Monday, February 26, 2007

The Truth about Wikipedia

I never have understood the turmoil over Wikipedia. Sure, anyone can edit the resource. That’s how we ended up with Stephen Colbert’s influence on the elephant population last fall. Colbert’s discussion of wikiality in the video below gets at the real issues we need to discuss with students about reference texts like Wikipedia.

Colbert explains the concept of wikiality:
You see, any user can change any entry, and if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true . . . . If only the entire body of human knowledge worked this way. And it can, thanks to tonight's word: Wikiality. Now, folks, I'm no fan of reality, and I'm no fan of encyclopedias. I've said it before. Who is Britannica to tell me that George Washington had slaves? If I want to say he didn't, that's my right. And now, thanks to Wikipedia, it's also a fact.

We should apply these principles to all information. All we need to do is convince a majority of people that some factoid is true. ... What we're doing is bringing democracy to knowledge. (The Colbert Report, episode 128, 07-31-2006)
Now, I hope that none of us are spreading blatant mistruths about George Washington or the world’s elephant population. The real truth, however, is that people have always determined what is true and what is not. Reality has always been socially constructed, and there are millions of historical examples of someone managing to “convince a majority of people that some factoid is true.”

Take an example close to home for many of us—the changes to the literature canon over the past fifty years. When I was a high school student, class readings focused on writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, and Hemingway. Today’s high school student still reads those authors, but they are not the only focus. The voices of authors like Hurston, Cisneros, Wright, Soto, and Giovanni are now just as important. Teachers, readers, and critics have changed the reality of literature from a body of work all written by dead, white, educated men to one of a multicultural collection that includes people of different genders, sexualities, and classes.

Truth, it seems, is constantly edited by the user, and that’s the real issue to discuss with students. We cannot possibly accompany students though life, choosing the acceptable sources for them and denying them access to those we find less reliable. What we can do is teach them to evaluate the different truths in any resource they encounter, even Wikipedia, for the social and cultural biases that shape them.

Forbidding the use of Wikipedia teaches students that there is an outside gatekeeper responsible for truth. Showing them how to analyze Wikipedia articles for accuracy and reliability teaches them to make their own decisions about what is true and what is not—and that is skill that they can use once Wikipedia is as quaint and established as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.


David said...

I have mixed feelings about the Wikipedia issue.

On the one hand, it is clear to me that for a school to prohibit the use of Wikipedia as a source is overreaching with bureaucratic authority. There are clearly times when Wikipedia could be justified, as when, for example, one is citing sources which are linked to Wikipedia in their external sources section.

On the other hand, so many references to Wikipedia that I see in papers from freshmen and sophomores are not so nuanced. The students have found a ready substitute not only for reading books but even for surfing the internet. But to use Wikipedia uncritically is to betray the notion of research, where you have to take a critical attitude towards sources. Sources SHOULD have an authority appropriate to the nature of the claim they are supporting. Therefore, although I would object to an administrative order prohibiting the use of Wikipedia, I usually tell students who cite Wikipedia that, n most cases, it is worthless as a source.

Monica Edinger said...

Opening up wikipedia to student scrutiny helps a lot, but I can appreciate the frustration of high school and college teachers with careless references.

I did a very cool lesson with my 4th graders after studying Charlotte's Web with them. We edited the summary and they watched as it was reedited after us.

I blogged about this lesson, "Charlotte's Wikipedia"at

Mr. B-G said...

A few weeks ago I began discussing the Wikipedia issue on my education blog. The posting was spurred by an article from Check out the post and ensuing comments from the link below:

A Stand Against Wikipedia

Dickie Selfe said...

Wikipedia is a learning opportunity that we can either ignore or take advantage of. Our students certainly do, though few stop there.

The effort is also an object lesson in how to create a community of contributors to ANY wiki project.

Adrienne said...

The eSchool news article quotes Neil Waters as saying that Wikipedia is a great place to start your research, but a terrible place to end it. I think this comment sums it up best.

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