Thoughts on Psychology

Knowledge on the Internet

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You’ll hear us say at various times that you shouldn’t rely on web sites as sources to reference in coursework, though some sites are useful starting points to get your head round a question. Wikipedia’s particularly good, and particularly popular (too popular sometimes), but it has its problems. A study in Nature found that the accuracy of wikipedia articles wasn’t far short of Encyclopaedia Britannica articles. This is sound, but at degree level we expect knowledge beyond what you find in an encyclopaedia, no matter how good. More to the point, this level of quality comes about because anyone can contribute to wikipedia, but this is also its downfall – anyone can edit a wikipedia article to say whatever they want. The system is self correcting, in that people can flag disagreement and make changes to articles, and eventually articles tend to settle down to a sound position. Whenever you look up something in wikipedia though, there’s always a chance that you catch it at an intermediate stage where someone’s written any old nonsense.

The above is all true, and widely recognised. For most people, wikipedia is an excellent source, provided you bear in mind the fact that some material may be in dispute. For others, however, wikipedia is the front line in a dastardly plot by left wingers. Check out this Guardian article about Conservapedia, an online “encyclopaedia” set up to counteract the alleged left wing propaganda promulgated by wikipedia and the like:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/mar/02/wikipedia.news
(For the Conservapedia web site: http://conservapedia.com/Main_Page)

This development tells us something about the nature of knowledge. The people who set up conservapedia are dissatisfied with the knowledge presented on wikipedia, because it doesn’t fit in with what they, for whatever reasons, believe to be true. This is revealed nicely by their comments about the Democratic party – whatever your political views, any fair minded person would find it hard to believe that one of the two mainstream US parties has a ‘true agenda’ of cowering to terrorism.

The conservapedia site would seem to many to be politics presented as knowledge. The trouble is, this is usually true to some extent. It’s not always so blatant, but knowledge is fundamentally socially constructed, such that a given group comes to some agreement about what counts as “true” and what doesn’t. In some cases the given group is a clear subset of society with a clear agenda behind what they believe to be true. More widely though, any particular culture or society will have its own ways of agreeing what’s acceptable knowledge. In general in the West we prefer the scientific method as a way of finding ‘truth’, but the scientific method has its own flaws that means that just because some claim is widely accepted, doesn’t mean its true. In the 1940s most psychologists accepted behaviourism as a ‘true’ theory of human behaviour, but now we know better 😉 The lesson is always be sceptical about the truth claims of others. Including those on wikipedia.

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