Sunday, June 17, 2007

The evolution of Wikipedia

On my Wikipedia user page, I have a short statement of faith in the veracity and usefulness of Wikipedia:

James Surowiecki's book, The Wisdom of Crowds, begins with Francis Galton's anecdote about an ox-weighing contest at a country fair: for a half-shilling, one could purchase a ticket on which to write an estimate of the slaughtered and dressed weight of a displayed living ox. The ticket with the guess closest to the actual weight would win a prize. Galton found that the mean of all guesses was in fact more accurate than the best guess, even though the guessers included livestock experts. This is a good illustration of the fact that a collective judgment may often be more correct than the judgment of any individual expert — something which appears to be true in financial markets, for example.
Wikipedia is a mechanism for producing collective judgments about the accuracy and importance of factual statements. I think this makes Wikipedia very exciting — any statement placed in Wikipedia is immediately subject to review and revision, and if everyone is animated by the same sense of trying to achieve truth, the text can quite rapidly evolve to something accurate and balanced.

But is this faith well-placed? Do articles always or even usually "evolve to something accurate and balanced"? What are some of the mechanisms skewing articles toward falsehood and bias? What institutions (policies, traditions) have spontaneously emerged to mitigate these problems of falsehood and bias? I hope to address questions such as these in this blog.

1 comment:

Tom Butler said...

I like your blog and think you have made some accurate observations. We put a wiki shell in the Etheric Studies are for Best Practices Development and intend to also us it for peer review of research articles: public view but restricted participation. So, I like the wiki concept and see Wikipedia as a powerful tool for information management and preservation. The problem is that none of the items of information within articles come with a "confidence of accuracy" rating.

At the very most, articles should be considered study guides. That is why I am developing an attitude about accessibility of references.

The reason I am commenting is that I read your comments about the "wisdom of crowds" a few days ago and the concept has been milling around in my mind since; a bell that does not ring true. Having lived through the Carter years of creative financing for homes, the "dot com" bubble, unsustainable energy practices, unaffordable health care, two presidents that hardly anyone admits voting for and now a second round of mortgage problems, I have come to understand that unmoderated capitalism can be as destructive as it can be beneficial.

Self-determination is fundamental to personal growth, but so is discernment and that is a learned thing. For instance, traffic engineers are learning that perceived danger/safety can be a better traffic regulator than stop lights. We know that the measure of danger is based on prior conditioning.

My point is that group-think can give us a democratic society, even as it can take that society to unsustainable behaviors. Wikipedia works pretty well for the most part, but when subjects are involved that have a bearing on people's worldview, the perception of danger to that view is demonstrably seen as being greater than the perceived dangers of breaking some wiki rule. Add to that, the usual anonymity and there is hardly any reason to find a middle ground.

I just wanted to express an observation so I can stop thinking about whether or not crowds are wise.

I will say that you have been one of the moderate editors, and based on your blog, I look forward to seeing how your paper comes out.

Tom Butler