Monday 26th February 2018,
The Transcript

Wikipedia can only go so far

By Thomas Wolber
Associate Professor of MFL

This is the time of year when student papers are due. So, let’s have a closer look at what constitutes proper, original research as opposed to dubious, unreliable second-hand information based on misconceptions.

Wikipedia, widely used by students, is a good case study to investigate the question.

Students are sure to have been told that “Wikipedia is not an authoritative source of information and should not be used as evidence when writing a paper,” to quote an OSU history professor.

Why is that?

Isn’t Wikipedia a great source of valuable factual and verifiable information for all kinds of things?

It is, and I myself use it frequently when I am in a hurry and need to have a quick look at an unfamiliar topic.

But just because a source of information appears in print or on the Internet does not make it trustworthy and truthful.

Before adopting something as a fact, you should always scrupulously investigate its authority, accuracy and currency.

The main problem with Wikipedia and similar data-delivery systems, as I see it, is that they rely heavily on conventional wisdom and established viewpoints.

Opposing and unpopular viewpoints get marginalized or even rejected. The majority view trumps the minority view, regardless whether it is right or wrong.

Therefore, it must be understood that Wikipedia is not in the business of weighing claims and ascertaining the truth.

As a result, untrue myths get perpetuated whereas new knowledge on the forefront of scholarship and science gets short shifted.

Wikipedia, built on mass consensus, is open and democratic. But factual, empirical knowledge is not a matter to be voted on.

A million people may indeed believe that the earth is coming to an end soon, but that does not necessarily make it true.

The use of Wikipedia is especially problematical when it comes to the discovery and creation of new, cutting-edge knowledge on the frontiers of contemporary inquiry. As any avant-gardist artist or researcher knows, sometimes it is necessary to go against the prevailing wisdom.

Whenever there is such a paradigm shift – for example the paradigm shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric world view – the old and the new philosophy are in direct competition with each other.

Initially, the new viewpoint has a hard time asserting itself.

It will be ignored, ridiculed, censored, suppressed, attacked, etc., before it is finally accepted and becomes the prevailing view.

Today’s paradigm shift is sustainability, climate change and the world moving toward a post-industrial and post-consumer world.

In the U.S., the green movement is still widely ignored and attacked, although that is slowly beginning to change. Adherents are marginalized and – unlike in other countries – not yet in leadership positions.

It will take decades and generations for this paradigm shift to reach full attainment.

Eventually, however, yesterday’s heretics and dissidents will become tomorrow’s movers and shakers, and their view will become the prevailing one while it will be proponents of the “ancien régime” who will be on the defensive.

In these epic battles of minds and ideas Wikipedia is of little help.

Original,out-of-the-box research, thinking and perceptive knowledge is needed, not the mindless repetition of old bromides.

Colleges and universities such as Ohio Wesleyan are the places where true knowledge is discovered, described, and imparted to new generations of students and scholars.

Wikipedia provides you with factoids and is a good starting point.

However, it does not give you the deeper insights and wisdom needed to understand and navigate the many intricacies and mysteries of both the physical and the metaphysical world.

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