Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Trust in Authority vs Trust in Transparency

This morning Murph posted a blog on the "censorship" of Wikipedia by over-zealous article owners, citing a posting by Lawrence Solomon about an experience with editing an article related to global warming.  Murph uses this to support one of his common conspiracy theories that Wikipedia, and social media in general, is doomed because of this kind of censorship and deliberate distortion of the facts.

What's interesting is that this censorship took place in the open.  Anyone who knows where to look can see exactly what changes were made by Solomon, and their disposition relative to the current official article or any other version of it.  Here's Solomon's version versus the current version.

The core issue here isn't censorship.  Editors will always censor.  Their job is to act as filters.  Furthermore, every editor is subject to biases, whether they be his own or those imposed on him by a third party such as his employer.  With most publications the editorial process happens behind closed doors with unseen forces.  With Wikipedia the process happens right before the eyes of the world.

The real issue here is that Murph trusts authority more than transparency.  Someone corrected an article, and the correction was subsequently removed due to political bias.  I'm sure that's happened time and time again in every encyclopedia that has ever been published.  The difference is in this case the change was transparent, with the politics open for all to judge, where with a traditional model we would have never known.

If history has taught us anything, it's that placing too much faith in authority is a bad idea.  Our authority figures are all human, and our authoritative organizations are still organizations of people.  They are both fallible and corruptable.  We can't entirely strip authority from our society because that would lead to anarchy, but we can make authority more transparent, and with transparency we can judge for ourselves.

In this particular case the editorial process of Wikipedia probably failed to yield the most accurate article possible, at least as the article stands today.  I'm not an expert on the subject matter, but I think Solomon's corrections were most likely correct.  That being said, I think the process has succeeded.  The changes Solomon made have not be entirely censored, they have merely been driven from the main page.  Discourse continues with regards to their validity.  The biases of the editors have been made public.  The last thing we want to do is reseal that process behind closed doors, simply because in this case we didn't like some of the results.

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