William Beutler on Wikipedia

Verifiability and Truth: What John Siracusa Doesn’t Get About Wikipedia

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on February 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm by William Beutler

One of my favorite podcasts is Hypercritical, co-hosted by and principally featuring the thoughtful criticisms of John Siracusa, a sometime columnist for Ars Technica and Internet-famous Apple pundit. The show’s tagline calls it: “A weekly talk show ruminating on exactly what is wrong in the world of Apple and related technologies and businesses. Nothing is so perfect that it can’t be complained about.” Last week’s edition—“Marked for Deletion”—was about something far from perfect, but of great interest to this blog: Wikipedia.

If you want to listen for yourself, jump to about 1:11:55 (yes, more than an hour into the show) where Siracusa and co-host Dan Benjamin turn the discussion to Wikipedia. And a warning: this is going to be long. Consider it homage.

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Promisingly, Siracusa begins by asking his co-host to answer, if he can, “what Wikipedia is”. The answer is pretty good for an outsider: it’s a place for sharing information and collaboratively building a resource for (hopefully) accurate information on almost any topic. In general, this will do. But it’s not quite right, as Siracusa explains by recounting his personal experience of trying, in vain, to defend an article from deletion. With five years to reflect on it, Siracusa describes his efforts as a “prototypical example of someone who does not understand what Wikipedia is, proving that he does not understand what Wikipedia is.”

All of this is a way of getting to Siracusa’s fascination—one might say morbid fascination—with Wikipedia’s policy of “Verifiability”. The first paragraph of the policy says:

Verifiability on Wikipedia is the ability to cite reliable sources that directly support the information in an article. All information in Wikipedia must be verifiable, but because other policies and guidelines also influence content, verifiability does not guarantee inclusion. The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—whether readers can check that material in Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether editors think unsourced material is true.

Or as Siracusa summarizes it: “Something can be as true as you want it to be, if it is not verifiable, it doesn’t go in.” Well said.

He also discusses the related policy of “No original research”. This includes a good explication of the different types of sources that may or may not be used on Wikipedia: primary sources (original documents and first-hand accounts), secondary sources (news articles interpreting primary sources) and tertiary sources (encyclopedias and academic articles summarizing the former). This is advanced stuff, and for a longtime Wikipedian, it’s no small thrill to hear a smart outsider explain why secondary sources are preferred, and work through the fundamental policies of Wikipedia. Siracusa correctly observes: “Wikipedia is not a place where you write down stuff that you know. … Wikipedia writes about other people writing about things.”

Except here’s the thing: Siracusa understands Wikipedia’s core content policies. He just doesn’t like them.

In his particular example, a former standalone article called FTFF (here’s what it used to look like) didn’t survive the process not because it wasn’t true, but (he says) because it contained material that wasn’t verifiable, and constituted original research. This is partly true, but it owes more to a guideline that got only passing mention on the show (and, frankly, in the deletion debate): “Notability”, and specifically the “General notability guideline”. It’s closely tied in with WP:VERIFY and WP:ORIGINAL, and basically says that a topic must have sufficient coverage in secondary sources to be given its own standalone page. FTFF was not, and the result of the debate was to merge the topic to Finder_(software)#Criticism.

Anyway, this pedantry about WP:NOTE and WP:GNG doesn’t affect Siracusa’s main point: If something is true but unverifiable, he would like to see it included in Wikipedia anyway. Nor does it affect his corollary argument, that Wikipedia’s complex rules discourage many would-be participants.

He’s undoubtedly right about the second point: many people try to get involved with Wikipedia who have no idea what it’s really about, and they tend to have a really bad experience. Wikipedia struggles to explain itself to outsiders, and it probably always will.

As to the former, the problem is that he fails to grapple with the implications of the Wikipedia he describes, and this is disappointing. By privileging “truth” above “verifiability”, one gets the impression he’s describing a Rashomon-like Wikipedia where all possible viewpoints are explored, and somehow eventually Wikipedia just makes the right call. This assumes a lot, not least that contentious topics wouldn’t simply devolve into edit wars of unchecked aggression. In a world where Wikipedia aims for truth but eschews verifiability, there are no footholds upon which to steady an argument. There is no way to know what should be considered credible or otherwise.

At times it actually sounds like he’s advocating something that already exists: reliance on “Consensus” for determining how Wikipedia will address the topics it covers. Wikipedia policies and guidelines don’t cover everything, and this is where consensus steps in, however imperfectly. If you’ve ever wondered why there is sometimes an observable discrepancy in the depth or quality of coverage between topics, consensus is the big reason why, and moreso the self-selection that shapes consensus. The current, real-world Wikipedia refers to outside authorities as well as consensus among editors; Siracusa’s Bizarro World Wikipedia would jettison the former and rely solely on the latter.

Meanwhile, Siracusa ascribes Wikipedia’s Byzantine rule structure to Wikipedians’ desire for approval from educators and academics, which he thinks is holding back Wikipedia from what it could become. He repeatedly says “Wikipedia should be something different” and refers to “what’s different about online” but he never gets prescriptive and never actually says why the old methods are outmoded. He does say his Wikipedia would seek to “arrive at truth using every tool necessary” and would, for example, allow original research… but what then is the mechanism for (dare I say) verifying it?

At one point, Siracusa compares the popular, widely-viewed Ars Technica forums to a hypothetical low-circulation print magazine, and complains that the widely-read former site is an invalid source while the unpopular latter publication is acceptable. It’s true that Wikipedia does not necessarily take a populist approach to evaluating sources, but he’s far off the mark in his attempt to explain this: “They’re not cool with the old librarians, because they’re not paper.”

I hope that he was just being lazy and doesn’t actually think that Wikipedia editors prefer paper (if anything they actually prefer online sources, which are easier to check) but he completely misses a key dynamic that ties back to verifiability: the paper magazine with poor circulation at least will have editors who are presumed to care about fact-checking and accuracy. A web forum, however popular it may be, may have moderators, but that’s not the same thing as having an editor. A discussion group is not an editorial operation, period. The forum is a primary source, and so should only be used to support reliable sources.

There are, however, reliable web sources. One of them is the editorial side of Ars Technica; no less an authority than John Siracusa has been cited in approximately 150 different Wikipedia articles about the Macintosh and other technology subjects.

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I’m sorry to say this, but in the show’s last fifteen minutes, Siracusa pretty much descends into total incoherence. Here’s his summary statement, close to verbatim:

[There are] many flaws in verifiability and reliability of sources. It’s built on a foundation of sand. Notability, what’s a reliable source, those things become so key to making Wikipedia crappy or good, and those sands are constantly always shifting, you know? And so if Wikipedia was centered on truth and that was its final goal, yeah, it would have to include citations and verifiability and stuff like that, but there would never be any argument when the two are in conflict. You know, if you could prove that a series of events happened here, then you could say, well, it’s verifiable, it appeared in a reliable source, but it’s not the truth. And so therefore we should expunge that. Because the final goal of Wikipedia is truth. But the final goal of Wikipedia is not truth, it’s verifiability.

There would “never be any argument” about what is the truth? In the parlance of Wikipedia: [citation needed].

Look, this is an epistemological issue, one much larger than just Wikipedia. The reason Wikipedia’s goal is verifiability, not truth, is because verifiability is an achievable goal. In fact, verifiability is a necessary step toward establishing truth, as Siracusa at this point seems to acknowledge in his imagined alternate, truth-seeking Wikipedia.

It’s not that Wikipedia is actively hostile to the truth: it’s just agnostic as to what it might be. Wikipedia articles are like road signs; truth itself may be unknowable, and we may never arrive at our destination, but Wikipedia can point in the right direction. Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines are designed to make sure that its content does that, although it’s fair to acknowledge that it’s not guaranteed. But what is? And what is truth?

Anyway, there’s a user essay on Wikipedia called “Verifiability, not truth” that says this better than I am going to. Here’s the key point:

That we have rules for the inclusion of material does not mean Wikipedians have no respect for truth and accuracy, just as a court’s reliance on rules of evidence does not mean the court does not respect truth. Wikipedia values accuracy, but it requires verifiability. Unlike some encyclopedias, Wikipedia does not try to impose “the truth” on its readers, and does not ask that they trust something just because they read it in Wikipedia. We empower our readers. We don’t ask for their blind trust.

If you want to upset the old system and do something new, you actually do need to think through what should replace it. Siracusa never does.

If he thinks Wikipedia’s adherence to “old world” rules is driving away contributors, he should consider what the free-for-all alternative would look like. It isn’t a Wikipedia I would spend any time with, it’s not one that Google would be eager to rank so highly, and it wouldn’t be the most important reference site on the Internet.

  1. I threw away my Wikipedia account after one skirmish too much with an editor with an axe to grind on a topic where I knew more (and had sources) could not get through and get my edits to stick. I have tried to contribute to some obscure topics regarding translations, language and some technology but more often than not have my contributions been deleted fist by some editor and when I protested a long-time administrator friend of said editor would step in and side with the older, more well-connected, editor.

    Some of my experiences are similar to those of Siracusa’s and I found myself nodding and agreeing with what he said. I have been told again and again that a printed source is more desirable than an internet source. So YES, Wikipedia editors DO in fact believe that to be true.

    It is sad that ignorance can trump knowledge and sources on Wikipedia. It is poison for our beloved resource.

    Please, keep defending Wikipedia, but be advised that not there are many editors with power and an agenda that are trying to undo your work on this blog, you would perhaps do better by explaining to them what you wrote here, because if you did and they accepted it, that would improve the quality of WIkipedia. A lot.

    If not, I hope Wikipedia will someday include this in their footer “The content of this article is the sole point of view of a handful of Wikipedia editors and may or may not be truthful. Wikipedia’s goal is verifiability, not truth.”

  2. Great response to Hypercritical, which is also a favorite podcast of mine. But this episode was, hands-down, Worst Episode Ever. I was just astonished at how incoherent and misinformed it was. But it’s also sad that Siracusa’s frustrating experience is likely common for many new users who try to use it and get burned.

  3. [...] not for truth but verifiability. This is explained in a post on the blog The Wikipedian entitled Verifiability and Truth: What John Siracusa Doesn’t Get About Wikipedia. In his post, William Beutler cites the the relevant part from Wikipedia’s [...]

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