Source and Reliability

7 September, 2010 at 17:09 | Posted in Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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Truth vs. Verifiability

When I’ve got acquainted with Wikipedia in 2006, neutrality (NPOV in the Wikipedian jargon) was the key word. WP was presented as a glorious return to the age of enlightenment and modernism. We all carry at least one or two piece of human knowledge, and WP is the table on which these pieces are put together to form a complete picture. Things changed when people started to contest the reliability of WP. Then, the idea of sourcing the information grew more and more prominent. At first it was a logical demand to back any claim or data with reliable sources. Fair enough. Then one of WP’s basic rules changed – WP was no longer about TRUTH but about VERIFIABILITY. You could claim that there is not much difference. After all, if you cannot verify a piece of information, how can you say it is true? And if you cannot assure its truthfulness, it is not within the hardcore of human knowledge (i.e. it might be true, but it is not part of the confirmed sum of human knowledge).
And yet, three problems remained and developed –

 

Wikipedia's classical approach: Conflating the pieces of knowledge; Too often do people try to force their own home-made puzzle

Wikipedia's classical approach: Conflating the pieces of knowledge; Too often do people try to force their own home-made puzzle

 

  1. What is a reliable source?
  2. Should the information be presented as the sources present it?
  3. What is “Undue Weight”?

(1) What is a reliable source?

Limiting the scope of “reliable sources” to written material excludes abundance of “analphabetic” information, which is quite valuable, especially for regions in the world with short tradition of literacy. There is also the category of blogs and forums which stands in-between, and they are becoming a significant source of information. Also, a lot of valuable information can be gathered today by creating photographs and films. Can a Wikipedian say “I’m not sure about whether this statue has a bird on its shoulder, let me go there and take a picture of it in order to settle the argument”? That’s quite unclear. Can a source in Arabic be considered reliable on the English WP, considering the fact that only few of English-speaking Wikipedians can read Arabic?
Furthermore – Are legal advices reliable sources? Are UN resolutions reliable sources? Surely they are reliable sources when referring to the position of the certain jurist or this particular international organization, but can I say that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China and justify my claim with UN resolutions? Clearly the facts on the ground suggest otherwise, but only few countries and international organizations recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan) as a state, and I even saw a respectable British expert on international law claiming ROC (Taiwan) was not a state. Most of us, including the Wikipedians among us, think of legal advices and laws as something that directs our lives, but are they reliable sources about reality, or are they merely respectable opinions about how reality should look like? I don’t know if it should surprise you, but many Wikipedians think that an essay by a distinguished professor is a reliable source about reality.

(2) Should the information be presented as the sources present it?

Sources often use terminology which is not neutral. This is natural. Many sources reflect official positions. The choice of words is one of the means to convey positions, even when the content of the text is meant to be informative. For example, I once translated news items from various sources about life in the Middle East for a certain magazine. The magazine devised an informative report from this collection, but it changed the original terminology into such that would reflect the editorial opinion. What about Wikipedia? Should it reiterate the terminology of other sources? And if so, how should it treat different terminology in different reliable sources? How should it treat two similar situations that are described in different terminology due to political circumstances. For example, the situation in the Golan Heights is quite similar to the situation in Ceuta and Melilla (to the best of my knowledge and judgment) and yet the situation in the Golan Heights is often described as “occupation” due to lack of international recognition in the Israeli administration there, while Ceuta and Melilla are described as legitimate Spanish territories due to lack of international recognition in the Moroccan claim that they are occupied territories which belong to Morocco. The facts on the ground are similar, the widespread opinion about each case is different. What should prevail? Going back to Taiwan, until the mid-1970s the Republic of China was recognized as the legitimate Chinese government, while the People’s Republic was considered an occupying force. The change in US policy, reversed this “situation” while the facts on the grounds remained almost the same.

(3) What is “Undue Weight”?

Undue Weight, according to Wikipedia, is an over-representation of fringe theories or views held by small minorities. The idea that the world is flat is given as an example for such insignificant view (nowadays of course). But let’s travel again to Ceuta and Melilla. Is Morocco view of these territories as occupied a fringe theory or a view of small minority? Morocco is quite alone in this claim (maybe backed by some other Arab countries), but is this statistical fact enough to dismiss the Moroccan government view as insignificant? So far, Wikipedia (at least its English version) fails to answer this question.

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