This article first appeared in the From the Editor column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 36, number 04 (2013). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
I recently received an e-mail from a long-time colleague and friend who was concerned about a reference to Wikipedia in the footnotes of a Christian Research Journal article.1 He had never seen Wikipedia referenced in the Journal before and asked what our policy is on this. He suggested that Wikipedia does not belong in a thoughtful journal and cited concerns about an epistemology (theory of the nature and basis of knowledge) associated with it that holds that truth is determined by consensus. He did not say that Wikipedia officially holds to such an epistemology but rather cited an author who invoked truth by consensus epistemologically when describing how the Wikipedia editing process works.2 He also raised concerns about Wikipedia’s lack of a clear record of authorship, inadequate documentation, and constant revisions.
I doubt many readers need an introduction to Wikipedia. It was founded in 2001 by Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales. It is a free online encyclopedia that is edited by volunteers (virtually anyone can edit it) and, as of this writing (July 2013), has more than 22 million articles in 285 languages (including more than 4 million articles in English), written and edited by more than 77,000 active contributors.
Where, then, should conscientious Christians stand regarding Wikipedia? First, I must come out and confess that I use Wikipedia on a regular basis, usually in the pursuit of “fun facts.” For example, just this past week I used it to read up on the history of one of my favorite basketball players, Dwyane Wade,3 and also to find out about Zoe Kazan, the writer and lead actress of a movie I think has apologetic value.4 Although some would dis approve of any use of Wikipedia, I don’t consider my use a vice. In a world that has been linked together and transformed over the past two or three decades by information technology, I believe Wikipedia stands as one of the more constructive uses of the Internet. It has created a worldwide community of volunteers engaged in a collective and largely altruistic effort to inform and educate the public.
On the page “Wikipedia: About,” the goals for Wikipedia articles are described along with the limitations of its editorial process:
The ideal Wikipedia article is well written, balanced, neutral, and encyclopedic, containing comprehensive, notable, verifiable knowledge. An increasing number of articles reach this standard over time, and many already have.…However, this is a process and can take months or years to be achieved, as each user adds their contribution in turn. Some articles contain statements which have not yet been fully cited. Others will later be augmented with new sections. Some information will be considered by later contributors to be insufficiently founded and, therefore, may be removed. 5
No one would deny that the standard encyclopedias are superior, but as someone who has Encyclopedia Britannica on his computer, I more often than not do not find the topic I’m looking for in Britannica but do find it in Wikipedia. Indeed, if I use Google instead of Wikipedia, I’m often led back to Wikipedia because it proves to be the most informative source on the topic that Google turns up. And, while Wikipedia articles often leave something to be desired, I find many of them to be quite satisfactory in both detail and neutrality. To the extent that I am already familiar with the topics, or do subsequent research on them, I rarely find inaccuracies. (And if I do find them, I can fix them myself!) Furthermore, since Wikipedia entries are updated as needed by people around the world, they typically do not become dated as many entries in other general encyclopedias inevitably do.
What about the concern that Wikipedia promotes an epistemology that views truth as determined by consensus rather than as something that corresponds to reality? It’s true that the Wikipedia editing process develops through consensus, but it is a large leap from a pragmatic editing process to a philosophical view of the nature of truth, and I have found no evidence that Jimmy Wales or anyone officially representing Wikipedia has made that leap. Indeed, the only thing I could find on Wikipedia itself about this theory was uncharacteristically nonneutral in its negative critique of it.6 But even if Jimmy Wales or other Wikipedia higher-ups did subscribe to a faulty epistemology, it’s not as though they hired and trained their entry authors, or that they prevent authors with sound epistemology or theology from writing or editing articles in Wikipedia, which clearly happens all the time.
It must be stressed, however, that many other Wikipedia articles are substandard, some seriously so, having been written or edited by people who never would have been enlisted by a standard encyclopedia to do the same work. As Wikipedia itself cautions, “Users should be aware that not all articles are of encyclopedic quality from the start: they may contain false or debatable information. Indeed, many articles start their lives as displaying a single viewpoint; and, after a long process of discussion, debate, and argument, they gradually take on a neutral point of view reached through consensus.”7
Thus, while all the beneficial features I’ve noted above should be given proper weight, my old friend raises some valid concerns. Because most of its authors and editors are anonymous and are not recognized experts on their topics; because of its lack of peer review; because its articles are not edited prior to posting but only over a long period of time, and even then not through a systematic procedure; and because no article is in its final form but indeed could be radically different tomorrow, Wikipedia’s affirmations of fact should not be taken as authoritative. They should not be used to settle a debate, substantiate an argument, confirm an assertion, or even as the basis for a decision or opinion.
While I may consult nothing besides Wikipedia to learn more about Dwyane Wade or Zoe Kazan, if I am researching something that has to do with health, finances, some one’s reputation, apologetics, and so forth, I will look first to authoritative sources and will only use Wikipedia in a supple mental way if I use it at all. If I need encyclopedic help, I will always look first to the standard encyclopedias.
In Christian Research Journal, a similar policy is now officially implemented. If Wikipedia has an illuminating article on a topic, then that entry may be used as a supplemental reference with the date the article was viewed noted (because the entry may no longer be the same, but the “view history” page will reveal when changes were made and the discussions that surrounded them), but additional sources will be cited as well. (Note that in our article endnote that cited Wikipedia, our author cited two additional sources to support his point.)
Finally, here are some questions to ask when using Wikipedia: (1) Does the article accord with what I know about the subject? (2) Does it strike me as neutral, balanced, and objective? (3) Are assertions of fact documented by accessible and credible sources that corroborate the author’s treatment of the subject?
As long as Wikipedia readers approach its articles with due wariness and are not seduced by its easy accessibility into using it as a substitute for authoritative sources, it can be used beneficially to fill many gaps in our twenty-first-century knowledge base with both summaries of topics and numerous links to more in-depth and authoritative sources. For certain, it is an endless repository of fun facts as well! —Elliot Miller
- Daniel Mann, “Western Intellectuals and Shame,” vol. 36, no. 3, n5. https://www.equip.org/article/western-intellectuals-and-shame/
- Marshall Poe, “The Hive: Can Thousands of Wikipedians Be Wrong? How an Attempt to Build an Online Encyclopedia Touched Off History’s Biggest Experiment in Collaborative Knowledge,” The Atlantic, September 2006, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/09/the-hive/305118/?single_page=true.
- Fun fact: Wikipedia, citing espn.com, affirms: “Wade is a devout Christian and chose the number 3 because it represents the Holy Trinity.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwayne_Wade.
- I’m referring to the 2012 Fox Searchlight film Ruby Sparks, which I think can be used in a similar manner to the films discussed in our recent article “Sci-Fi, Free Will, and the Problem of Evil” (vol. 35, no. 5). https://www.equip.org/article/sci-fi-free-will-problem-evil/
- See “Consensus Theory of Truth,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consensus_theory_of_truth.