The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

This week we are looking at the whole concept of trustworthiness in written content – especially content on Web sites. Specifically we are going to look at an incredible institution in western society – the classic encyclopedia. Hardly anything could be considered more trustworthy than an article from Encyclopedia Britannica; or, if you are living in a German-speaking country, ‘Eintraege aus dem Brockhaus‘ (entries from Germany’s high-quality equivalent of Britannica).

Then along came Wikipedia, with millions of articles written and edited by tens of thousands of semi-ordinary people on that bastion of credibility – The Internet.

How is it that a rag-tag group of ‘amateurs‘ would dare take on something like writing an encyclopedia? I mean, let them stick to writing mass-forwarded e-mails about reports of the government charging postage for online messages or something of that nature. Who could trust such a thing? Even the least scholastic-minded 6th-graders looking for the briefest, most plagarizable material for a quick one-page report would have better sense than to trust something like that, right?

The more I have thought about this, and delved into the writings and spoken words of those involved in the Wikipedia discussions, both pro and con, the more I am concluding that the root issues being challenged and defended here go far, far deeper than one online wiki project or even the Internet itself.

They get down to that age-old question – “How do you find truth?”

I will shortly write another post about the validity of Wikipedia, of Brittanica, and of Brockhaus and look closer at some evidence. I saw some amazing results from some very believable tests made of all three.

But before that I can’t get away from the deeper question about where truth comes from.

I was at the National Press Club in DC a few weeks ago (sounds snooty but it was my first and only time there and I was a true novice) and I spoke with a national radio journalist with a lifetime of experience. I was telling him about all this crowd-sourcing and citizen journalism stuff and he got pretty concerned. I asked him if he was worried that the professionals would get partially displaced in the media. He said no, he was “worried about the truth.”

I can understand that, and I have heard it from many, especially seasoned journalists. But I have to go back to “what is truth and where does it come from?” I am not trying to pull up a modernism vs. postmodernism discussion here, though that might be appropriate if we raised the debate to a true academic level.

I am, however, talking about the question of who and what gives the most ‘true’ view of anything in the minds of average people. Is it a seasoned pro, who might be accurate in many details but unknowingly might add a personal slant because that is how he sees things? Is that closer to truth?

Or is it better coming from a mass of people who are collaborating, perhaps without the experience of the pro in some ways, but with a score or more eyeballs and an awareness of a diversity of detail no one person could ever attain? Which has more of the whole ‘truth’ in it?

Many people would say: “The pro.” Hence the defense of the traditional encyclopedia. Or of the traditional media. Yet two things I read showed that Wikipedia scored very favorably with some of the world’s major encyclopedias when tested. My German Brockhaus with a 200+ year legacy got beaten by the German Wikipedia (which does follow stricter posting rules than the English version). The English version scored very favorably against the indomitable Encyclopaedia Britannica.

(Look for more details and links in my next post – I’ll do a more critical analysis there).

The argument is made – “but there can be some glaring errors (which probably will be quickly corrected) and maybe you’ll catch it at the wrong instant.” Point is – the others had errors too, and they probably were not so obvious, even to the scholar. Which error type is more dangerous? Trusting one source which has subtle slant and ‘color’ – or trusting another one which occasionally has glaring factual errors?

Both are wrong.

Don’t trust either one.

That has been the problem all along, even before the Internet. People have become too gullible towards what they read and hear.

I was fortunate to have teachers throughout my life who taught me to question everything I read and heard.The old saw about believing none of what you hear and only half of what you see is often good advice.

Just because something is in print does not make it so. The Internet did nothing to change that. Information, whether written, spoken, broadcast, or whispered, is only that – information.

It is not ‘truth.’

Information may contain opinions. It may have assertions about truth. It may ‘sound like’ truth. But the only way you or I know truth is to take a lot of information, use a good bit of wisdom – our own or borrowed from someone wiser than you – and sift it all through a sieve.

Then sift it again.

Wait and watch to see if it sprouts anything. Sooner or later we begin to get an idea whether something is true or not.

Doesn’t matter if it comes from Brockhaus, Brittanica, Wikipedia, National Enquirer or the WSJ.

That is the real issue.

I respect the media, but I don’t trust them (and I am one) any further than I can throw them – and the same goes for the crowd. And the same goes (and went) for my college professors. And the good ones were the ones who encouraged me to continue thinking like this, even if I went against them.

The same also goes for encyclopedias.

All information tools are useful as starting points.

But finding the truth is up to you and me.

One thought on “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

  1. Ah, the truth…

    It can be tough to find. Journalists always have to find two sides to every story, but is that really the truth? What if everyone believes A, except for that radical person who believes B? Is A more true? Should B have a say?

    I grappled with these questions as a former reporter. I recall getting my hand slapped for giving one side more air time than another. It happened because the second side had only one response. After that reprimand, every story that I put on the air had exactly the same amount of time for both sides, regardless of who may have actually been truthful. People wanted fairness, not the truth.

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