« The Chronicle of Higher Evil | Main | Hero »

Better to be ignored?

Opened up Bloglines to find that "Syracuse" is showing up across many a radar today. Unfortunately, it's for the wrong reason. Turns out that Al Fasoldt, a staff writer for the Syracuse Post-Standard, has written an article criticizing Wikipedia. Turns out that he had pseudonymously endorsed Wikipedia in another article, and a local librarian called him on it, so he retracted the "column published a few weeks ago by my companion Dr. Gizmo."

There's a lot of buzz, needless to say, so forgive me if I miss a link. I first caught wind of it at Alex's site, where he also details an experiment designed to test the collaborative editing process. Ross Mayfield describes the WeMedia project at Many-to-Many, which will "apply a formal fact checking process to a sample of [Wikipedia] articles to gain a baseline measure of factual accuracy and explore issues of reputation." Mike at TechDirt, Joi Ito, and Shelley at Burningbird take Fasoldt to task for his arguments (and the comments sections are all worth reading as well. Ross also has a better synthesis of the discussion on M2M than I'm offering here.

It's hard for me to imagine that someone who cites 21 years of experience writing about technology wouldn't have heard of wikis, but that's apparently what's happened in this case. Leaving that aside, I was more intrigued by the pathos in Fasoldt's annotation to his article. On his own site, he prints the article, along with a couple of retorts:

Am I just being old fashioned? Or does trustworthiness still matter?

After this column was published, the author received dozens of letters, most of them deploring his stand. Apparently, many people believe an "encyclopedia" that is untrustworthy -- one in which any visitor can alter any page -- is acceptable. Is it? Am I just being old fashioned? Is trustworthy information still important? Maybe it's time we thought about issues such as these before our children get any further along in school. We might be teaching them the wrong thing. -- Al Fasoldt

As someone who teaches research, and specifically online research, it strikes me that the problem here is the false binary that Fasoldt offers. We are indeed teaching our students, in most cases, the wrong thing. Here it is:

Authority/trustworthiness/reputation/credibility is something that pre-exists the research.

Believe me when I say that I've looked, and I have yet to see the writing handbook that doesn't assume that the only valuable information on the Internet is that which mirrors the "real world." Credibility (in this model) is to be validated, through reference to a "real world" identity, rather than tested or explored via multiple sources. There are a gazillion sites for verifying the credibility of web sites, very few of which offer the simple insight that dates back to Aristotle at least: credibility is something you earn and develop, not something you simply have. When we ask our students to do research and to prepare the results in written form, we are teaching them to earn credibility through breadth and depth of research. You don't earn credibility by citing an "authoritative source," whatever that means. You earn it by testing your sources against one another, understanding what the reasons are for differences of opinion, and figuring out how to resolve them or to choose among positions, etc. In other words, authority should be something that each of us assigns to our sources, not the other way around. It is the result of research, not a prerequisite.

The advantage of sites like Wikipedia is that much of this back-and-forth (as Liz explains at Joi's site) is visible and public, and in that sense, Wikipedia offers students a chance to watch credibility-in-action. "Trustworthy information" is indeed important, but perhaps more important is that we offer students a chance to see how trustworthiness is developed, to see the conversations that may ultimately result in Encyclopedia Britannica articles. Rather than asking students to plug "authoritative quotes" into 5-paragraph containers, why not ask them to take a topic on Wikipedia, and research its validity? And if they find that there are pieces missing, why not encourage them to contribute? You telling me that stringing together blockquotes from authorities is going to teach them more about research than participating in a wiki might?

If nothing else, the hue and cry over this piece, I hope, will serve to demonstrate to Fasoldt that the "time we thought about issues such as these" has already been happening. At the close of his article, Fasoldt writes, "If you know of other supposedly authoritative Web sites that are untrustworthy, send a note to technology@syracuse.com and let me know about them." I must admit that it's taken all the restraint I can muster not to send him the url of the Post-Standard.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Better to be ignored?:

» Wikis--"Credibility in Action" from Weblogg-ed - Using Weblogs and RSS in Education
Colin Brooke at Syracuse has some great thoughts about the recent brouhaha about the accuracy and trustworthiness of Wikipedia . [Read More]

» Wiki truth, III from JD on MX
Wiki truth, III: Nice angle by CG Brooke over that "can't trust Wikis" argument on the web this week (Aug 30, Aug 25): "I have yet to see the writing handbook that doesn't assume that the only valuable information on... [Read More]

» Wiki communities, tags, authority and reputation from Preoccupations
For myself, I found that I was fitted for nothing so well as for the study of Truth; as having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things … and at the same time steady enough [Read More]


shortly after Al's editorial appeared, I emailed to Susan Stagnitta. She has now replied and said that she did not tell Al that people shouldn't use Wikipedia as a source or that it was not an authoritative source.

How surprisingly, Al seems to have missed the point :)

thanks for the note, Mathias. I'm not too surprised by that--I haven't seen the original, "Dr. Gizmo" piece, but I suspect that she objected more to an unqualified discussion of Wikipedia more than anything else.

At the very least, it's prompted some interesting discussion, yes?

This wikipedia fiasco is a great example of the ongoing battle between journalists/teachers/publishers in the meat-world and this internet thing we've started using.

The real problem with what we may be teaching our children is to never, ever, question what's written in the newspaper or what's on TV. It's just total fact and don't you dare look for something to back it up.

And that's just as dangerous.

This isn't new information as far as people in Syracuse are concerned. Mr. Fasoldt surely must have negotiated a very long contract with the local news agencies (Syracuse Post, Time Warner). I find it hard to believe that if anyone else came up with the ridiculous articles he and his alter ego submit for publication they wouldn't have been let him go a long time ago.

Exactly Jason. I think its fair to say this wouldnt be the 1st time, and most likely won't be the last he's made an ass of himself. Might be the last time we see him do it on a national level though. :)