Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Authority? What's That?

Tim Bray's latest blog entry raises a question I expect as a teacher and IT Coordinator I will hear more and more: how can we be sure that the info on a website is reliable and authoritative?

First, let me quote from Tim's blog:

Let’s ask an interesting real-world question that real-world people might ask: for each of the ten provinces of Canada, what is its population? Let’s suppose you’re not a Canadian insider who knows that the Source Of All Numbers is Statistics Canada. So, you could go to Wikipedia, which would be easy and quick. From East to West you’d look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newfoundland, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Edward_Island, and, well, I’ll stop there, because the pattern is obvious. On each of those pages you’ll find the population, along with a lot of other basic facts, presented crisply and legibly, no further steps required. ¶But you know, that’s just the Wikipedia; some joker might have gone in and changed the number by couple hundred thousand up or down, just for fun. Wouldn’t you be better off going to a source with some real authority?

ongoing · Wikipedia: Resistance is Absent

Tim goes on to explain how he then searched on the government websites of the various provinces, and was confronted by lousy web design, URIs that only a machine or an ├╝ber-geek could conceive (for example, www.gov.on.ca/ont/portal/!ut/p/.cmd/cs/.ce/7_0_A/.s/7_0_252/_s.7_0_A/7_0_252/_l/en?docid=EC001035 -- wha...?) and he concludes that "Wikipedia is going to win". Given his original premise -- if you want to have authority on the Web, you have to show up on the Web... And those who ought to enjoy more authority than Wikipedia aren’t [emphasis mine] -- it seems safe to conclude that Tim isn't entirely happy with this situation.

So let me make a few observations.

Tim is probably right in thinking that far too many people would read the Wikipedia articles and be satisfied with that, not bothering to check further. Students often tend to do this. Mine would if I let them... but I don't.

I've taken to telling my students that websites are not "nuggets of information" waiting for them to come and pick them up, but signs on a trail leading to the "real answer". The trail metaphor is a handy one, since it suggests that they have to continue on, following the links, occasionally doubling back from dead-ends to re-find the trail, and so on.

Some of my students would have certainly found the stats Tim wanted much faster than Tim -- they would have scanned through the Wikipedia article's links and found at the bottom this link: StatCan 2001 Census which is sort of where Tim ended up, but via a longer route.

Then there's the issue of people changing entries in Wikipedia. There's no question, people do weird and stupid things, and changing entries in Wikipedia is one of them. But an even stranger thing also happens -- people fix the mistakes! They get very defensive about it. And it's why Wikipedia works.

But there's one phrase in Tim's blog that really stands out for me: Wouldn’t you be better off going to a source with some real authority? [Emphasis mine]

Define real authority. (Actually, I might pose this as a question to a senior Computing class.) Government websites? (Is that laughter in the background?) Newspaper columns? University sites? Books? (Remember Margaret Mead vs Derek Freeman? I won't even mention Derrida.)

I know that for many, the suggestion that "real authority" is largely ephemeral will ring of heresy. But I'm part of a generation that has grown up realising that the "authorities" all too often spoke (and still speak) a lot of BS.

I would like to think that students who are now growing up with the Web, like my own daughters, will turn out to be fairly savvy when it comes to evaluating info from the Web, from the media, from wherever. They'll know that there's a need to check and cross-check and evaluate and never take any of it for granted. And they may not need to know how to spell authoritative.

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