Reliability? Expertise? Whatever Next?

Scott has a very apropos column this week. Well, apropos from my point of view anyway – and in a very real sense, is not my point of view the only one that matters? Of course it is. And from that point of view Scott’s column reads like a sly follow-up to his column last week, the one in which he interviewed some bore who co-wrote a book about truth. Some of the commenters on that column, as you may or may not remember, rolled up their sleeves and got to work casting doubt on the whole idea of truth by breaking out the capital letters and the incredulous modifiers (certain, absolute) and the fleering quotation marks (“truth,” “real,” “get it right,” “wrong,” “right,” “evidence,” “fact”) by way of argument – I mean “argument.” So it was very amusing (however shocking) to see Scott brazenly and without a scare-quote in sight write a whole piece on Wikipedia and questions of accuracy, reliability, expertise, accountability, trustworthiness, and similar naïvely unsophisticated and decidedly prepostmodern stuff.

You could really get the impression from reading that piece that there is such a thing as a difference between an accurate encyclopaedia entry and an inaccurate one, that a false one is different from a true one, that experts know more about the subjects they know more about than non-experts do, that not all data-wells are equally reliable, and similar dominating power-ridden hegemonic unFoucauldian ideas. Scary, isn’t it. Looky here.

With Wikipedia, only a very modest level of control is exercised by administrators. The result is a wiki-based reference tool that is open to writers putting forward truth, falsehood, and all the shades of gray in between. In other words, each entry is just as trustworthy as whoever last worked on it. And because items are unsigned, the very notion of accountability is digitized out of existence.

Oh god. I feel faint. The room is swimming, the walls are shimmering, I have spreckles before my eyes. He said truth. And falsehood. Without any quotation marks. As if he meant them just straight, just the way one might say right or wrong instead of (the “correct” way) “right” or “wrong” (cf. Violet’s comments for a good example to follow). That’s scary stuff. Bad things happen to people who say “truth” and “falsehood” straight like that. And then, as if that’s not enough, he goes on ahead and talks about whether each entry is “trustworthy” or not (only without the scare quotes). What kind of mad power trip is he on? And what’s with the accountability thing? What’s he going to do, bust people who put in “lies” or “mistakes” or “fairy tales” or “self-promoting bullshit”?

And it gets, if possible, even worse.

Basic cognitive literacy includes the ability to evaluate the strengths and the limitations of any source of information…Wikipedia is by no means a definitive reference work, but it’s not necessarily the worst place to start.

Ohhhh…I feel my lunch coming back on me. Basic cognitive literacy? The ability to evaluate? The limitations? Wikipedia’s not definitive? As a reference work? Where’s this guy been? Has the whole second half of the twentieth century passed him by? Doesn’t he ever read a book? Like, oh, Foucault’s History of Sexuality for instance? Doesn’t he know how oppressive and dominant all those words are? Doesn’t he know about power-knowledge and knowledge-power? What’s his problem?

Consider a recent discussion between a reference librarian and a staff member working for an important policy-making arm of the U.S. government. The librarian asked what information sources the staffer relied on most often for her work. Without hesitation, she answered: “Google and Wikipedia.” In fact, she seldom used anything else. Coming from a junior-high student, this would be disappointing. From someone in a position of power, it is well beyond worrisome…Sure, we want our students, readers, and fellow citizens to become more astute in their use of the available tools for learning about the world. (Hope springs eternal!)

There again. Same thing. Hierarchy. Judgmentalism. Elitism. Wanting people to become more astute, for christ’s sake! And babbling about learning about the world – what kind of disgusting elitist crap is that?

And yet, oddly, in spite of all that heresy and stuck in the 1940s-ness, Violet hasn’t turned up to sprinkle some soothing scare quotes around. Maybe she turned so sick and faint from reading just the first few paragraphs that she couldn’t go on. That would be sad.

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