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Update: Verifiability vs. Truth

By Hersch


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 June 2011 debate, she modestly opines,

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

In April of 2008, Ms. Virgin went to the trouble of crafting an explanatory essay, entitled “Verifiability, not truth,” to order to underscore the point, and perhaps to answer her critics. In it, she wrote:

Unlike some encyclopedias, Wikipedia does not try to impose “the truth” on its readers, and does not ask that they trust something just because they read it in Wikipedia. We empower our readers. We don’t ask for their blind trust.

This functions as a sort of “caveat emptor“; in effect, if you believe some nonsense that you read in Wikipedia, it’s your own dang fault. And shame on those other encyclopedias.

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 put 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.

The debate continued, leading to two RfCs [Note for the Layman – an “RfC” is a “Request for Comment,” a beloved ritual where hardened Wikipediots put on their best lawyer suits and present learned arguments for whatever positions they have elected to take on the controversy in question, with all its attendant drama.] The first of these closed in December of 2011, with a verdict of “no consensus,” meaning that the section in question would remain unchanged. It was noted that this may have been the largest RfC, in terms of number of participants, in the history of Wikipedia. The protagonists were once again North8000, the mild-mannered reformer, as well as  Blueboar, Freemasonry aficionado and defender of the status quo with respect to “Verifiability, not truth.” And there was a proposal that the controversial section be changed to this:

 The initial threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability—whether readers can check that material in Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source. While verifiability is a requirement for inclusion, it is not a guarantee of inclusion. Wikipedia has other policies and guidelines that affect inclusion (especially whether specific material is included in a specific article).

Note that there is no “not truth.” The proposal did not fly. So in July of 2012, another RfC erupted. This time, the participants were offered a choice of five different versions of the contested section. It was determined that there was a consensus for implementing Option D, where “Verifiability, not truth” was relegated to a footnote, with a link to the explanatory essay (where SlimVirgin’s original snarky disclaimer remains intact.) However, the administrators who closed the RfC also stated:

We note that there remain open questions about the exact status and place of the phrase “Verifiability, not truth”, and recommend that the community continue discussion on these points.

Well, that should be no problem. In November of 2012, Blueboar reminded all concerned of this exhortation, and they were off and running again. Blueboar wistfully proposed to elevate “Verifiabity, not truth” from its status as a mere footnote, to being a parenthetical comment at the beginning of the article. Once again, there was quite a commotion, and the change was not made. Instead, the footnote was kept, but re-worded by Tryptofish in a way that was intended to be “less implicitly patronizing” (hurrah!):


“This principle has been historically and notably expressed on this policy page as “the threshold for inclusion is verifiability, not truth.” See the essay, WP:Verifiability, not truth.”


“This principle used to be expressed on this policy page as “the threshold for inclusion is verifiability, not truth.” See the essay, WP:Verifiability, not truth.”

And so it remains, as of this writing. If you need clarification, you have the link to the essay. But who knows what tomorrow may bring?


Photo credit: © Krustilu Productions / Wikipediocracy

7 comments to Update: Verifiability vs. Truth

  • Volunteer Marek

    This is one of those posts where I wish there was a disclaimer at the top which states “Not everyone who hangs out at Wikipediocracy and who takes Wikipedia criticism seriously subscribes to the views expressed in this post”. I’ve already mentioned the reasons in previous discussions but I actually like the “Verifiability not truth” dictum essentially because I don’t trust Wikipedians to be able to even remotely handle something as tricky as “truth”. They do a bad enough job with “verifiability”. The policy mostly curtails abuse, not enables it.

    I also think it’s sort of pointless to fight battles of yesteryear and peruse personal grudges and pretty much anything coming under the topic “SlimVirgin” fits that profile. That’s WR stuff.

    So, -1 here.

  • Hersch

    Mr. Marek, I fear that you are missing the point here by a considerable distance. It’s not a matter of trusting Wikipedians to recognize and promulgate “truth.” It’s a matter of denying them a license to include material which they know to be dubious if not downright false, but which they can get away with including because it is “verifiable.”

  • Volunteer Marek

    You’re being naive, engaging in fantastical wishful thinking. As soon as you put in “…and truth” as a requirement for inclusion of something into Wikipedia articles, you mandate that SOMEONE gets to decide what is and what is not “the truth”.

    I’m gonna speak to your motivation here, but I think I got it essentially right – you seem to think that if that were done, then that SOMEONE would be someone like you, or someone who agrees with you, or someone who shares your point of view, and since your point of view is so obviously righteous to anyone not blinded by… something… they’d immediately see what “the truth” is and remove all the text from Wikipedia articles you think is “downright false”.

    But even putting aside the actual worthiness of your point of view, that’s not what would happen. The people who would get to decide what is “the truth” and what is “downright false” would be the SlimVirgins, the Blueboars and other high placed Wikipedia insiders. And that would only lead to more abuse not less of it. It would just be a pretext for high powered players to remove anything they don’t like because it’s not “the truth”… and how would you exactly disprove that? With sources? But that’s verifiability, one can always claim “the sources are wrong, it’s not the truth!”.

    There is a germ of correct criticism in there – but it has to do with a loose definition of “reliable sources” used by Wikipedia, not the “verifiability not truth” dictum. You’re focusing on the latter because it was written by one of your old nemesis. But it’s the first one which really needs to be tightened up. Most of the “downright falsehoods” get in because they’re sourced to crappy sources; junk someone found on the internet, newspaper columns, last-minute articles etc. You mandate that only published academic sources can be used for controversial info and you solve most of the problem. Speaking of Blueboar, I’ve seen him hang out a lot at the Reliable Sources Noticeboard and yes, his view is that pretty much ANYTHING is a reliable source as long as you “attribute it”. So “a-crazy-person-you-haven’t-heard-of-so-you-don’t-know-they’re-a-crazy-person says that 2+2 is 5” is perfectly acceptable as long as you mention their name. So that’s the part of the criticism that has some… truth, to it. But generally, you really really really do NOT want Wikipedians deciding on what is the “truth”. They got a bad enough track record with simpler endeavors.

    • John Lilburne

      The adage “verifiability not truth” should keep out the crankish nonsense, unfortunately the cranks have their own sources and therefore the issue distils down to whether the cranks source is considered ‘reliable’ on the subject. However, unless you abandon reliability to mean attributable then you are inserting ‘truth’ back into the equation. So Blueboar is correct and any published source is perfectly acceptable.

  • Hersch

    I agree with you on the “reliable sources” question, but instead of seeing it as a, shall we say, competing issue, I think that the two problems are intimately interrelated. And while I agree that there is no policy so perfect that it cannot be “gamed” by the “high placed Wikipedia insiders,” I am heartened by the efforts of insurgent reformers.

  • I don’t think that Wikipedia editors should be arbiters of truth. Firstly, an encyclopedia’s role is not to determine truth, but to relate knowledge. Secondly, Wikipedia is not set up to determine truths in an effective manner.

    The real problem Wikipedia faces is one of scope.

    As Wikipedia has run out of actual encyclopedia-type articles its editors have turned to writing articles that should not be in an encyclopedia, and have to use less reliable sources as a result, which has an effect on its credibility.

    Going beyond being an encyclopedia and trying to be a total knowledge resource cannot work because different kinds of knowledge have different verifiability requirements. For example, I run a wiki that is news based, so the standard of inclusion is whether something is newsworthy or not. Wikipedia often has articles which are newsworthy but not encyclopedic and it seems many editors are confused because they think they are adding knowledge that has verifiable sources, but it’s not encyclopedic.

    Wikipedia should understand that it cannot be all things to everyone and concentrate on its core mission of providing a quality encyclopedia and remove anything that weakens that mission. But who will bell the cat?

  • North8000

    I’m flattered.

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