Oliver Kamm: Wikipedia's nonsense

Roundup: Talking About History

In conception and characteristics, Wikipedia is distinctively a creature of the internet: vast, sprawling and of dramatically variable quality. It is also, by design, an anti-intellectual project. Wikipedia recognises no intrinsic value in competence or knowledge; its guiding principle is agreement rather than truth. Intellectual inquiry involves testing ideas against the canons of evidence. Wikipedia's 'community' offers members a different route to recognition - one shorn of the burden of earning it.

Scientific method is integral to Western civilisation. The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century allowed the rapid dissemination of ideas, and knowledge began to spread with particular force some three centuries ago with the Scientific Revolution, whose foundations lay in the work of thinkers of classical Greece. In principle, the advent of the web and the planned accumulation of knowledge in an online reference source ought to be a still more powerful means of spreading enlightenment.

But Wikipedia does not work like that. The project's advocates imagine that the problem, if they recognise one at all, lies in the variable quality of Wikipedia's individual entries. The solution is obvious: a process in which editors work on the less successful entries and remove the obviously unmerited ones.

In reality, the problem is much more fundamental to Wikipedia than that much of its content is a pile of dross. Whereas science and learning pursue truth, Wikipedia prizes consensus. Wikipedia has no means of arbitrating between different claims, other than how many people side with one position rather than another. That ethos is fatal to the advancement of learning. Ideas are refined by being tested; scientific method presupposes scrutiny, experiment and conflict.

Andrew Lih's hagiography of the venture - The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia (Aurum Press, £14.99) - is succinct and consistent. From its vainglorious and bathetic subtitle onwards, it is a remorselessly superficial and unreflective book. Long on wide-eyed enthusiasm for technological detail, it is alarmingly short on learning....

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