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It Must Be True, Right?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 23, 2007

I see that long-time Wikipedia employee Larry Sanger is starting a rival service called Citizendium. (One suspects the emphasis is to be placed on Zen.) Sanger’s purpose is to provide an online encyclopedia that is properly vetted by experts, so that you can rely on it.

The whole concept of reliable mass information is, of course, dubious. Information and ideas and opinions are so inextricably linked that only those with a serious commitment to self-searching objectivity can break them down reliably. And because of differing interests and viewpoints, even an objective interpreter might well emphasize an aspect of a topic which is not the aspect you need to see and understand.

Editorial review is a good thing. Knowledgeable editorial review is even better. Each in its own way increases the likelihood of a basic level of quality in something submitted for publication. The world wide web, which eliminates the need for such review in many instances, is for that reason often littered with patently false information, bizarre opinions, and incredibly bad writing. But we’ve seen the same things elsewhere to a lesser degree, and even if the web fails to correct through editorial review, it corrects by presenting many alternative treatments of the same topic.

Wikipedia’s reputation has suffered of late because a major contributor and editor turned out to have no certifiable claim to knowledge about much of anything (though he was college educated), and because a recent entry falsely implicated a newspaper editor in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. To avoid such problems, Citizendium intends to employ a layered control system featuring an ethics pledge, a team of “constables” who review material and penalize violations of the code, and volunteer editors from academic and professional fields.

But even the best traditional encyclopedias contain inaccurate data and worthless opinions. The “widely accepted” version of something, even among experts, is not always true. And any author or editor, no matter how respected, can have axes to grind. In fact the entire culture producing an information resource can be characterized by both enormous blind spots and special pleading. For this reason, smart readers have always kept their critical faculties on alert when reading anything important. Critical thinkers develop an instinct for the implausible, and they independently check and verify information and ideas before they rely heavily on them.

Over time, critical readers learn which sources they can generally trust, and turn most frequently to these for information and instruction on topics beyond their personal expertise. Some very intelligent and critical people, I have no doubt, use our web sites, Catholic Culture and Catholic World News, in just this way. But long experience has taught me that our users don’t suspend their critical judgment even when they are using the sources of information we at Trinity Communications provide.

That’s a good thing. They let us know if we make a mistake, and they rightly expect us to make corrections. As far as I know, Citizendium is a good and useful thing as well. But don’t be fooled. There is never a guarantee of accuracy even among those committed to truth. So, really, how much chance does mass-produced information have?

An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:

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