Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Point of View

Byron at proletblog has always been a fan of wikipedia, an enthusiasm I don't really share. I've written a bit about this before. But since he's started writing about wikipedia and history:

As of yesterday I'm back at university, had my first lecture of the new semester yesterday which includes all the basics, what text book to buy, what times the tutorials are, and of course, a stern warning on the evils of Wikipedia, according my history lecturer Wikipedia is not to be trusted, in fact she was adament that if any of us cite Wikipedia we would fail the course.
I have no objection to that policy - although partly for the mundane reason that once you get to university you shouldn't be citing any encyclopedia.

There's the common argument against Wikipedia, which is it's unreliability. In the article on the miner's strike:
Folk singer Billy Bragg wrote several songs dealing with the strike as a current event, namely "Which Side Are You On?"
That's not an error that anyone who had a background in unions, let alone labour history, could make. The error was pointed out on the talk page in 2006, and still hasn't been fixed. Obviously errors aren't limited to Wikipedia - everytime I read a general history of New Zealand I go looking for errors in my area of research - but that sort of error shows that the author(s) do not have any depth of knowledge, or context in the subject they're writing about.

But my objection to Wikipedia as a font of historical knowledge is much more fundamental than that. As the article Byron linked to said:
. Despite Wikipedia’s unconventionality in the production and distribution of knowledge, its epistemological approach—exemplified by the npov policy—is highly conventional, even old-fashioned.
I would go further, and say it was conservative, and privileged the knowledge and experiences of the powerful over the knowledge and experiences of those without power.

Here's an example from the Talk page about the miner's strike. Someone asks:
people who were not there who work for a news paper take credence over people who were there, but didnt work in the media? I can provide quotes to living people,NUM activists,strikers,miners for quotes, but this would not be allowed?
Someone else responded
No, this is precisely the sort of thing which will not do - please read the verifiability policy and the reliable sources guidelines. Reporting something which someone said to you is not good enough - that's original research, which is forbidden.
Radical historians have fought hard to expand historical record beyond what people have written down. You cannot do radical history when you privilege what's written in newspapers about a strike over the experiences of people who participate.

If we're looking at open source history we need to dream bigger than a better version of Microsoft's Encarta. Wikipedia's policies against original research, its priviledging of published sources, and its belief in objectivity, means that it will always be limited, and reflect the history of the powerful. We need to move beyond that, we need to do original research, write about people's experience, and most importantly, we need to have a point of view.


  1. I hate Wikipedia with a passion. I can't believe any undergraduate would actually cite it (unless it was in a paper about how much Wikipedia sucks). But they do, they do... I tell my students sternly that it isn't reliable, and if they quote it in an essay, I'll mark them down a letter grade. It can, I admit, occasionally point them in the direction of some resources that may be of more use in academic writing, but I'd rather they used scholarly databases that they can get for free on university computers.

  2. I think its fine to say you shouldn't cite Wikipedia because its an encyclopedia, I don't think its fine to say you shouldn't cite Wikipedia because anyone can edit it my lecturer told a class of 100 or so students that anyone can add any "rubbish" they like to Wikipedia, those not involved in the project might believe thats true.

    However like you pointed out information in Wikipedia needs to cite published souces and can have no original research.

    I can understand what you mean about Wikipedia privliging the powerfull, but I think the solution is a strong union press and other independant media, which can be cited on Wikipedia. Of course original research could be done and published elsewhere, licenced under the GFDL and then copied to Wikipedia

    I don't think you can write NPOV history essays/books but I think you can write NPOV encyclopedia articles, as an encyclopedia just needs to contain the basic facts. Often those facts can speak for themselves, for example the article on Rogernomics never says anything like "Rogernomics was a very bad thing" however it does point out that 76,000 manufacturing jobs were lost between 1987 and 1992, which most people would recognise as a bad thing.

  3. Byron - Other published sources don't change the basic bias of what wikipedia values as a source. Which says the Daily Telegraph's stories at the time are a reliable source, and what a miner says isn't.

    It's not just that we need to value sources that represent us (for want of a better word), we also have to question the absolute rightness of their sources. Newspaper articles are considered perfectly fine primary sources in Wikipedia.

  4. Anonymous10:40 am

    With regards to the NPOV issue, Wikipedia's policy is:

    "The policy requires that where multiple or conflicting perspectives exist within a topic each should be presented fairly. None of the views should be given undue weight or asserted as being judged as "the truth", in order that the various significant published viewpoints are made accessible to the reader, not just the most popular one. It should also not be asserted that the most popular view, or some sort of intermediate view among the different views, is the correct one to the extent that other views are mentioned only pejoratively."

    I think that's pretty fair actually: ALL verifiable perspectives must be presented. What would you rather have? The silencing of one or others? The dumbing down of the different viewpoints and the presentation of a single viewpoint? That hardly seems helpful to me. That some perspectives will bolster those in power is not in doubt, but we hardly need an intelligentsia to hide those perspectives (censorship only works one way) - let people make up their own minds.

    With regards to only using verifiable sources: it's an encyclopaedia, not a blog or new research. (Having said that, blogs and myspace pages, etc., are increasingly used as sources).

    I think wikipedia is absolutely fantastic. I regularly use it to get my head around the basics of new topics before delving into them further. Sure, it has its mistakes but that's a tradeoff I think is acceptable given the open, participatory philosophy, and given the vast expanse of topics it covers.

    I hardly understand why you're complaining about the error about Billy Bragg, rather than just fixing it yourself. That's kinda the point.