None of these statements are true:
* Jupiter is the 9th planet from the sun.
* George W. Bush is the worst president in US history.
* Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
There is a video up on YouTube by IJsbrand van Veelen called “The Truth According to Wikipedia,” which quotes Andrew Keen as saying that in the Web 2.0 internet the “truth gets personalized.” Which, to put it simply, is nonsense. If anything, changes in the knowledge society have uncovered a dangerous assumption that we know what the word “truth” means. I am not a philosopher, and don’t claim even to be well read in epistemology, but I think folks are talking at cross-purposes, and tempests are brewing in teapots.
Has “truth” changed? I don’t think so. I think that there is some sort of nostalgic view that at some point we knew some core truths, and that we are losing grip on that certainty. The problem is that certainty itself is the enemy. Wikipedia, I think, plays an important role in distributing knowledge, but it may turn out that its greatest gift to the information society is a spur toward skepticism. Wikipedia encourages a skeptical reading, not just of Wikipedia, but of Britannica, of scientific journals, of religious texts.
Authority of Experts
Do experts have special access to “truth?” No. I suspect that many people who argue otherwise haven’t met many experts. Experts tend to be suspicious of accepted truths.
I suppose I would be considered an expert in certain areas. I have read extensively books and articles written by other experts, and other experts have read a little of my work and, in some way, certified my own expertise. Peer review is a structure intended not to arrive at truth, but at some sort of reliable, useful knowledge. It recognizes the infinite fallibility of the individual, and the necessity of social structures the help to discover and distribute useful knowledge. It suggests that we should be skeptical of individual authority, and therefore open to the possibility that everyone can be the source of knowledge. It is this process of social acceptance, development, and application that makes it worthwhile.
Is there truth? Only in a virtual sense. In pure math, a statement can be shown to be true. In real life, we have evidence supporting opinions. Experts have the experience and training needed to reliably (repeatably) generate evidence that works for a large number of people. That makes them useful. Perhaps past performance in such discovery is a decent predictor of future success. However, there is no guarantee of this, and it is dangerous to assume otherwise. Like investments, diversification is key.
There is a realm in which truth reigns supreme: pure mathematics. When you divide any circle by its diameter you arrive at the same constant, no matter what. If all men are dogs, and I am a man, I am a dog–no matter what.
And, those truths from the virtual world tend to be useful to us in the real world as well. Though a perfect circle may not exist in real life, geometry approximates life to such a degree that we can apply it to the useful arts, and count it as valuable. The number of angels able to dance on the head of a pin–not very applicable to pin design or communicating with angelic beings, and left behind as a conversation not really very helpful to have.
I’m not a dog, literally or figuratively. Why? Because by consensus, not all men are dogs. There may be a vocal minority that disagrees, but because the widely held definition undermines one of the conditions of that syllogism, we don’t have to apply its conclusion.
Gravity, you might say, is true whether or not there is a general consensus about its existence. I disagree. Things tend to fall toward our feet when we are standing, and this is as reasonable a predictive assumption as the sun coming up tomorrow. But the idea of gravity–that massive objects across the universe are attracted to one another by some mystic force–is an idea introduced by many individuals, at different times, and formulated by one dude, whose ideas were considered a bit nutty by many of his contemporaries, but are now considered “true.” (Were they “true” at the time? That’s kind of a silly question, in my opinion.)
One of the pillars of Wikipedia is the tenet that articles should take a “Neutral Point Of View.” The word “neutral” is meant as a crutch for “objective.” Journalists are supposed to be “objective,” and not allow their personal opinions to interfere with telling a story. The suggestion is that there is a thin black line between “fact” and “opinion,” which is problematic. “Neutrality” suggests that it’s opinions all the way down, and that the best a reporter can do is sample perspectives from the major camps of observers. If there is a lawsuit, you should hear from both parties, for example.
Of course, there neutrality doesn’t extend to some things. Nowhere in the Wikipedia article on the Holocaust is there a significant expression of the opinion that it is a fabrication, in part or as a whole. (This opinion is segregated off into its own article.) Such an opinion is considered outside of what Dan Hallin (who is an expert) has called in another context the sphere of legitimate controversy. There are certain things that the media doesn’t talk about either because they are too unsettled to be touchable, or too obvious to the regular reader to be assailable. Between these extremes, it is possible to be “neutral.”
Basically, NPOV could be rephrased as “don’t express opinions that you know are not shared by most people.” I think we should establish a settlement on Mars, but I recognize that is an opinion, not a fact. (The “should” is a big tipoff there.) I believe Saddam Hussein had no significant deployable weapons of mass destruction when the US invaded Iraq. I think, based on the evidence I have seen, that this is a “true” proposition, but I also know that there are a large number of people who disagree; or, more to the point, there are a large number of people who frequent Wikipedia who believe this may not be true. And so an NPOV requires that I recognize this, and do not state it as a fact. Whether or not something is NPOV is a matter of discussion, and often ends up replicating the question of whether something is True, without using the “t word.” In other words, NPOV is not an attribute of an article, but an attribute of the process of creating an article.
Earlier this year, the question of whether NPOV was appropriate for search engine results came up on a discussion of Wikia search. Jimmy Wales wanted to bring the NPOV standard from Wikipedia to search, and I argued (and still believe), that those using a search engine are seeking not a diversity of ideas, but a particular piece of knowledge most useful and applicable to them. I think finding on a search engine is always some form of refinding. If I am searching for information on Hank Williams, I don’t really want to see pages on why country and western music sucks. The search engine, if it is good, might also know that I don’t want to see pages in French, and that I like pretty pictures. It’s dangerous if it makes these decisions without the user knowing (as all search engines do!), but useful. We turn to search engines often not as a source of diverse information, but as a filter against such diversity. We want “My Point Of View” search.
Does this mean search engines make us too trusting of authorities? I think that tendency is baked into a lot of search engines. But that can be countered by both good search engine design, and educating users. The mistake is to suggest that the search engine is perfectible, that it could lead to a collection of truth. What it can do is help sort and organize and filter knowledge, and a device that allows for sorting according to my own defined desires represents the perfect search engine. It needs to be able to reflect MPOV.
Some of the critics of Web 2.0–Keen especially–seem to think that new uses of the internet are anti-intellectual, and against the Enlightenment project. This is misguided. The use of reason over authority suggests that we shouldn’t trust ideas simply because they are presented by the Church, the State, or our other Fathers. It argues that certain kinds of discussion can lead to useful consensus.
If anything, Wikipedia is another iteration of peer review. It isn’t perfect, but it suggests that we must militate against acceptance of current forms of peer review as necessarily the best way of developing useful consensus. They work pretty well: well enough for you to trust that your anti-cholesterol medicine may actually lower your cholesterol, may do so without causing a painful, premature death, and that lower cholesterol is somehow something worth having. But that doesn’t mean we should accept it as gospel. Peer review needs to undergo continual peer review.
The End of Truth
So, the issue isn’t that the nature of truth is changing, or that we are losing hold of our ideals. The issue is that we are becoming more skeptical, and that we are remembering more often that “truth” is little more than a comforting fiction.