The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Thursday, April 9, 2009

How Wikipedia Fosters Reason and Objectivity


Last Wednesday, April 1st, I was the guest of Jimmy Wales at a MacArthur Foundation monthly President's Luncheon. This foundation, which gives out $1 million "genius awards," often to unsuspecting recipients, had invited Jimmy to tell them about Wikipedia.

As a result of that luncheon speech, I believe Wikipedia is the largest project in the world to foster rationality and objectivity, indirectly teaching people everywhere how to think better.


My friendship with Jimmy goes back to the '90's when he lived here in Chicago and belonged to my discussion club, the New Intellectual Forum. Money he earned on the Chicago options and futures exchanges enabled him to start Wikipedia.

Before the luncheon, MacArthur President Jonathan Fanton commented that it was the most well-attended President's luncheon he'd ever held - just about every staff member of MacArthur wanted to hear what Jimmy had to say. And it's not hard to understand why since just about everyone with a computer uses Wikipedia. Founded a mere 8 years ago, it is now the largest encyclopedia in history. According to a Nature study, it has a very high rate of accuracy.

Jimmy explained how Wikipedia works as a world-wide collaborative project, which can be edited by anybody able to access the Internet. Wikipedia's enormous reach so far includes over 2.8 million content pages in 253 languages. It's administered by a small paid staff of 25 people, and a large group of self-organized volunteers. You can read more about it here.

The organization's goal is to bring the sum of all human knowledge to every person on the planet with Internet access.

The results of this worldwide collaboration are astonishing and fascinating. For example:
  • Slum children in Delhi learn from it to pass their 11th grade exams.
  • The Dutch, a relatively small language group, have a high number of pages. Jimmy commented that he thinks it's because the Dutch love to argue - and that's why they have to be so tolerant!
  • Rather than reduce the need for travel, Jimmy has to go all over the world to understand Wikipedia's collaborators and their contexts. And they love meeting each other in person.
Wikipedia's writers are encouraged to be exact and factual. When opposing sides edit the pages of a contentious issue, the result tends to be an objective account of the subject, not wild opinion or flaming commentary.

That's because of the structure which Jimmy and his executive collaborators incorporated into the system. He said "There could have been a different outcome if I hadn't insisted on a certain structure of reasonable, fact-based, civil interchange instead of anything goes."

He'd seen plenty of "anything goes" in the early days of the Internet on Usenet groups. Flaming arguers tended to take over discussions, pushing the reasonable people out. For some years, he hosted the Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy, precisely to encourage civil interchange.

These experiences seem to have informed his judgment in developing Wikipedia. The result now is engagement of millions of people across the planet in rational and objective discourse. Through Wikipedia, Jimmy is spreading the habits of Enlightenment thinking to people and places which may never of heard of Aristotle's logic.

In addition, Wikipedia empowers the individual rather than authority, and encourages peaceful collaboration and trade (of information). The requirements of their engagement with Wikipedia is guiding millions to habits of mind and interaction which are the bedrock foundation of civil, free societies.

What a way to go Jimmy!

2 comments:

James said...

Aristotle said that "all men by nature desire to know". The empowerment of individuals in the pursuit of knowledge through Wikipedia is a tremendous boon to mankind. Thanks for sharing this information about Jimmy and his achievement.

Marsha Familaro Enright said...

You said it,Jim!