Friday, 20 June 2008

Wikipedia Britannica

I think my post on Wikipedia last week must have been inspired by some odd premonition, for in today's Guardian I read an article reporting that the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica is planning to "allow users to write their own articles".

Jim Giles, who wrote the article, makes some pretty insightful comments on the differences between old media and new, though I was interested to see that a survey he conducted found three errors in Britannica for every four in Wikipedia. Not bad for Wikipedia then...

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Academic atheism, or the Death of God.

The TLS reports, this week, on a study by a University of Ulster Academic: Professor Lynn suggests that academics report higher levels of atheism than average bacause they have higher IQ's.

I have no idea if this is true or not, but have two comments to make.

1. I'm just not convinced that academics have higher IQ's than average (although I'd be happy for someone to direct me towards some evidence). Some are profoundly brilliant but I think acadamia benefits more from the doggedness and hard work of many, combined with long training, rather than from a better average rate of intelligence.

2. On the other hand, Professor Lynn says that academics do have higher IQs, so I assume there is some evidence to support this (otherwise he would hardly say it?)

Professor Lynn told Times Higher Education: "Why should fewer academics
believe in God than the general population? I believe it is simply a matter of
the IQ. Academics have higher IQs than the general population. Several Gallup
poll studies of the general population have shown that those with higher IQs
tend not to believe in God."

In the TLS report, the idea that there is a causal relationship here is immediately questioned (and I suspect with good cause). I myself was amused by Professor Lynn's statement that he believes it is simply a matter of IQ. I think it is pretty honest of him to say so - and makes me a lot more inclined to listen to his opinion.

On the spectrum of belief I find myself close to atheism, but I find a link between intelligence and belief hard to buy. Doubting received wisdom is surely a good sign of intelligence, but what a person does with that doubt, whether it leads to belief or non-belief, or something in between, seems little linked to their intelligence. Non-believers sometimes imply that belief is a result of not thinking about the big question. It strikes me that non-belief can as often as not result from the same reluctance to wonder.

Stuck in the middle with you

There's an interesting post on the relevance of the study of the Middle Ages to modern life here. It is worth a read, but I'd love to see some arguments from those who think that the study of the Middle Ages is not worth the time of day. They must exist, because I read plenty of arguments in defence of our discipline, but to be honest I'm yet to come across that student of say, the Enlightenment, who comes right out to accuse us of wasting our time (In my experience students of almost any 'Arts' subject tend to be more than a little concerned with how relevant their particular topic is to anything). These arguments defend the discipline against mostly unstated perceptions which we assume exist in other disciplines. As such they are to be applauded - and I am a fan of the particular blog mentioned above; it is a fine champion of medieval studies. On the other hand, I'm lucky enough to work with lots of other students of fairly diverse disciplines who treat my area with about as much respect as they would any other discipline which is not their own. That will do for me.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Wikipedia and the Truth

A couple of years ago I had a very bad experience with Wikipedia. I was writing an essay and needed some interesting filler-fact to flesh out a discussion of a person I was mentioning in a fairly minor way. I ran to Wikipedia. This historical personage, it informed me, was the first to do something of fairly low importance in English history. Perfect, I thought, that will do! Oh how I erred... my supervisor at the time smiled at me when talking through the essay with me, and asked where I had discovered this wonderful fact. I hummed and hawed, and eventually mumbled "somewhere online I think". It turned out that this historical personage of minor importance was by no means the first to do what Wikipedia said he did. He wasn't even the second.

At the time I was outraged. How could the internet lie to me? A new slogan I decided, should be "Wikipedia: putting the con in context". I wondered how such untruths could find their way on to what seemed a fairly good-willed open encyclopedia. But the fault, I now see, was not with Wikipedia, but with myself.

I've read a few articles over the last months that all say roughly the same thing; Wikipedia is fine, but of course you muct always check that the information you use is correct. The common opinion seems to be that Wikipedia should be treated as you would treat facts given to you by a friend over coffee - a useful starting point, but then go and look in books. I think this hard to argue with; Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, and I suspect is the first point of call for many when they touch on some totally unfamiliar subject, but it has to be used carefully. Since that embarrassing mistake I've been careful to double check everything (something, let's face it, I really should have been doing anyway).

I wonder, however, whether this is in fact the case for all our factual resources, whether they appear online or in dusty old pages? Surely the advice given to those who dare use Wikipedia holds true for all scholarly endeavours? Who are we to believe? This must seem a fairly obvious point, but I suspect that Wikipedia is open to such criticism as much because of the number of readers as the number of contributors. As an open source encyclopedia there seems little doubt that much of what it contains is open to question. Were standard traditionally edited encyclopediae read as frequently as their open-source online cousin, however, I wonder whether they would find themselves being treated with the same caution? Furthermore, if the readers of a traditional encylopedia could correct errors at the touch of a button, perhaps their infallibility would seem more fragile. Wikipedia's weakness may be that it contains errors, but in comparison to traditional volumes a strength may be that, at least for Wikipedia, changes can be made visible to all.