Verifiability, not truth

19 August 2008

I got into a discussion over lunch today about the over-reliance of Wikipedia as a factual source of information. I pointed to the fact that verifiability is one of the online encyclopedia’s core content policies, but how “verifiable” are some of the sources used on Wikipedia?

To answer this question, you first need to agree on the definition of verifiable. Having looked at both British and American dictionaries, the key element seems to be something that is capable of being tested by experimentation or observation. But is this the same as the truth?

Well according to most thesauruses (or should that be thesauri) the antonym of verifiable is falsifiable, so my conclusion is that it is. This is further confirmed by the definition of the stem word, verify, which is widely agreed to mean to prove, determine or test the truth.

Back then to Wikipedia’s verifiability content policy. Lo and behold, right at the top of the page we see:

The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—that is, whether readers are able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether we think it is true.

So the Wikipedia definition of verifiable does not include any test of truth.

But wait. There’s something else in that extract from Wikipedia’s verifiability policy. According to them, the test of whether something is verifiable or not is whether readers are able to check that material added has already been published by a “reliable source”, a term that Wikipedia further defines as “reliable, third-party published sources with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy”. In a footnote to this the word “source” has three related meanings to Wikipedia:
the piece of work itself, the creator of the work, and the publisher of
the work. It goes on to state that “all three affect reliability.”

On the basis of this information, I have no option but to
concede to my lunch companion that Wikipedia is indeed over-used as a
source of fact.

Do you agree?

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3 Responses to “Verifiability, not truth”

  1. Peter I.

    There are pros and cons of all reference sources.  Wikipedia relies on millions of readers to correct in accuracies and traditional references rely on an editorial board.  I’d highly recommend the book "The Professor and the Madman," which looks at a certified lunatic that made thousands of successful entries to the Oxford English Dictionary.  Most of the entries were proven to be true but if people reading the OED were aware that some of the sources weren’t traditional "lettered men" then I think people would question that reference as well.  That fact is, there’s no reliable reference that allows you to turn off your critical brain and remove the responsibility to confirm your own facts through multiple sources.

  2. Niall Cook

    I take your point, Peter, but it doesn’t explain why Wikipedia has a policy of "verifiability" that does not concur with accepted definitions of the word. If they just want reliable source references, then the policy should surely be "reliability". The very use of the word verifiable implies some kind of truth, regardless of their "verifiability, not truth" statement.

    I think your final point is key. There are no longer any reliable sources of reference, not even those that we once thought were.

  3. Staberinde

    But Niall, if Wikipedia was bound by the standard of truth it would have difficulty policing articles on religion and politics. It’s one thing to insist that an entry on sea otters be true and quite another to subject ’socialism’, ‘Islam’ or ‘Jesus Christ’ to the same standard. Is the Bible a reliable source? On what? Verifiability allows Wikipedia to aggregate information, which may include belief and opionion rather than strict truth, and hold it to a standard of accountability. So you can have an article on Marx which points to the labour theory of value as being flawed – provided that opinion is sourced accurately. The source is the fact, not the opinion.

    Given that our state of knowledge on any given subject is usually in flux (we can always know more; there are no scientific facts, only undemolished theories), even the ‘facts’ we know about sea otters are ultimately theories which can be attributed to experts – and which may be superceded.

    Yes, it’s relativism. But only in the epistemological (rather than metaphysical) sense. We may habe the capacity to know the truth about sea otters and socialsm, but we doubt that what we know today are those truths – and we’re not sure we ever could. Therefore the idea of ‘fact’ or ‘truth’ which we carry in our minds is utilitarian; if we challenged everything we thought we knew, we’d be unable to function. Wikipedia’s system seems to be the only logical way forward: here is a synthesis on a given topic, attributed to people whose credibility you may wish to buy into.

    Wikipedia isn’t unreliable. But it might be more accurate to say that some articles on Wikipedia are likely to be more reliable than others. The same caveat surely applies to any encyclopaedic work. I can prove it too: dust off the encyclopedia you used as a child and tell us every word of it remains ‘true’.

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