Trust, but Verify

Monday, December 05, 2005
A rarity: The New York Times ran a piece that was actually thought-provoking, as it picked up on the Wikipedia/Seigenthaler controversy today. John Seigenthaler, Sr., is a 78-year old journalist with distinguished MSM credentials, who was mortified to find the following passage in his own Wikipedia entry:

“For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."
Outraged at this and other false claims, Seigenthaler penned an op-ed for USA Today, blasting the unverified and anonymous posting practices of Wikipedia (and by extension, the Internet in general):
And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research — but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects.
The NY Times’ Kat Seelye seems to want to push the shopworn MSM meme:
Still, the question of Wikipedia, as of so much of what you find online, is: Can you trust it?
Despite herself, she stumbles into a number of good quotes from people who understand the dynamic of the new media:

Indeed, Esther Dyson, editor of Release 1.0 and a longtime Internet analyst, said Wikipedia may, in that sense, be better than real life. "The Internet has done a lot more for truth by making things easier to discuss," she said. "Transparency and sunlight are better than a single point of view that can't be questioned."

Now, I have never been a huge fan of Wikipedia, and I think its MSM-style claims to neutrality and authoritativeness have in some ways brought this trouble onto itself. However, I think this story is indicative of a deeper point that underlies the MSM-blog wars. To put it bluntly, most people have been trained to seek answers from authoritative sources, thus bypassing the need to actually, you know, think. Septuagenarian Seigenthaler probably thought he was trafficking in those answers when he edited The Tennessean, and you can see similar cognitive styles from any number of MSM-based defenders of CBS (cf Marvin Kalb’s recent interview with Dan Rather at Harvard).

Many of us here may already take for granted the paradigm shift of open source and massively distributed information, as it is ego-syntonic (ie, agreeable to our cognitive style). However, it is equally incumbent upon us to address some of the social problems that arise in the transition from a top-down, gatekeeper-based knowledge economy to a distributed knowledge economy. Some of the issues are discussed on the Wikipedia discussion page concerning the Seigenthaler controversy. (See also here and here for some axe-grinding that is specific to Wikipedia).

A larger issue that has been affecting me (and perhaps many of us here?) directly regards time management in the face of information overload. How do you know when a piece of information has been sufficiently vetted and contextualized? How do we build, and gauge, social trust on the internet? How can I stop myself from clicking just one more link to find out more?

Even more broadly: How is our democracy affected by vast (and growing) disparities in knowledge (and ways of knowing) between citizens?


Syl said...

I like this question: How is our democracy affected by vast (and growing) disparities in knowledge (and ways of knowing) between citizens?

(It could be broadened even more to include the entire planet.)

I think there are a couple of important things to consider:

(1)Somehow getting across the notion of criticial thinking. Of questioning and, yes, hitting one more link to double-check a piece of info.

(2)The balkanization of islands of thought and perspective. Which will tend to push people farther apart.

My worry is that (2) will happen first. My hope is that (1) won't completely disappear.

But an even great hope is that

(3)Connections from sub-groups of balkanized data will still occur to other areas

and thus mitigate the alienation that (2) might bring.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

The balkanization of islands of thought and perspective. Which will tend to push people farther apart.

This already occurs in the real world. I am reminded of this every morning when I stop in to my favorite coffee shop for a cup on the way to work. The only newspaper around to read is usually the local fishwrap; they don't even have the Denver post. And most of the people I see in there don't read the internet for news. The local fishwrap is highly left-biased. So right here in Boulder is a balkanized island of people who never get any other point of view. Everyone they talk to and everything they read reinforces the unquestioned and unquestionable belief that the US is the world's preeminent fascist state.

As for the urge to click one more link,
yes, it's quite deadly. We need a name for this new syndrome.

Doug said...

"As for the urge to click one more link,
yes, it's quite deadly. We need a name for this new syndrome.
"Truth Addiction"

Peter UK said...

In the couple of arreas I have expertise Wikipedia is extremely poor,so I tend to regard the rest in the same light.

terrye said...

I have never trusted Wikipedia. I never depend on it for source material.

Which comes first? The attitudes or the information?

MHA makes note of the fact that the local people are left in their politics and so is the news.

Is the newspaper left because the people are or are the paople left becasue the newspaper is?

In other words do we create the information or does it mold us?

Peter UK said...

Needless to say those "arreas" don't include typing skills.

Knucklehead said...

I find Wikipedia to be of similar quality to most other "quick hit" sources of information. Which is to say generally summary in nature, shallow in analysis, and little more than a reasonable starting place. On matters of importance to whatever one is trying to learn more about one must keep one's salt shaker nearby.

But how does this differ from any other reference source other than degree? If one wishes to know a research a topic to any depth no encyclopedia will suffice. Nor will anything short of figuring out which are the three or four or six most widely respected books on the topic and digging into them. And if one choses to dig even deeper one will almost invariably find flaws, errors, disagreements about matters of "fact" or interpretion, etc.

It is the nature of the beast.

Just curious, but did Seigenthaler (or anyone else) do a detailed fisking of the bio? I read the op-eds and they point to the "character assassination" line.

The NYT seems unconcerned about the character assassinations it routinely engages in by printing the nonsense written by the likes of Krugman and Dowd. Why is concerned about those committed by Wikipedia? Perhaps the Old Grey Lady doth protest too much.

Doug said...

As is well known, sometimes I get di arrea of the finger tips.

Peter UK said...

I am convinced that somebody is moving the letters on the keys...that can be the only explanation...and they were in the wrong order to start with.

Rick Ballard said...

USA and the NYT are working toward a common goal, are they not?

Wikipedia is only a symbol in this exercise. Having read a few pieces in Wikipedia, I think that they made a good choice. Wiki's claims far exceed its performance, yet it is referenced by some and used by many. It has some notoriety (a thing very distinct from fame).

The legacy (I still prefer dying) media are just using an egregious error to tar Wikipedia - and by association all blogs. It's interesting to note that they are doing so as Mapes makes her 'one idiot's attempt to roll back the tide'.

Kalb understands that destruction of trust is detrimental to the business in which he has engaged for too many years and his ridiculous assertions in the TANG memo matter are rather good evidence of that fact. Rather is still wandering around, wondering where all the love went.

Trust is best engendered by admission and rectification of error. A promise to never make a mistake has to be recognized as a lie from the outset. Wikipedia's very structure makes it likely that egregious errors will be accreted to the numerous smaller errors (not to mention, obvious bias) that it contains. I didn't trust them before the article(s) so this didn't hurt their reputation with me.

The article(s) will have the negative impact that they are designed to impart in the sense that they will engender a bit of mistrust in "loyal" MSM followers and might discourage new readers for blogs.

It's gonna be a lonnnng war.

Julian Biggs said...

i think the question of whether the internet/blogosphere is fundamentally trustworthy needs to be taken very seriously.
For one thing, it is the primary battleground in the war between the right-of-center blogosphere and the left-of-center MSM.
Unfortunately, many of those in the blogworld have yet to decide where they stand on the issue.

chuck said...

In the couple of arreas I have expertise Wikipedia is extremely poor

I think the technical articles aren't that bad compared to, say, a newsmagazine. I find them useful. Areas that overlap with politics are something else and I treat them with suspicion. I think that is pretty normal and, as time goes on, I have begun to wonder if such old style standard references as the Brittanica didn't/don't suffer from the same problem, expecially if they try to keep current.

I do miss authority. Wish there was some to be had, it made life so much simpler. I suspect the desire for authority adds to the normal social pressure to form groups of the like minded. It is a variety of the specialization that permeates modern society.

Knucklehead said...


It was an easier world when we could just cite authority and call it a day. Unfortunately we all screwed that pooch by going way over the line in our deference to "experts". We can't even let our children play games anymore without calling in teams of experts. Heck, we can't even raise our children anymore without reference to experts. We lost a lot when we stopped listening to Grandma.

I think it was Syl above who mentioned "critical thinking". There's precious little of that going on anymore. People don't think about stuff, they just pick their foavored "expert" and shuffle into step.

who, me? said...

The disparity in knowledge and ways of knowing is already significant. In the on-going Episcopal Church controversies, those members on top of the crisis via the Internet have been regarded as "knowing too much" by the rank-and-file (not to mention the clergy). Since many people use the possession of commonly-accepted information as a demonstration of their worth and intelligence, if they are unwilling to shift media and surf richer sources, social interaction becomes both bloody and bloodless as their stale and unexamined conclusions no longer carry much currency.

The wikipidia issue is at least in part due to the absence of a workable cyber-business model by, say, Encyclopedia Britannica. If there were up-to-date "expert" resources at that level near-free on the web, the experimental wikipedia would be much less in demand for general information. I link it only after vetting as a fast'n'dirty background reference if I want to make a point in passing without junking up the prose with explanations.

Peter UK said...

The web itself is its own encyclopeadia,if you want to know the life cycle of the lesser peach tree borer,somebody out there knows every little dot and comma,wriggle and munch.
Everything is somebodies lifes work,they will be only too grateful that anyone,absolutely anyone else shows an interest.
It was harnessing the power of these people that will give us the edge.

Knucklehead said...

who, me?,

Agreed. I find Wikipedia useful but don't consider it authoritative unless I can verify. If I know enough about the topic to judge whether or not Wikipedia seems to make sense and probably does not contain major mistakes of fact, I'll cite it. Otherwise I pick off what I need to do further searching.

I know nothing about the Episcopal church or its controversies but I have experenienced reactions similar to what you describe. People generally seem to consider themselves "well informed" about a topic if they have the NYT or Newsweek level of exposure to it. If you try to engage them to a deeper level because you've gone out and researched the topic they'll often regard you as some sort of wierdo... "How and, more importantly, why did you find out all this about that?" "Ummm... because I thought it was important enough to warrant checking into."

Apparently people WANT issues to be simplistic and shallow. They'll read about it in Time or wherever. The article they read will have contained a paragraph pretending to get at the "on the one hand... on the other hand..." sides of the story, and that's all they feel they need to know. The soundbite or 300 words syndrome.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Peter UK,

I have written some technical articles for the Wikipedia which pertained to my (former) life's work and which do not appear anywhere else on the Internet. They certainly don't appear in the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

The problem is that there is a gap between technical research papers (which might or might not be available on the Internet), which only a handful of people can read, and something written for the general (well, maybe not general, but reasonably well educated) user (which doesn't exist at all anywhere). I was trying to fill that gap. I was unemployed at the time, had plenty of time to fill, and my work was being edited by a couple of other mathematicians.

So, no, I don't believe the Web as a whole already serves in the same capacity as the Wikipedia.

Peter UK said...

Never really used any encyclopedias,I suffer from serial monomania,which means having to buy as many standard works as possible on any subject that catches my interest.
The only cure is not to become interested.

Knucklehead said...


I suffer from serial monomania,which means having to buy as many standard works as possible on any subject that catches my interest.

God made libraries so that your wallet would not have to suffer along with your brain.

Doug said...


Media bias just might turn the future of Iraq into a disaster that will reverberate for decades. Last week, The Washington Post interviewed Sunni-insurgent sympathizers. They said they "loved" media-creation Cindy Sheehan and took heart from reports of the anti-war movement in Washington.

There you have it, from the camel's mouth.

Actions have consequences. Today's journalists refuse to accept that the rule applies to them. The wages of irresponsible journalism are death — for others.

Expose a crucial clandestine operation,
shatter a policy or wreck a struggling state,
and you get a Pulitzer Prize.
The motto of journalists today is "Nothing's ever our fault."

The republic suffers.

Doug said...

Dana Priest, a journalist with much fine work to her credit, recently broke the story of secret CIA arrangements to hold captured terrorists in Eastern Europe. For the sake of a headline, the paper did severe harm to our counter-terror efforts and our diplomatic relations.

The editors would insist that "the public has a right to know." That tired mantra needs scrutiny: It would have justified revealing secrets such as Ultra, the Manhattan Project or the timing of D-Day in the Second World War.

Would "journalistic integrity" have justified aiding Hitler)?

Another Washington Post reporter, Anthony Shadid, published a long string of soft-on-the-insurgents columns. An Arabic-speaker with family roots in the Middle East, Shadid was apparently such a vital asset to the paper that his work never got the scrubbing it deserved.

This year, Shadid published a book, "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War." Turn to the index. In 424 pages that pretend to describe the suffering of "Iraq's people" under American occupation, there are only nine entries under "Kurds" — when Kurds are about a fifth of the population. Kurdish success and pro-Americanism would have been inconvenient.

Doug said...

I suffer from Cereal Monomania.
(what could be sweeter than "Honey Bunches of Oats?")
The only cure is that old Scot's Standby:

truepeers said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
truepeers said...

it is equally incumbent upon us to address some of the social problems that arise in the transition from a top-down, gatekeeper-based knowledge economy to a distributed knowledge economy.

-whatever transitions are going on, they are not, as others have already suggested, going to do away with professional experts and gate keeping. Our credential-based job market is probably an unavoidable social necessity, however much it is often a pain to common sense.

Yet at the same time as we produce more and more credentialled experts, we see a diminishing respect for any specific product of expertise, a desire to shop around, to play experts against each other, and to reward that kind of "expertise" that is willing to dumb down to serve a popular market sensibilty.

It is as if we are heading to a world in which everyone must become an expert, willing to trade in whatever knowledge he has cornered. Since everyone is now an expert, there is not the traditional deference to expertise but simply a free for all as the knowledge consumer constructs some vision of the world.

Of course we are a long way from a world in which everyone is very good at being an expert - howevermuch low wage jobs now come with titles like "associate" - or at constructing worldly visions as knowledge consumers. This is because the skills to synthesize information require a committment not just to pragmatic market success but to understanding the human condition as a whole.

As an inveterate amateur generalist and a failed expert, I am less worried about growing disparities in knowledge, as about the health of those domains of civil society that require non-expert humans capable of wisdom about our condition in general.

I hope the blogosphere can help us strengthen the domain of the amateur generalist. But, on the other hand, I can't see it developing without giving some attention to developing its own kinds of specialization and expertise.

There are many historical precedents. If the role of of a professional first emerged as a secularization of priestly behaviors, we should recall the time when Anglo-American civil society was dominated by a near universal "priesthood", i.e. the widespread (in the 19th century) membership in ritualistic fraternities and sororities that branched out into all kinds of social service and institution building, creating in turn a market for all kinds of credentialled and paid expertise - e.g. the amateur service clubs funded playground development and then helped set up civic bodies to pay credentialled recreation directors. Eventually the recreation experts should aspire to become in turn amateurs, involved in service - a job here for the blogosphere?

Peter UK said...

You don't understand,they're my books,all my books,all mine,mine I tell you,precious books,is mine!!!

I get my prescriptions here Save money for more books.

Knucklehead said...


What kind of mania was it you said you suffer from ;)

Here's a question you can't answer for me. How does one throw away worthless old books? I don't mean the easy part like put 'em in a box and drop 'em at the curb for the sanitation engineers to cart away.

I mean the metaphysical - how does one throw away old books? I need to know, soon. I have to clear out a particular set of shelves. The books have no value except that they are, well, books. Is it legal to throw books away? Will the Earth Mother smite me?

Peter UK said...

Well,a touch of rampant bibliophilia as well.
Get rid of old books?
First make make obeisances and propititate Seshat,contact a devout book seller who will,after cleansing himself, offer you a small token to recompense the removal of your books.
It is customary to buy a new unopened book as a symbol of renewal,purify the shelves and place the book in the centre to ensure the fecundity of your library.
There are variants of the ceremony,returning to the bookseller for the book that was part of a set,realising that it was the only copy extant of Iraqi Criminal Law,that one of the books had the telephone number of the the executor of a miilonaire whose life you saved or the lottery ticket which expires in five hours.
Books,not just for Christmas,but for life.

Knucklehead said...


I'll follow your advice about how to sanctify the shelves once they are cleansed. I am NOT, however, talking to any booksellers about these books. We're talking NO VALUE here. Fortran IV programming and stuff like that. Perhaps a burial in boxes in a crawlspace would work?

Peter UK said...

Crawl space it is until they become collectors items,give it a few years,those writing the history of Fortran IV..near Neptune isn't it? Will be offering their first born for copies..
Books, of no value...shudder!

Doug said...

Any advice on what I should do with all those neato prizes I got in Cereal Boxes when I was a kid?

Doug said...

Douglas Gresham is on now the medved show.

Knucklehead said...

...near Neptune isn't it?

Not at the moment. I believe they reach the closest points in their orbits, the next time, around 2525.

Peter UK said...

Did you unwrap them,play with them,bend, spindle,mutilate or fold?
Have you got full sets and all the little bits?
If the answer is no,no,no,no,no,no,ye,yes,look for similar on eBay and get your calculator out.
The following conduct auctions
I hope you were a careful child.

Morgan said...

I put my old books in large plastic storage bins, 16 of them to date. Then I stack them in the coal room. Don't need it for coal.

Doug said...

Very, careful indeed:
Even my cherished Ferrari Testa Rosa went the way of the boyhood destruction derby.
(my dad never should have taken me to a car daredevil show which featured the inevitable car jumping over other cars, tractors, dirigibles, and etc. [I'll let the reader decide exactly where I indulged in a little artistic license there.])
Ever after, the "Ramp of Death" was the eventual fate for far too many wheeled miniatures. That and the ever popular scale model IED's. ...didn't realize how far ahead of the time I was in terms of retro warfare technology.
My entire cherished model airplane collection got taken to the dump in my absence while I was away at college.
Why oh why didn't I take care of my Donald Duck Wristwatch?

Think how lightweight that stuff would have been compared to books, which I likewise have stored in plastic totes, evidently for leisure time reading in the afterlife.