.” Picked up by Time magazine (headlined “Romney’s Cruel Canine Vacation”), the story provoked the outrage of some animal rights activists. Romney says his dog liked to ride on top of the car. File under: Only in America.

WILLIAM PESEK’S DISTURBING BLOOMBERG NEWS COLUMN, “Democracy Can Wait While Asia’s Economies Boom,” suggests that “China’s un-American views on democracy are gaining favor in Asia.” Pesek notes that weak government institutions and corruption can be found in some Asian democracies (the Phillipines, for example) and adds:

The other reason democracy isn’t thriving in many parts of Asia is disillusionment with the process, coupled with the example offered by China. Instead of U.S.-style government, Asia may be moving toward “illiberal democracy.”

The phrase was made popular by Fareed Zakaria in a Foreign Affairs article in 1997, the same year the Asian crisis began. It refers to a model in which leaders are elected to some extent, but civil liberties and press freedom are kept under tight watch in the name of stability. Some call such leaders “elected autocrats.”

Pesek warns that the priorities are economic growth, then “full-blown democracy.” American diplomatic efforts to link democracy to prosperity are partly to blame: utilitarian arguments for the rule of law and democratic institutions as essential primarily for economic reasons are less effective when China is an example of growth without democracy. We should be talking about freedom (and individual rights) more, and the conditions under which it flourishes, rather than advancing the cause of global capitalism.

IS COUNTRY MUSIC LURING ROCK FANS? David Browne in a recent New York Times piece suggested that country has become “the rock of this decade (the place many fans had to go to hear anthemic choruses and power chords).” Some evidence: Bon Jovi’s new country-tinged album “Lost Highway” and Canadian country rock group Doc Walker‘s hit cover of Del Amitri’s “Driving with the Brakes On.”

GORDON BROWN, BRITAIN’S NEW PRIME MINISTER, CANNOT DRIVE. According to Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail of London, that makes him the first British PM since Clement Attlee of the late 1940s who doesn’t operate a motor car: ” In part this is because he [Brown] lost the sight of his left eye in a sporting injury at school.”

20TH CENTURY ENGLISH MYSTERY WRITER DOROTHY L. SAYERS provides this month’s words of wisdom: “While time lasts there will always be a future, and that future will hold both good and evil, since the world is made to that mingled pattern.”


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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