Wikipedia and the nature of truth

Online encyclopedia's very strength sometimes turns out to be its Achilles' heel, says CNET News.com's Charles Cooper.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read
Perhaps the most recognized application of open-source technology in the world, Wikipedia is the online encyclopedia that has become a research staple for millions of Web users. Written collaboratively by volunteers, Wikipedia has become a smash success. The free site includes more than 845,000 articles in English alone and has won a loyal legion of fans. John Seigenthaler does not number among them.

In an op-ed published Thursday in USA Today, Seigenthaler wrote about his anguish after learning about a false Wikipedia entry that listed him as having been briefly suspected of involvement in the assassinations of both John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. The 78-year-old Seigenthaler--a former assistant attorney general working under Bobby Kennedy--got Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to delete the defamatory information in October. Unfortunately, that was four months after the original posting.

The hope is that the collective wisdom of the cyberworld can police the system to catch the mistakes sooner rather than later.

Maybe this is part of the price that we're going to have to pay for the open approach where the system's very strength sometimes turns out to be its Achilles' heel: Somebody nursing a grudge can always pervert or airbrush the historical record. To be sure, it can happen in the so-called proprietary or for-profit world as well. The hope is that the collective wisdom of the cyberworld can police the system to catch the mistakes sooner rather than later.

Of course, Seigenthaler might have registered as a user with Wikipedia and corrected the article himself. Failing that, he could have posted comments to the article correcting the mistakes. The reality is that this is asking too much. We're talking about a 78-year-old guy who came of age when state-of-the-art was defined by 78 rpm records, tube radios and black-and-white televisions. And with so much stuff out there--and more getting created each day--was the burden on Seigenthaler to know he was the subject of a Wikipedia article? I'm sure his first question was, "What in the heck is a Wikipedia?"

For younger people, this is all second nature. Increasingly they rely--maybe exaggeratedly so--on the Internet for information. Purists may sniff at the elevation of Wikipedia to the rank of serious reference source. But that's what it has become for millions of people around the world.

On your ride home today, try pondering a future where Wikipedia's model of competing versions of the truth becomes the norm. Will the increasing influence of the wisdom of the crowd force us to rethink the nature of knowledge? With the proliferation of the Internet, more voices inevitably will become part of that conversation.

You can argue that epistemological revisionism goes on all the time. As a kid, I remember thumbing through a 1920s encyclopedia when I found a discussion of different racial categories. Someone reading the entry decades later would have found the assertions in that article to be nonsensical, if not borderline racist. But when the book was published, the people who might have corrected the record had no power over the publishing company printing up the product line. With the Internet, anyone with an online connection can chime in.

We're still settling into the new order, and the Seigenthaler episode highlights the challenge of fairly refereeing the debate. Ostensibly, the objective is truth. But questions about the nature of truth date back to Plato and Aristotle. It's a vexing argument that continues to the present day.