Is Wikipedia an Acceptable Source for Research?

In one of the discussion boards for the Master’s in Information and Library Science that I’m taking, I was asked to comment on the following. Wikipedia is (or is not) an acceptable source to use for research because . . . . Here’s what I wrote.

Wikipedia is an acceptable source to use for research because computer simulations have proved that it has a remarkably effective infrastructure for weeding out “epistemically disruptive agents” (read: disinformers and trolls).

From the abstract to Valentin Lageard’s article, ‘Trolls, bans and reverts: simulating Wikipedia‘:

The surprisingly high reliability of Wikipedia has often been seen as a beneficial effect of the aggregation of diverse contributors, or as an instance of the wisdom of crowds phenomenon; additional factors such as elite contributors, Wikipedia’s policy or its administration have also been mentioned. We adjudicate between such explanations by modelling and simulating the evolution of a Wikipedia entry. The main threat to Wikipedia’s reliability, namely the presence of epistemically disruptive agents such as disinformers and trolls, turns out to be offset only by a combination of factors: Wikipedia’s administration and the possibility to instantly revert entries, both of which are insufficient when considered in isolation. Our results suggest that the reliability of Wikipedia should receive a pluralist explanation, involving factors of different kinds.

That said, Wikipedia is not an acceptable source for citing in academic papers, because it has not gone through the same peer review process that we expect of scholarly publications. There is a type of peer review that happens in Wikipedia, to be sure, and this is quite effective when it comes to raw facts, as Lageard showed with the computer simulations. But this is not the same type of peer review that goes into scholarly publications, which takes many things into consideration which Wikipedia, by its very nature, cannot. If one could cite Wikipedia in papers then theoretically a person without intellectual integrity could edit Wikipedia to reflect some particular bias or error, then quickly quote Wikipedia before the error has been corrected, saying something like “Wikipedia, as accessed on 10/16/19.”

Another reason that Wikipedia should not be cited in academic papers is because the standards ensuring good quality prose are very poor. The result is that some very bad prose emerges from the online encyclopedia (Nicholas Carr has collected some examples). The fact that so much work has been done to ensure or prove the factual accuracy of Wikipedia, compared to little to no work on Wikipedia as good prose, reflects the positivist and pragmatic bent of our anti-intellectual moment. 

There are also ethical reasons not to allow Wikipedia the dignity of being a respectable source for citation since it is both a symptom and a cause of what Nicholas Carr called “the self-reinforcing power of the web’s centripetal force.” From his book Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations:

Wikipedia provides a good example of the self-reinforcing power of the web’s centripetal force. The popular online encyclopedia is less the sum of human knowledge than the black hole of human knowledge. A vast exercise in cut-and-past paraphrasing (it explicitly bans original thinking), Wikipedia first sucks in content from other sites, then it sucks in links, then it sucks in search results, then it sucks in readers. And because it prevents search engines from taking account of its outbound links to the sources of its articles, through the use of ‘no follow’ tags, it reinforces its hegemony over search results. Light comes in but doesn’t go out. One of the untold stories of Wikipedia is the way it has siphoned traffic from smaller specialized sites, like the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, even though those sites often have better information about the topics they cover. Wikipedia articles have become the default external link for many creators of web content, not because Wikipedia is the best source but because it’s the best-known source and, generally, it’s ‘good enough.’ Wikipedia is the lazy man’s link, and we’re all lazy men, except for those of us who are lazy women.

At best, Wikipedia is great as a springboard towards further research, and it is also great for fact-checking, or for settling disputes with friends (at least for disputes involving facts, such as the year of George Washington’s birth or the mating habits of dolphins). A librarian may also find Wikipedia helpful in conducting a facet analysis, or doing pre-search activities before putting a query into a databases. Consider that sometimes it can be very hard to help a library patron conduct effective research if it is a topic you know nothing about. Wikipedia is a good way to bring yourself up to scratch on something quickly. In fact, it is such a good tool at doing this, that many people stop there and don’t go any further.

To sum, it is acceptable to use Wikipedia for some of your research, but you shouldn’t quote from it when writing papers.

Porn and Human Trafficking in Spokane

On the surface, Spokane, Washington, seems like any other big city in the Pacific Northwest. Yet it is a city in the grip of a public health crisis. On February 23, 2019, a nationally assembled team of doctors, academics, sociologists, psychologists, and law enforcement officers met at Spokane’s Gonzaga University to examine the city’s crisis and to educate citizens how to mount an effective response.

The crisis in question concerns the pervasive use of pornography in the city.

In many respects, Spokane is a cameo of America as a whole, where the widespread use of the smartphone has enabled the sex industry to begin realizing its goal of making porn affordable, anonymous, accessible, and addictive.

It is this last point—the addictive nature of porn—that was a key focus at the Gonzaga conference. The conference was also set up to expose the links between porn addiction and human trafficking.

Two days before the conference, I had a phone conversation with Dr. Alfonso Oliva, a Spokane surgeon who helped put on the symposium.

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The AI Apocalypse is Happening Right Now…but not in the way you think

Person of Interest was an American sci-fi crime drama created by Jonathan Nolan. It aired from 2011 to 2016.

I have to confess, I’m fascinated by artificial intelligence. My favorite TV show, Person of Interest, explores what happens when a machine develops human-like intelligence. I am currently watching through the entire series (for the first time) with my son Timothy.

Why I’m Fascinated by AI

There are a number of reasons for my fascination with AI. One reason is that you can tell a lot about a culture’s unconscious fears by looking at the angst that emerge in their stories and myths. In the early 19th century, when people were afraid of increasing mechanization following the industrial revolution, stories like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tapped into these latent anxieties. As the 19th century progressed and the theories of Darwin took root in public consciousness, a number of stories began to emerge that gave voice to the fear that the demarcation between man and beast might be porous (Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is probably the most well-known example). Accordingly, I find myself asking if the current popularity of contemporary stories about AI (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Person of Interest, etc.) might be giving voice to deep-seated and widespread fears that we have been ceding important aspects of our humanity to digital code.

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Dull and Determined Effort

In my Touchstone article ‘The Cross of Least Resistance,’ I surveyed some scholarship by cultural anthropologists who have compared the different mindsets between Westerners and East Asians when it comes to success. From the article:

Most East Asians believe that these qualities [the qualities that make up success) result from what one researcher called “dull and determined effort” over long periods of time. But a majority of Westerners (particularly in the English-speaking nations) tend to view character, intelligence, and skill as resulting from innate ability or sudden flashes of insight. Accordingly, Americans are prone to take the lack of prompt success in some endeavor as a sign that the person just doesn’t have what it takes, instead of as a reason to engage in further struggle.


Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Meta-ethics

Is it possible to infer values about what we ought to do from facts about how the world is? This question introduces a major problem within meta-ethics, which is how to philosophically justify ethical obligations. In my recent interview with Dr. Phillip Cary, we learn how these difficulties in meta-ethics arose out of the political, philosophical, and scientific context of the 17th and 18th centuries. Building on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Cary suggests that we have been left with the fragments of a once coherent tradition. The rise of Postmodernism offers a unique opportunity to return to this earlier tradition, and to recover a context in which discussion of virtues make sense.

America and the Collapse of Meta-Narratives

In the interview this summer with my twin brother Patrick, I talked about the breakdown of public discourse that inevitably follows the collapse of shared meta-narratives.

In America today…the absence of shared traditions, the absence of shared meta-narratives, [leads to a] fracturing into all these micro-narratives, and then our public discourse just becomes a circus to see who can shout the loudest. So we talk past each other because we’re not really interested in understanding the other person. Understanding means being able to really listen attentively from your heart, and being able to summarize back what the other person is saying in a way that they can say, “That is fair.” We’re not interested in doing that anymore by and large, or having that type of attentive and intelligence discussion in our public discourse.

This is a summary of a concern that I articulated at more depth in my article ‘Functional Nominalism and Contemporary Political Discourse‘ and 2016 and the Triumph of Nominalism.”

Education’s Dual Purpose

From “Virtue and Classical Education: A Commencement Address to a Graduating Class.”

Education should thus serve the dual purpose of cultivating dispositions attuned to what is good, true and beautiful in this world, while also cultivating a sense of holy discontent that refuses to be satisfied with anything but God Himself. The manifestation of what is good, true and beautiful in creation should be seen as an icon of the Eternal Good, Truth, and Beauty, but it is only an icon; the reality towards which these qualities point can be found only in the beatific vision. That is why the most moving poetry, the most lovely music, the most beautiful literature, always leave us slightly unsatisfied. The best art points beyond itself and awaken within us deep yearnings for something more.

Virtue and Attitude

In my article ‘Virtue and Classical Education‘, I contrast modern and ancient understandings of virtue. In the historic understanding, virtue includes actions but is rooted in attitude. And while attitude includes emotion, it also involves so much more, namely having dispositions tuned to reality in a special sort of way. To have virtuous attitudes and emotions is to instinctively recoil from what is base and disgusting. To have virtuous attitudes is to be the sort of person who is nourished by beauty instead of triviality, who instinctively has a fitting response to what is lovely and awe-inspiring. It is to be able to go out into the world with a sense of wonder towards all that is lovely and awe-inspiring, and to derive genuine enjoyment from what is good, true, and beautiful.