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February 21, 2007

Should the digital revolution lower standards for truth?

Should students or scholars cite to Wikipedia as a reliable source? I admit that I have cited Wikipedia once or twice, though only to provide an informal definition and examples of a recent concept (for example, I recently pointed to it for emerging variants on spam such as spim, splog, spit, etc.).

The Middlebury College History Department has ruled that its
students may not cite Wikipedia in research papers or exams (via NY Times). This was prompted in part by six students who recently made the same error by relying on Wikipedia to study for a Japanese history exam.

My inclination is to agree. Rapidly decreasing costs of communications and computation gave us networked information resources, which provide much faster and cheaper access to vast quantities of information. A somewhat unexpected consequence has been that many people are confusing accessibility for reliability, and quote willy-nilly because "it's on the Internet". If more information is more readily available, wouldn't we expect to see people become more selective in picking sources? Certainly, I think that is what I think we teachers and scholars should promote: a higher, not a lower standard.

The leaders of the Wikipedia project do not apparently disagree. Founder Jimmy Wales is quoted in the NYT article as saying that students shouldn't rely on any encyclopedia as a citation for research. The following statement appears (at the moment!) on the meta-page Wikipedia:About,

While the overall [quality] trend is generally upward, it is important to use Wikipedia carefully if it is intended to be used as a research source, since individual articles will, by their nature, vary in standard and maturity.

Interestingly, one of the three core principles for Wikipedia content is that it be verifiable.

"Verifiable" in this context means that any reader should be able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source.

While, if scrupulously and professionally followed, this principle would ensure that we could rely on Wikipedia as a reliable source, I think the main point is different: every statement in Wikipedia, if correct, can be found in a more reliable source elsewhere. Careful students and scholars can search out the more reliable sources.

Indeed, many people I know (including me) advocate using Wikipedia primarily in this way: as an introduction or convenient overview of a topic, identifying facts or ideas that the scholar then verifies elsewhere, in more reliable sources.

Posted by jmm at 02:47 PM | Comments (0)

February 12, 2007

Lessig presentations

Prof. Larry Lessig, well-known scholar on Internet (and constitutional) law, is not only an excellent scholar but also an excellent public speaker. One of his signatures is his presentation style: he has developed an idiosyncratic use of slides to enhance, not detract from, his talks.

His style, in brief, is to use many slides with very little information on each: often one word or one picture. These serve to illustrate or punctuate what he is saying, sometimes as frequently as a few different slides for a single sentence. He typically places the white words in a crude typewriter font on a black background (sometimes reversing the colors for emphasis).

To make this work, Larry gives highly scripted presentations, with the slides tightly timed to his delivery. It's not a style that would work well, I'm pretty sure, for a classroom lecture or a scholarly presentation to a conference of new research, at least in many social science, engineering, or hard science fields. But for policy talks (which is Larry's primary forum in recent years), and some other presentations it is highly effective, and Larry has something of a cult following for this style.

To see a superb example of this (and a very interesting history / policy talk on network neutrality), Carl Malamud put together a Quicktime movie that combines a recent Lessig speech and his slides. Unfortunately, it's a 239 MB download, so use broadband and be patient. Even watching just five minutes is quite stimulating.

Posted by jmm at 12:09 PM | Comments (0)