The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, January 16, 2005

Scepticism and online content

There's a big discussion on about the credibility of Wikipedia: a December 31 2004 piece by Wikipedia pioneer Larry Sanger frames the issue as a conflict between the purs et durs quasi-anarchists currently in charge and an, as yet mythical, counter-force ensuring that proper deference is given to expert opinion.

It's apparently a Pinocchio question: the Sangerite tendency want Wikipedia to be a real encyclopedia - the other mob don't seem that bothered.

The details of the dispute, as you may have surmised, have as much interest to your humble blogger as the Schleswig-Holstein Question. But the general question of the reliability of online content, and (a different question entirely) that of expectations of reliability of such, are well within my bailiwick.

Sanger cites an AP piece (December 8) on college students' use of online material:
Georgia Tech professor Amy Bruckman tried to force students to leave their computers by requiring at least one book for a September class project.

She wasn't prepared for the response: "Someone raised their hand and asked, "Excuse me, where would I get a book?"'

The piece does contemplate the possibility the guy or girl was a smartass. But it has an array of commendably on-the-record contributions from academics expressing their concern about the credulity and lack of intellectual curiosity [1] of their students when confronted with online material:
In a study on research habits, Wellesley College researchers Panagiotis Metaxas and Leah Graham found that fewer than 2 percent of students in one Wellesley computer science class bothered to use non-Internet sources to answer all six test questions.

(Isn't the topic a confounding factor? Why didn't they research the habits of, say, history students?)

Is this a general lack of scepticism, or one specifically found in evaluating online content - a the photograph cannot lie-type artefact? Is it affected by the student's social and educational background? How has it changed over time - the Web has only been going for a decade, after all.

There must be studies which look at such things, but I can't find them! There is work on perceived reliability of online information, but nothing detailed.

For instance, a 2003 UCLA study (PDF) asks the question How Much Of The Information On the Internet Do You Think is Reliable and Accurate?

But doesn't contemplate that the concept of reliability varies with intended purpose: compare checking out a fan site to find out a favourite actor's favourite colour and a travel site to check whether your flight to Singapore is late.

What about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against John Kerry: was the proportion of those who believed the allegations greater for the group who heard about them online compared to those who saw them on TV or read them in newspapers?

A further factor is the book v online dichotomy: the vast majority of books are not available online now, but it's quite likely that this will change in the next ten years [2]. And book-shaped hardware will no doubt become available and affordable. So, no more dichotomy. Perhaps.

  1. When used about Bush by Dems, code-word for dumb. Here, I think, rightly used.

  2. What with the Million Book Project (apparently stuck at around 15,000), the BNF's Gallica, the Google project, and others, no doubt.

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