“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 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