On Wikipedia and Archaeology

I was flicking through the latest edition of British Archaeology recently (number 88) (I need to at least pretend I am keeping up with my field) and an article caught my eye. It was in the new(ish) column on “On The Web”, which always feels a little crammed and tacked on, but I’m not the editor, so there’s nothing I can do about it. Also, I would rather they were talking just a little bit about the topic than not at all. Each issue they look at an issue/website and try to get a page-long article out of it.

This time it was the role of internet sites as resources. This is good. The Web rates a big Yay! in my book, but the Web is underused as a resource, one of the main reasons cited for which, is that students don’t know where to start looking – a statement I have no problem with. Time and again, I get into discussions with people who say “but I just don’t know where to begin“.

So when a respected entry level journal such as British Archaeology lists some good portal sites, you listen. B.A. has the potential to reach thousands of new students and interested amateurs, and to shape their online researching habits for ever more, so a recommendation from them is a huge thing.

Which is why I was a little concerned that Wikipedia was mentioned as a great starting point. Don’t get me wrong, it is a great starting point, but a lot/most users don’t realise the very shaky factual foundations it stands upon. A straw poll of the users in the lab back when I was doing the Thesis showed that, whilst most of my colleagues would use Wikipedia regularly to check facts, the majority of them weren’t aware there was no official refereeing or verification methods in place. They were unaware that anyone could, and frequently did, submit articles and edit extant work. I myself was not aware till I started doing research into wikis in general.

Web-savy users know to treat most Internet sources slightly dubiously till we can verify them. If we can’t pin down an author and/or source for a fact, we tend to run for the hills. Or at least do some more digging. Most readers of B.A., I would hazzard a guess, are not that Web-savy. It is hard to teach people to be critical about everything we read – we are taught from an early age to respect and revere the written word. It goes against the grain to question something we see on the screen. For so long, there have been gatekeepers to publication – editors; peer review; the Church; money; education – that we assume it still holds true in this day and age when anyone with even an iota of inclination can get their words online and give them a veneer of authority. When you are greeted by an edifice such as Wikipedia, with its hundreds upon thousands of articles, it is almost unbelievable that such a thing could be allowed to exist if it wasn’t true.

To be published in a recognised journal (both print and many online) you go through the process of peer review. You have to prove that what you have written is repeatable and true. Yes, mistakes get made, but very few. With Wikipedia, whilst you still have to run the gamut of all the millions of other users, and the semi-god-like Editors, I imagine if you act enough like an authority then your word will become accepted as true. Studies have shown that Wikipedia has similar numbers of errors to established encyclopaedias such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but the nature of those errors is different. Wikipedia, when it stumbles, tends to get things wrong to a much greater degree. Also, encyclopaedias are never presented to students as good places to look for information. Starting points, yes. Finishing points? Not so much.

And then there is the treatment of those who are genuine experts in their field. danah experienced this first hand when she came face to face with her own bio on Wikipedia. Not only was there debate about whether she should even have an entry (and why shouldn’t she?) it was culturally inappropriate to edit her own page to correct information she knew (who better?) to be factually inaccurate. You have to question the veracity of any entry in Wikipedia when you are made aware of such glaring problems with particular entries. If an expert in a field is not considered the appropriate authority to talk about her own life, what about experts in other fields? There is a subtle but pervasive anti-establishment tone throughout Wikipedia. Yes, you might not like that professors and such are more knowledgeable in a given sphere than you are, but in many cases they are more knowledgeable. Listen to them. Learn from them.

I digress ever so slightly from my initial point, which was this: I worry that Wikipedia is being set up in as a site that can dispense gospel truth, and that it is being sold as such to the people who are the most vulnerable.

I am at a mental impasse. I want total freedom of knowledge. I want everyone to be able to get at all information. I want everyone to be able to add to that body of information without having to jump through hoops.
At the same time, I want that information to be checked and to be correct. However much I might wish for a total democratization of information, there needs to be mechanisms in place where the genuine authorities on a given subject are able to step in and correct mistakes.

I am not for locking away knowledge for the privileged few, nor am I advocating keeping the less knowledgeable away from information. I would, however, recommend caution. For the majority of people, small inaccuracies in Wikipedia and sources like it will have no affect on their lives. They have no desire, or need, to know more. There are, however, people who want more in-depth knowledge and it might be better (for example) if they were first presented with the archaeological facts as we have them, before being introduced to theories about how the pyramids served as landing platforms for aliens.

I agree Wikipedia is a wonderful resource and a great place to act as a jump-point to more in-depth knowledge. I frequently use it as such myself. But I am hesitant to place such an onus on it as British Archaeology does, naming in the same paragraph as some respected, established, and verified portals and sties. I could argue that archaeology (and other disciplines) need to descend en masse on Wikipedia and correct/verify all the information pertaining to our fields that we can find. But such a plan is sure to backfire and mire us all in allegations of Ivory Tower-dom and academic elitism. The alternative of starting our own Wikipedia for archaeology is also doomed – you’re just never gonna get the consensus or collaboration across the discipline on the scale that is required.

My solution? Urge caution. Use Wikipedia, sure, but use other sources as well. Be skeptical. If you find a problem with Wikipedia, edit it. If you find another good site, tell people about it. But most importantly, never stop questioning what is put on the page or screen in front of you. Use the brain that whatever deity you see fit to believe in, put between your ears.

EDIT/UPDATE:
It pays to read your archives before you publish a long rant. I had a sneaking feeling I’ve touched on this topic a time or two before, and sure enough I have. Ah well, now you can enjoy that article too 🙂

wikipedia, british archaeology, democratisation of information, ivory tower, academia, archaeology, elitism

2 thoughts on “On Wikipedia and Archaeology

  1. to be fair British Archaeology has never been more than a way of popularising archaeology for the masses, similarly wikipedia popularises information for the web-literate masses, and cannot therefore be a bad thing. together i think they make a good duo!
    Choco cake looked yum-delicious.

  2. Pingback: Bright Meadow » Sunday Roast: how do you know penguins DON’T speculate about nuclear physics?

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