Students or researchers treat WikiPedia as a reliable source at their peril. I’d gladly applaud an opinion column taking these people to task, and I thought that philosopher Martin Cohen’s article in Times Higher Education would be it. Instead, he does a curious logical reversal: he takes some wholesale arguments used by anti-intellectuals against academia in general, and repurposes them as attacks on WP itself, rather than on people misusing it. He’s keen to convey how baffled he is by WP and its dominance of the Web (why write an article on it then?)
Below the fold, a comment I’ve just submitted to the site:
Cohen’s philosophical training hasn’t stopped him using stereotypes and ad hominen argument (the comment about the authors of the articles being “unappealing” is an extraordinary remark for a scholar, and it shouldn’t receive any more respect than similar arguments).
Nor does it stop him arguing both ways on the issues. He takes Wikipedia to task both for having low standards and having high standards, using the fact that WP demarcates quality articles from others as though that were a point against it. He’s frustrated, as we all are, at the low quality of the articles, but also complains that there is an editorial process that reverts damage and requires that factual claims be backed by proper citation.
“What you want doesn’t matter any more” – who is “you” in this context? The content of WP reflects the desires of those who create it, which is anybody with internet access. People getting what they want is exactly what Cohen is complaining about, but again he ties the logic in a knot.
It’s a logical error to blame WP for the damage done by people who misunderstand what WP is. WP is nothing if not transparent, so there’s no excuse for not knowing what it is. To miss the issue of transparency is ironic given that in the print edition, Cohen’s article is over the page from an article on academic fraud.
Perhaps Cohen could write a column telling us not to trust scholars because they are “mad professors” with their insistance on intellectual standards and on their refusal to write what people “want” to read.