What’s right, now?
I recently heard that a study has shown that wikipedia was more accurate that Britanica as an encyclopedia. I don’t know the details of the study, but to me the important question is how do we define “right” when it comes to facts.
Not so long ago it was a fact that the earth was the centre of the universe. Anyone who disagreed was considered wrong, or crazy, or both. At one time, it was “fact” that an atom was an indivisible component. Later we came to accept that electrons, protons and neutrons were the smallest particles, but we no longer believe that today. In all cases, the scientific community and the world at large accepted these as truth.
At one time, a student who answered that light was composed of particles would have been told he was wrong. At other times those that said light was waves would be called wrong. The physics of light didn’t change, but our understanding did.
So how do we define right or true? In some cases we can check for ourselves. I can count how many sides a cube has, and that becomes a fact to me, and absolute truth. However, in many practical matters we accept what the majority of the people we trust say to be the truth. As we are exposed to more and more information we increasingly encounter facts that we can’t check ourselves by simple observation. The more specific or intricate the subject is, the less chance there is that someone I know and trust has direct knowledge of it. In these cases, truth becomes whatever the majority believes it to be (more specifically, those that have chosen to make their beliefs known through writing). I may filter the information according to my perception of the reliability of the source, but in the end I am accepting it because the greatest number of credible people say so.
By defining truth this way, it isn’t surprising that a community edited encyclopedia proves to be more accurate than one edited by a limited staff. The one that conforms to the beliefs of the greatest number will be considered right by more people.
This extends to the principle of using Twitter or other social networks as a search engine. If I define a relevant result for a search as the answer that most people who think like me believe, then I won’t be surprised that my network of contacts would give “better” results than an algorithm. The challenge will lie in building the right human networks for different queries. This isn’t a new concept – anyone who has asked a question on a discussion forum or newsgroup has used a human powered information system. The differences now are in the speed with which we can get feedback, and the number of people we can access.
Information is being updated and spread faster than ever. The “truth” as we understand it can change from day to day. I can no longer consider right and wrong as static conditions, facts need timestamps to be meaningful now.
In: Uncategorized · Tagged with: information, truth, wikipedia