From the New York Times a few weeks ago: When Knowledge Isn’t Written, Does It Still Count?
An interesting article that, essentially, argues that if Wikipedia aims to represent the sum of human knowledge, it needs to move beyond what knowledge is contained in written/printed publications. Especially if it wants to no longer be so heavily dominated by white male contributors in First World Anglophone nations.
The article cites examples of first-hand knowledge that is not, or would not be, accepted under current Wikipedia policy because it’s not cited to a verifiable printed source. The rules and nature of a children’s game played by millions in South Asia, which has never been documented in publication. The process of producing a particular sub-Saharan African traditional beverage. Or, the color of the walls in your local subway station (presumably documented in official transit authority records of the painting project work order, but that’s besides the point, I guess).
Essentially, they’re talking about a battle that’s been raging on Talk pages within Wikipedia ever since the ‘pedia took off – the fight between Truth and Verifiability. … Wikipedia policy currently emphasizes the need for verifiability, and with good reason – how are we to know or believe something is True, just because some guy says so and claims to be an Authority? There are countless examples one could come up with of someone believing something that is either controversial, or widely believed to be untrue, or at least believed by at least one person to be widely believed to be untrue. Such as the idea that homosexuality is a sin. Or that 9/11 was orchestrated by the US government.
Who gets to be an Authority? One of Wikipedia’s core tenets is the idea that “traditional” encyclopedias were limited to those with official academic degrees and other sorts of official Authority status, and they were still loaded with mistakes – Jimbo Wales wanted to open it up to everyone to share, so that, essentially, everyone (or no one) can be an Authority. More to the point, I guess, it was the idea that having to submit your work to an “Authority” to be peer-reviewed was intimidating, and would work against obtaining a high level of contributions, i.e. content.
So where does that leave us? With questions of Authenticity – if the South African woman who talks about making morula is an Authority, she is that because of her Authenticity as a native of the culture that makes it; but then what happens if other members of the community say she’s wrong? Who is the Authority becomes based largely, if not entirely, on who is the most Authentic. Who has the right to speak for an entire people. Native Hawaiians have struggled with this problem for decades, if not longer. … Authenticity can be a dangerous thing, as I have learned first-hand. Who has greater Authority, the academic, or the traditional practitioner? The karate sensei who passes on stories about famous practitioners of the past and their exceptional, superhuman powers, or the professional historian who aims to debunk it all? The fourth-generation Okinawan-American from Hawaii, who has grown up embedded in Okinawan-Hawaiian local culture and believes he knows the truth about being Okinawan, purely on that basis, or the white boy from NY who has devoted himself for several years to the study – through books, classes, and actually traveling to Japan and Okinawa – of Okinawan history and culture, but has no claim to “Authenticity” on account of being outside of that ethnic/cultural background?
When topics are disputed, such as the rightful ownership of certain islands, or the “true” version of events of certain events in World War II, who is to be believed? The Japanese guy who says it happened this way, and who speaks on the Authority of being actually Japanese? Or the Korean guy who says it’s all lies and propaganda, and that it actually happened *this* way, on the Authority of being Korean? The Communist who calls it good, or the Nationalist who calls it bad?
I think there is definite value in the idea that people should be allowed to speak as Authorities, regardless of whether or not they have something to cite, if they do indeed have rightful claim to being an Authority, however that might be proven or measured. Even putting aside “alternate modes of knowledge”, such as oral tradition, such as professors over at the School of Hawaiian Knowledge would argue for, there are so many things we see and do and learn and know every day purely by being who we are, where we are. Being an Authority on something because it’s an integral part of your life, even if it’s not cited anywhere. That extends into countless sorts of examples – not just traditional knowledge like the children’s game or the African drink, but into “crowd-sourcing” information like whether or not a certain store is still open, whether a certain building suffered damage in yesterday’s quake, what exactly happened in Tahrir Square 30 minutes ago (remember, Wikipedia is often among the first sources to break news, along with Twitter, from first-hand accounts), or the details of an event you were a part of even if it doesn’t have any third-party sources to cite (e.g. the Hawaii Kabuki performance I was involved in last year, for which there are news articles, my own blog posts, the theatre’s website, but there’s also so much that’s not written anywhere but is definitively true based on my first-hand experience of being involved in it). Not to mention, the largely un-verifiable but nevertheless reliable source of direct conversations with true Authorities, or attending talks or lectures; even in proper professional academia, this is highly tolerated, but at Wikipedia, I don’t think it would be.
In summary, I think it’s an important issue, and I have struggled with it myself on countless occasions. In fact, it was the inability for me to gain or maintain any reputation as an Authority on Wikipedia, due to the fundamental anti-elitism with which it was founded and the popular mode in which it functions, that was a major factor in my decision to (nearly) stop editing Wikipedia entirely a few years ago.
It’s complicated, and I don’t imagine there could be a definitive solution… I would love to hear your opinions and thoughts on the matter.
[My thanks to the Shogun of the Samurai-Archives for bringing this NY Times article to my attention. And do check out the Samurai-Archives Wiki, a much smaller project than Wikipedia, but one which strives for much higher standards on accuracy and reliability.]