February 4, 2019


My middle school-aged daughter came home from class with instructions for a history report that included the phrase, "Do not cite Wikipedia as a source."  She explained that her teacher all but forbade them from using Wikipedia over concerns that the site is not adequately reviewed by objective experts and could not be relied upon for accuracy.  I remember similar warnings about the voluminous printed encyclopaedias from teachers in my middle school days, though I suspect their primary concern was plagarism from what was (at the time) one of the few truly comprehensive informational resources available to us.

Source: Amazon.com

I was likely in college before I realized that all history is written from the perspective (read "bias") of the author and that none of it can be relied-upon to be truly objective.  That said, I disagree with the idea that sources like Wikipedia should be avoided. Rather, I tried to explain to my daughter that, becuase they contain such a huge amount of well-organized information, web sites like Wikipedia can be extremely useful tools for any serious researcher to identify specific aspects of historical information that can then be researched independently, using other (preferably original) sources.  The argument was lost on her, as the "Wikipedia = Bad" bias had sunk in.  But it got me thinking...

We see, hear and read a lot of information on a daily basis.  None of the sources of that information--whether a newspaper, a web site, a book, social media, or even the voice of a friend across the fence--can be assumed to be free from bias and subjectivity.  Think about the last time you relayed information to someone (e.g., about an occurrence at your office).  Don't you recall that you had some sort of "bent" or angle on the story, meaning that you told it with your opinions in mind?  And didn't you hope that, by relating the story, the person to whom you were speaking would likewise come to see the event the same we you did? 

Very few of the influences in our lives can be categorized as "truly objective."  And yet we don't stop reading the paper or listening to our friends.  Rather, we accept a certain level of opinion or bias exists in all our exchanges of information.  The problem, I think, is that we often fail to take that extra step to confirm (or disprove) the information we receive and sometimes even act on it.  If a friend, for instance, say something negative about another individual, we will often allow that comment to color our perception of that person forever, rather than take the time to truly find out of the friend's comment was accurate or not.  And if not, why not. 

That, to me, is the danger of all the "Wikipedias" in our lives.  We can't rely on any one source to direct our actions or shape our opinions.  We must always seek to expand our abilities to see the world from other points of view.  Without doing so, we'll never reach common ground.

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