Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Outsourcing the truth

The posts here are mostly about philosophy. Sometimes they are about Wikipedia. Sometimes, happily, they are about both. I was amused by Guardianista Seth Finkelstein's comment here.
Ah, you have put your finger on one of the dirty little secrets of Wikipedia -
it is in fact not possible to do what it claims to do, which is outsource the
problem of Truth
. Relying on "reliable sources" ultimately begs the question,
since no simple rule will work for determining what is "reliable". People often
mistake a very superficial and rather US-centric idea of news-not-opinion as all
that's necessary. In reality, the topic is far more complex. It's necessary to
know something about a subject in first place in order to have a sense of what's
reliable (failures in grappling with this quasi-paradox explain much Wikipedia
tail-chasing on specific controversial issues). Anyway, what I can tell you for
The Guardian was all my columns were read in detail by the relevant editor for
factual claims, and I was expected to substantiate any significant statements of
fact which were arguable (this is a matter of judgment, of course).
Controversial claims about living people received special legal scrutiny. The editorial code is online. I can't speak about what the New York
Times does, I've never written anything for them. -- Seth
(talk) 22:46, 17 October 2010 (UTC)
Quite right. It's the same as the problem of hiring an expert on a subject. How do you know that the person actually is an expert, when you are not an expert? In reality there are all sorts of mechanisms which generally (not always) get round the problem in practical ways. The usual method is to rely on the property that experts are usually good at recognising other experts. Hence professional bodies, accreditation schemes and all that kind of old-fashioned thing. Wikipedia always officially eschewed this, although an unofficial system of a similar kind operated in practice.

Such schemes are far from perfect, and can often lead to a sort of freemasonry. Nor do they prevent practitioners of pseudo-scientific nonsense from getting together according to their own internally-recognised standards of expertise and accreditation (I won't mention any of these, in case I am prosecuted for libel). But I can't think of anything better.

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