The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Truthiness of my Wikiality


August 8, 2006

Students in my Intro to IR Research and World Politics classes have, on occasion, heard me rant about Wikipedia and how it is not an appropriate research source for writing papers. While useful for background information and links to other useful sites, the fundamental nature of a Wiki undercuts its reliability as a source for scholarship. Students in that class will also be familiar with the three broad approaches to knowledge that I use as frames for methods of research: “scientific” style positivism, interpretivism, and relational “constructionism”

No less an authority than Stephen Colbert demonstrates the epistemological issues raised by Wikipedia.

Which brings us to tonight’s word: Wikiality

In his usual brilliant and brilliantly funny way, Colbert demonstrates the inherent truthiness of Wikipedia, and raises a much larger and very important epistemoligical point. Must the sum total of human knowledge correspond to some sort of objective reality that defines the standard for truth, or is it in fact, such that “truth” is no more than what is agreed to be truth? Is Truth a fact or a discourse? And, is this discourse a democratic one, as Colbert implies (truth is what a majority of us believe it is) or is it a much more power laden one?

The Colbert / Wikipedia affair offers some rather unique insight into this.

This issues here are very near and dear to the scholarship and careers of several Duck members, as well as a whole host of IR scholars. One of the fundamental challenges that constructivism makes to old-line IR theory is the epistemoligical and ontological challenge of an independent, objective material reality that shapes and conditions behavior.

Why does this matter? One need look no further than a recent debate on the impact of the conflict in Lebanon between Hizbullah and Israel on the Democratic Peace Theory. See Dan and my comments in the debate for an illustration. You’ll note that the whole thing gets bogged down in the definition of a democracy to save the theory– is Lebanon actually a democracy? Not discussed is the truthiness of a democracy itself, as Ido Oren articulated in his critique of the whole issue.

Frank Ahrens, discussing this in the Washington Post writes:

Naturally, enough people obeyed Colbert to crash Wikipedia’s servers.

That’s sort of interesting, if not surprising — the crossover audience between “Colbert Report” and Wikipedia is probably pretty substantial. What happened after the servers came back up is what’s notable.

Wikipedia’s truth-squadders swung into action. They locked down 20 entries on elephants to all but longtime users. They did the same to Colbert’s entry, and they barred the screen name StephenColbert from making further changes. The last move is more symbolic than practical; there’s no way of knowing whether StephenColbert is the Stephen Colbert — the real one or the character — from the show.

Then Wikipedia took the smart step of posting the pre-Colbert entries alongside the many, many post-Colbert ones to show exactly what was changed and when it was changed by subsequent editors.

The whole process has a mind-boggling, recursive-loop feel to it, as one Wiki-editor edits an entry and seconds later, another re-edits it. At one point, a post-Colbert entry took on a “yes, you did/no, you didn’t” tone. Gaah!

But if Wikipedia is going to exist as an open-source resource and is going to resist single-peer review for its entries, then it needs to be transparent, as it has been in l’affaire Colbert. If Wikipedia’s DNA prevents it from hosting a single standard for truth — or truthiness — then its sources of information need to be evident and their tracks easily seen so readers can have as many facts as possible to determine their accuracy. Not, of course, that anyone would or should use Wikipedia — or really, anything else besides this column [perhaps we should add the Duck as well?]– as a single and authoritative source on any topic.

The interesting here is the “Wikipedia truth-squadders” saving the entire enterprise from certain failure. They have even constructed their own Wikipedia page to discuss the entire affair. It reveals the importance of power and discipline in enforcing a discourse of truth, and reveals the danger of certain types of political discourse. If the Habermasian “we all agree on truth” represents the liberal if happy-fun side of constructivism, the “truth-squadders” reveals the Foucaultian “governmentality” realist side of constructivism.

Either way, thought, the discourse of “truth” is under serious assault in the political arena for political gain (this leading to the problem with Liberalism). Those of us in the social science / philosophy of knowledge crowd should certainly have something relevant to say about this.

In lieu of some sweeping conclusion: discuss.

(this post would have been so much easier to write if I actually knew how to spell epistemoligical)

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.