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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @

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June 15, 2005

Fact or Fiction, Wikipedia or Books?

Posted by Ernest Miller

The New York Times has an op-ed declaiming that the boundary between "truth" and "fiction" is disappearing (The Interactive Truth). Stacy Schiff takes to task non-objective news, citizens' journalism and Wikipedia:

This week The Los Angeles Times announced its intention to exile the square and stodgy voice of authority farther yet. The paper will launch an interactive editorial page. "We'll have some editorials where you can go online and edit an editorial to your satisfaction," the page's editor says. "It's the ultimate in reader participation," explains his boss, Michael Kinsley. Let's hope the interactive editorial will lead directly to the interactive tax return. On the other hand, I hope we might stop short before we get to structural engineering and brain surgery. Some of us like our truth the way we like our martinis: dry and straight up.
Geez. That's an impressive argument. What, the LA Times Editorial page was "Truth" before Kinsley decided to mix things up a bit? Now, I'm a bit skeptical about parts of Kinsley's experiment (Wikitorials: A Dubious Idea from the LA Times), but not because I think the LA Times will be dethroning "truth."

Oh, and let's make ridiculous comparisons between interactive editorials and structural engineering and brain surgery. You know, because editorial pages are so closely related to the processes by which we progress in structural engineering and brain surgery.

Kinsley takes as his model Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute, and which grows by accretion and consensus. Relatedly, it takes as its premise the idea that "facts" belong between quotation marks. It's a winning formula; Wikipedia is one of the Web's most popular sites. I asked a teenager if he understood that it carries a disclaimer; Wikipedia "can't guarantee the validity of the information found here." "That's just so that no one will sue them," he shrugged. As to the content: "It's all true, mostly."
At least Wikipedia is honest. Are there any such guarantees in books? Do I get my money back if a book has a factual error? Judging from the errata sheets and books that take each other to task, I would say "no." Isn't "It's all true, mostly" a pretty similar standard to the one we hold for books?

I sometimes wonder what these people would have to say if the new technology for information creation and distribution arriving had been "books."

Unlike Wikipedia, books are written by a single author who is likely blind to their own personal bias and limited knowledge. Unlike Wikipedia, books aren't subject to peer review and revision by others. In fact, books aren't easily revised. Once an error makes it into a book you can fix future editions (not easily, but you can), but you can't fix the books that have already been printed. Consequently, unlike Wikipedia, books enthrone error. Once printed that error can sit waiting to ensnare an unwitting reader years, even decades, down the road. Furthermore, books certainly cannot keep up with rapidly changing fields of endeavor. At best, the very best, they're months out of date when published.

You know, if someone was given the tabula rasa choice between Wikipedia and books to get facts, I'm not so sure books would win.

What is new is our odd, bipolar approach to fact. We have a fresh taste for documentaries. Any novelist will tell you that readers hunger for nonfiction, which may explain the number of historical figures who have crowded into our novels. Facts seem important. Facts have gravitas. But the illusion of facts will suffice. One in three Americans still believes there were W.M.D.'s in Iraq.
Perhaps it isn't bipolar. Perhaps it is better method of getting closer to facts and truth. It's messy and there is a lot more disagreement, but we might be better off for it.

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blogging and Journalism


1. Seth Finkelstein on June 15, 2005 09:53 AM writes...

Somehow, I'm vaguely reminded of the quote:

BULLWINKLE: If you can't believe what you read in a comic book, what can you believe?

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2. Taran on June 19, 2005 01:37 PM writes...

This is the same New York Times that apologized for the Iraq War coverage, right?

Truth is - if they weren't worried about it, they would not write about it and make it news. Instead, they write about it to make it news with their spin, hoping to make it fail before it begins. Very, very sad, really. Pathetic.

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