Wikipedia and authority

Ernest Miller has a great summary of ”The
Great Wikipedia Authority Debate”
. Essentially, this started when
an unnamed librarian claimed that Wikipedia was not suitable as a
information source, because it can be edited by anyone and therefore
must lack authority. This is not an uncommon assumption, and while I
have often wondered about how much I can trust a given wikipedia
article, I think that it’s wrong, for much of the same reasons that I
trust open source software (which also have recieved similar critisism).

Joi Ito states
that since anyone can edit any page means that ”Any comments that are
extreme or not true just do not survive on Wikipedia”, and that’s
where Wikipedia’s authority is derived from, which is more or less
exactly what I think, but better put. I would liken it to a free
marketplace of facts, where the clear and undisputed facts survive,
while the badly formulated or false facts die and disputed[1] facts are
marked as such.

Just yesterday, while studying history, I came across a nice
illustration about why wikipedia’s authority may be greater than that
of any random expert author. The main book that I’m using, Människan
genom tiderna
, stated that the Fashoda
Incident
occurred in 1892, while Wikipedia stated that it occurred
in 1898 (and the rest of the Internet backs
it up
).

Not a really big deal, but the earlier date confuses the order of
events, and such an error shouldn’t be in a history book. But the
error wasn’t caught, and now hundreds of thousands of books with this
incorrect fact have been put in the hands of swedish students, most of
which will never catch the error. A similar error on wikipedia wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours. So, with this empirical evidence, which source is the most authoritatve?

[1] As defined by the majority, ”the market”, if you will.

Back to school

As a part of my ongoing preparations to apply to law school next
year, I’m currently studying the history of the world. In Sweden you
can, if you find that your old school grades aren’t so good, do a
general nationwide test for applying to the university —
”Högskoleprovet”, and if you get a good score on that, you can
use that instead of your old grades to apply for any university
program.

Well, my old school grades weren’t that hot, and so I took the test
some time ago, and it went really (really!) well. I might have gotten
smarter in the last ten years. But then I discovered that in order to
be a laywer, you need to be a history buff. Or at least, your old
history grade must be at least 3, regardless of your
Högskoleprov-score. Mine was a 2 (graded from 1-5, 5 is
best). Oops. (This isn’t specific to law school and history, every
university education can have some subjects for which applicants are
required to have at least a 3 as their old school grade. This wasn’t a
problem to me before since I’ve only read computer science, for which
history is not considered that important.)

But there’s a second chance for people like me. We can re-read the
high scool history curriculum and take a day-long test, and if we
pass, then we still get to apply to law school. And so what I spend a
lot of nights doing now is reading and re-reading history books at an
increasingly frantic speed. The date for the test is Sept 13th, for
which I have to be as historically versed as I’ll ever be (actually,
there is another test the 8th of november that I can take, should I
fail this, but I try to keep that possibility out of my mind for
now).

Anyway, I’m finding that history is really an interesting subject,
which really DOES help me to understand the present better. I wonder
why I never liked it back in school? I guess it’s harder to see the
use of it before getting interested in current affairs and in general
seeing the world.

On another note, since I won’t be writing so much about programming
anymore, I have been thinking about starting to write this blog in
swedish instead, as it will be of even less interest to people outside
Sweden now. Then again, if I’m going to link out to lots of people all
over (and I will), it might be nice for them to know what I’m writing
about. If I had put up a talkback system, all you trusty readers could
weigh in with your options, but I’m a lazy lazy man.