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Verifiability vs. Truth

By Hersch

Verifiability vs. Truth

On June 12, 2011, an editor named “North8000” had the temerity to propose that a core policy, Wikipedia:Verifiability, be changed in the following fashion: that the hallowed dictum,

“The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth—whether readers can check that material in Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether editors think it is true.”

…be changed to the following:

The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability; that is, whether readers can check that material in Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source. No other consideration, such as assertions of truth, is a substitute for verifiability.

To the uninitiated, this might seem like a minor change. However, the rejection of accountability, or to put it somewhat differently, the license to publish lies provided someone else did it first, is absolutely central to the practice of Wikipedia as a MMORPG.

The celebrated “verifiability, not truth” clause was added to the paragraph in question by ranking Wikipediot SlimVirgin in August of 2005. In the recent debate, she modestly opines,

“The phrase ‘Verifiability, not truth’ is iconic as a representation of Wikipedia’s sourcing and neutrality standards.”

Not everyone is happy with this approach, however. It has contributed to Wikipedia’s reputation as a website that is full of crap, or as North8000 more delicately puts it, there is “the problem that the current wording disparages the concept of striving for accuracy, and the negative impacts that such has had.”

In May of 2011, Wikipedia editor Scott MacDonald presented a compelling demonstration of the pitfalls of the “verifiability, not truth” maxim. He assembled a spectacular array of utterly false information, gleaned from some of the most prestigious of newspapers, about a dog supposedly owned by British royal spouse Kate Middleton. The results of Scott’s research were posted as “Wikipedia:Otto Middleton (or why newspapers are dubious sources)”, or WP:OTTO for short. This essay was perhaps a bit of revelation for Wikipedia god-king Jimbo Wales, who wrote on its discussion page, “Brilliant.”

However, Jimbo did not avail himself of his god-king-iness to actually do something about the situation. Apparently it fell to North8000 to initiate a small step in that direction. To an outsider, it might seem that it were a reasonable objective to have material that is both “verifiable” and “truthful.” However, judging from the response from prominent Wikipediots, that would mean that the terrorists have won.


Photo credit: © Krustilu Productions / Wikipediocracy

2 comments to Verifiability vs. Truth

  • Just a wiki editor who !voted delete

    No, verifiability never trumps truth. It trump WP’s ability to make _any_ statement, but that’s not the same thing.

    Per [[WP:V]], WP editors can’t add statements “because we know them to be true”, but nor are they required to add statements that they know to be false, just because a supposed [[WP:RS]] has claimed them.

    Of that which we cannot know, we must remain silent.

  • John Herald

    My WP experience is that WP:V is less than perfect, but in a less than perfect world, it serves as an excellent guideline and tool for sorting out the truth. This is particularly “true” because the editors I’ve worked with care about what they convey to readers. So an assertion from verifiable source A that is known to be false based on sources B…Z may survive but not without offsetting material. Does BS still creep in? Of course, but by and large no more so than in the vast majority of sources, however reliable they might be regarded. I should also add that your own articles might improve with a little more NPOV. The tone is often hostile when helpful would far better serve your site’s purposes and your readers’ tastes.