“No Original Research”
What all this means is hard to say. I am infrequently troubled by Wiki’s unreliability. (The quality of the writing is a different subject.) As a computer scientist, I find myself using Wikipedia on a daily basis. Its discussions of algorithms, architectures, microprocessors, and other technical subjects are generally excellent. When they aren’t excellent and I know better, I just fix them. And when they’re wrong and I don’t know better–well, I don’t know any better, do I?
I’ve also spent quite a bit of time reviewing Wikipedia’s articles about such things as the “Singularity Scalpel,” the “Treaty of Algeron,” and “Number Six.” Search for these terms and you’ll be directed to Wikipedia articles with the titles “List of Torchwood items” and “List of treaties in Star Trek,” and to one about a Cylon robot played by Canadian actress Tricia Helfer. These articles all hang their wikiexistence upon scholarly references to original episodes of Dr. Who, Torchwood, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica–popular television shows that the Wikipedia contributors dignify with the word “canon.”
I enjoy using these articles as sticks to poke at Wikipedia, but they represent a tiny percentage of Wikipedia’s overall content. On the other hand, they’ve been an important part of Wikipedia culture from the beginning. Sanger says that early on, Wikipedia made a commitment to having a wide variety of articles: “There’s plenty of disk space, and as long as there are people out there who are able to write a decent article about a subject, why not let them? … I thought it was kind of funny and cool that people were writing articles about every character in The Lord of the Rings. I didn’t regard it as a problem the way some people do now.”
What’s wrong with the articles about fantastical worlds is that they are at odds with Wikipedia’s “no original research” rule, since almost all of them draw their “references” from the fictions themselves and not from the allegedly more reliable secondary sources. I haven’t nominated these articles for speedy deletion because Wikipedia makes an exception for fiction–and because, truth be told, I enjoy reading them. And these days, most such entries are labeled as referring to fictional universes.
So what is Truth? According to Wikipedia’s entry on the subject, “the term has no single definition about which the majority of professional philosophers and scholars agree.” But in practice, Wikipedia’s standard for inclusion has become its de facto standard for truth, and since Wikipedia is the most widely read online reference on the planet, it’s the standard of truth that most people are implicitly using when they type a search term into Google or Yahoo. On Wikipedia, truth is received truth: the consensus view of a subject.
That standard is simple: something is true if it was published in a newspaper article, a magazine or journal, or a book published by a university press–or if it appeared on Dr. Who.
Simson L. Garfinkel is a contributing editor to Technology Review and a professor of computer science at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.