Saturday, January 27, 2007

Wikipedia's Bias Against Experts

In a considered response to my previous blog post entitled This Wikipedia Article Brought to You by Microsoft, comes now a blog post by Geoffrey Burling:
". . . [T]he cheery invitation at the top of the opening page of Wikipedia [reads]: 'Welcome to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.' Those words do suggest to the general public that anyone is welcome to edit the content, without regard [to whether] the article is about you, your business, or something that you make your living from knowing the details about. . . . [I]s this invitation only open to some people -- or is it open to everyone?"
The fact that Burling was compelled to ask this question means that my blog post reached its intended target of one of Wikipedia's true believers. Burling continues:
". . . [U]nless you want to abide by Jimbo Wales' advice that one should just edits[sic] the Talk pages, it really isn't clear what one should do."
I wholeheartedly disagree. According to the official Wikipedia policy of Ignore All Rules, which was endorsed in its most recent incarnation as early as August 19, 2006 by Jimbo Wales himself: "If [Wikipedia] rules prevent you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore them." The only question left to consider is whether this official policy is truly policy or simply self-aggrandizing rhetoric. In other words: Are Wikipedians truly free to think for themselves?

Burling continues:
"If you are an ethical person, and see a mistake or omission in a Wikipedia article that you can correct and you would make the edit whether or not you had a conflict of interest in the article -- go ahead and make the edit."
As ignorant and misguided as Wikipedia's so-called "conflict of interest" rules are, I respectfully disagree with Burling's advice to honor the spirit of Wikipedia's policies by breaching the letter of Wikipedia's rules. Rather, my personal feeling is that no one is under any obligation to save anyone else from his or her ignorance, so unless you have a vested interest in quality control at Wikipedia, you should limit all your controversial contributions to Wikipedia "Talk pages" in lieu of making edits to Wikipedia articles that might quickly be reverted. This holds true for any type of controversial Wikipedia edit, not just edits to those articles where there is a so-called "conflict of interest."

The reason that I refer to Wikipedia's conflict of interest rules as "so called 'conflict of interest' rules" is because Wikipedia uses the term "conflict of interest" with an insidious lack of precision that would more properly be characterized as bias. Contrary to having a potential conflict of interest, having a bias is not usually a bad thing, as expertise and bias tend to go hand in hand. What is a bad thing is an unfair or irrational bias, not unlike the unfair and irrational bias that most Wikipedians seems to have against knowledgeable people editing Wikipedia articles in their areas of expertise.

Burling continues:
" If Wikipedia is truly open to anyone -- or at least eveyone[sic] who is reasonably civil and demonstrates a minimal amount of common sense -- then this ought to work."
I respectfully disagree. This assertion is based on several flawed premises, the first being that a significant number of highly qualified experts have some sort of desire to reach out to the unwashed masses and work with them in a spirit of civility. The exact opposite is true, which is one of the reasons why Wikipedia has such a hard time attracting recognized experts as contributors. Indeed, one of the most common thoughts that I hear from experts who choose not to contribute to Wikipedia is that they might be interested in contributing to a wiki where only experts could contribute. In sum, as useful and revolutionary as Wikipedia has been and is, it cannot be all things to all people.


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