Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Blogs & Wikis: How is credibility established?

I thought I'd post a few thoughts here from Will Richardson of Weblogg-ed and Colin Brooke at Syracuse about how credibility is established by blogs and wikis. There have been some recent attacks on Wikipedia because many are discomforted by the thought of allowing any dumb human, without credentials, to contribute to something that may actually be read and used by another. My response to that is, "And you've never believed anything and maybe everything your co-worker told you at lunch?"

Will reports that:
"Suddenly, studies are springing up to check the accuracy of the posts. People are posting nonsense at Wikipedia to see if it gets edited out quickly or, god forbid, remains a part of the entry for a longer period of time thus confusing and misleading those who access the information."
He than adds "Ghastly. If I sound cynical, it's because, well, I'm cynical." He's cynical because he is not sure that authority, credibility or trustworthiness exists BEFORE the research, but that research lends credibility to the source. We develop credibility with our readers in many ways, and not all of them very rigorous. For example, you're reading my blog--do you tend to believe I have intelligent things to say? Or do you believe that I could not be an accurate source? If you do believe me to be credible, then you will likely believe Will to be credible because I quote him. You trust him because you trust me--not vice versa. In other words, quoting Will does not make me more credible with you, my readers--but it does add credibility to Will in your minds (face it: none of you knew who he even was before I quoted him, right?).

Colin talks about this in a different way (in a better way, I'm sure because I'm still considering these ideas):
There are a gazillion sites for verifying the credibility of web sites, very few of which offer the simple insight that dates back to Aristotle at least: credibility is something you earn and develop, not something you simply have. When we ask our students to do research and to prepare the results in written form, we are teaching them to earn credibility through breadth and depth of research. You don't earn credibility by citing an "authoritative source," whatever that means. You earn it by testing your sources against one another, understanding what the reasons are for differences of opinion, and figuring out how to resolve them or to choose among positions, etc. In other words, authority should be something that each of us assigns to our sources, not the other way around. It is the result of research, not a prerequisite.

The advantage of sites like Wikipedia is that much of this back-and-forth ... is visible and public, and in that sense, Wikipedia offers students a chance to watch credibility-in-action. "Trustworthy information" is indeed important, but perhaps more important is that we offer students a chance to see how trustworthiness is developed, to see the conversations that may ultimately result in Encyclopedia Britannica articles. Rather than asking students to plug "authoritative quotes" into 5-paragraph containers, why not ask them to take a topic on Wikipedia, and research its validity? And if they find that there are pieces missing, why not encourage them to contribute? You telling me that stringing together blockquotes from authorities is going to teach them more about research than participating in a wiki might?

So perhaps we should teach students to think and construct interpretations and -- most importantly -- back up their interpretations with logic and compare their interpretations with others, but to not rely on "docs" or "peer-reviewed articles" as the source of all authority. Teach them that they can be the credible source, if they are thorough enough in the research. Isn't that what a wiki is all about?

BTW- somebody did post about a dozen errors on Wikipedia and they were fixed in hours! I think the wiki trend is proving the scripture that "it is not common that the avoice of the people desireth anything bcontrary to that which is right" (i.e. let the masses construct the knowledge and you'll probably be closer to the truth).


Charles Graham said...

Interesting though - there are some paralells here with your quest for trustworthiness in your naturalistic research eh?

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