Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Don't Argue With Common Knowledge

I thought this was an interesting post on Butterflies and Wheels, about a downside of Wikipedia's "let the knowledge of the masses be recorded" approach.

It tells the story of an event in history about which common knowledge says a certain thing, but concerning which a single historian has uncovered source material supporting an alternate course. He tried to update Wikipedia, citing the primary sources he had uncovered, but had his edits reversed because these sources, since they contradict common knowledge, are viewed as somewhat suspicious.

As the author, Ophelia Benson, writes,

There is something fascinating about that. I do get the reason – there are always going to be more cranks and monomaniacs wanting to publish their “original research” than there are genuine historians and people who know how to do original research, so Wikipedia errs on the side of caution - but it does mean that mistaken conventional wisdom trumps accurate new research.

Indeed. Often it's going to be pretty safe to disregard a single person arguing for a revised view of some well-known fact...but on the other hand, sometimes conventional wisdom will be wrong.

I'm still not going to be telling students that Wikipedia is the devil, but this is another bit of evidence to support the contention that you don't want it to be the only thing you ever look at.

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