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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

What does Wikipedia Know?

This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This week's reviews Chris Batman's book Wikipedia Knows Nothing. It was first published Jun 29 2018.

The problem with the seduction of facts is that it prevents politics by making experts into ‘superiors’ against whom everyone is ‘inferior’. Even the experts are judged inferior to each other, as anonymous peer review demonstrates. What lies behind this distraction is a faith that expertise can be purged of metaphysics, as the Vienna circle believed, or that there can be metaphysical views that have no moral or political bias.

As if to prove Chris Bateman’s thesis that ‘Wikipedia cannot be a source of knowledge, in part because of the uncertainties that necessarily accompany using it as a source’, the only extant Amazon review (29.06.18) of his Wikipedia Knows Nothing complains, ‘what a waste of money and space. I never read it but for starters when you say wiki knows nothing you are insulting everyone who ever wrote in it. I bid you gooday [sic], sir.’ The review is anonymous.

If the reviewer had read the opening, he would have learned the problem with his critique quite quickly: ‘Despite the title, this book isn’t intended as an attack on the Wikipedia. In fact, I have been (and perhaps still am) an editor of the Wikipedia, and turn to it often as a convenient reference for topics where consensus is a foregone conclusion, since it is an outstanding aggregator of trivia.’ The problem with Wikipedia, for Bateman, is both different and several fold: ‘we have no way of knowing whether the information recorded there has been mischievously altered by someone’; ‘no-one who edits the Wikipedia has been credibly selected for expertise’; because of its anonymity ‘editorial obfuscation permits politics-as-war to infest the pages’ and, finally:

The Wikipedia, in inheriting the encyclopaedic project but then ‘outsourcing’ the referencing work to all comers, inherits serious conceptual problems that its community is perhaps only dimly aware of.

That the Amazon review unintentionally substantiates some of these problems in another website lends credence to Bateman’s wider thesis; that the problems on Wikipedia are more general than Wikipedia itself. That is, Wikipedia is merely the fascinating point of departure for an erudite and sophisticated examination of knowledge, how to debate, facts and many contemporary predicaments related to the crisis of expertise, political partisanship, scientism and philosophy. In the course of all of this Bateman draws extensively from Mary Midgley, Jacques Rancière, Immanuel Kant and to a lesser extent (but still interestingly) from other philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Alasdair MacIntyre.

There are engaging, clever and clear tangential theses about the need to abolish anonymity in peer review, the equality of intelligence, a multiverse view of reality with implications for metaphysics and epistemology and so on. Amongst all of this, two of the most recurring claims are, first, that ‘the truth always exceeds opinion, and can never be reduced to it’ and, second, that ‘facts are merely the residue of our knowledge-practices, and it is because our different practices can know in so many different ways that we live in the many real worlds of our multiverse.’ Bateman does not always fully resolve the problems he highlights, but in highlighting them he offers the invaluable service of a true philosopher: an improved level of clarity on a complex and contentious issue.


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