On my ride in this morning I had a mental conversation with my boy about encyclopedias in general and Wikipedia in particular. I figured it would be a good thing to add to my blog, so here she be…
There are no absolutes in knowledge. There is only the best picture at present. Open minded people grasp that immediately, others not so much. Any student of science will know that what is known absolutely one day might be completely contradicted the next (this doesn’t happen very often and when it does it sometimes takes an entire generation of old fogies to die off before the new, more correct (really, less incorrect) paradigm becomes accepted (see the back story on plate tectonics for a great instance of this effect)). Any and all sources of knowledge were assembled by people and all people have biases and agendas. Sometimes it is difficult or impossible to glean the biases or agendas of the author(s), so it is best to get into the habit of not trusting any single source of data and to seek multiple sources for comparison. This is not immune from issues either, but the diversity helps to get an improved impression of the agreed state of the art.
Knowledge is generally considered more likely to be ‘true’ (note that there is no universal truth for anything, only increasingly accurate measurements of physical constants and events) when there is a strong preponderance of the evidence in support of the most widely held theory/hypothesis. Even there, sometimes scientists build theories they know are inadequate to cover _all_ observed events because they can explain a great deal with partial theories and no one has yet developed a more encompassing theory (the divergence between gravity at the large scale and quantum events at the tiny scale is a great example; each aspect has very detailed, well developed theories with great predictive value, yet can’t explain the events in the other aspect).
With this as background, on to my original ‘conversation’. When you want to learn about something encyclopedias (do they even print them any more) such as Wikipedia are great places to _start_, but since they are assembled by humans, they are inevitably biased and have agendas that might be difficult to discern. Even when the biases or agendas are obvious, the source might still be useful, as long as a firm grasp of the bias/agenda is kept in mind. So, when people tell you that Wikipedia is a terrible source of information because so much is wrong, keep in mind that there is nothing that is really better. Even when you drill down to primary literature there is no escaping bias, so anything built on such a foundation must remain suspect. Also, be sure to ask those complaining about Wikipedia what their preferred alternative is, their response will surely be revealing their biases and/or agendas.
So, what can it mean to ‘know’ something? In school you are taught all sorts of things are ‘facts’ and not subject to dispute. At a young age it is almost impossible to get into the philosophy of life, the universe and everything, you simply lack the depth and breadth of knowledge to have meaningful discussions. So, at an early age it is almost a requirement that you accept what you are told as ‘truth’. For instance, 2+2 is nearly universally accepted to be 4 (in the numbering systems that support enough digits, of course); though there are bizarre edge cases (for example: when measuring lines drawn on a curved surface). When you are young it is best to ignore those edge cases or you might never learn anything because you spend so much time discussing the edge cases (the number of edge cases can, in principle, be infinite). Generally speaking most ‘facts’ are ‘true’ for the vast majority of the cases (say, 99.9% or better), so statistically speaking these ‘facts’ are, indeed, ‘true’. Some people never seem to acknowledge that ‘facts’ are not ‘true’ except in a broad sense and that those who assemble ‘facts’ and deem them ‘true’ inevitably have bias and agendas. I am hoping you can grow up to be the sort of person who realizes that while you can rely on commonly accepted ‘facts’ as being ‘true’ most of the time, some of the time (perhaps a very small amount of time!) these commonly held ideas/concepts are just plain wrong. I am hoping you will grow up to be curious about edge cases (in whatever excites you) and want to develop better, more encompassing, theories about life, the universe and everything. I find learning that I am wrong, while sometimes painful and frustrating, is more interesting in the long run because with better understanding of knowledge brings increased opportunities.