Academic Views on and uses of Wikipedia: A Conversation with gnovis Contributor Firat Soylu, Part One

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Firat Soylu is a doctoral candidate in Instructional Systems Technology and Cognitive Science at Indiana University Bloomington. Last Spring, gnovis published Firat’s article, Academic’s Views on and uses of Wikipedia. I spoke with Firat about his research background and his experiences working with gnovis.

This is the first part of my conversation with Firat. You can catch part two tommorow, right here at gnovis:

Firat, I was hoping to start by having you explain your research interests. Specifically, what do you study? How did you become interested in researching cognitive science and technology?

I am generally interested in embodied cognition and its implications in other relevant fields, like learning, instructional design and human-computer interaction. We have long disregarded the role of the body in higher thinking. Think about the Cartesian duality of the soul and the body. We have inherited a modified version of this as the mind and body duality and thought that human body and our simple bodily interactions have no effect in how we think. I think the metaphor “the machine with a ghost in it” explains our conventional perception pretty well. Of course this approach affected our practices in other fields like education and human-computer interaction. Educational practices focused on some vague “cognitive gain” while consistently treating learners as creatures without bodies, with only minds. The same thing applies to human-computer interaction. Look at how we interact with a conventional computer. The interaction entails only two gestures: moving the mouse and pushing keys on the keyboard. Compared to the richness of how two individuals interact – think about all the gestures and sounds involved in human to human interaction – the way we currently interact with computers is quite dry in terms of the modalities and gestures involved. I believe that research in embodied cognition has the potential to revolutionize other relevant fields, like education and HCI, and I want to be a part of it. I really believe that acknowledging the role of body in our thinking will help to solve many of the problems we are facing today. This is partially why I am interested in doing cognitive science research: it is a field with great implications in every aspect of human life.

Your piece for the journal was extremely interesting to me. As a former instructor teaching English to college freshman, I struggled with how much to allow my students to use Wikipedia as an academic tool. What is it about web 2.0 platforms like Wikipedia that makes it so hard for teachers like me to trust their students to use the technology both ethically and correctly?

I think the major problem is that, like many other Web 2.0 platforms, the voice of the author vanishes in Wikipedia. When we read something or hear someone speaking on the radio we imagine a personality behind that voice. Based on how we relate to this imaginative personality we interpret what is said in the narrative. In most Wikipedia articles there is no author’s voice. The most you can imagine is a machine-like collective being citing facts; the voice of everyone. Jaron Lanier calls this the “hive mind” and claims that this is one of the dangers of Web 2.0 technologies: the death of the individual voice. This is an inherent problem with any platform where knowledge is generated collectively without particular emphasis on the identity of the contributors. One may say, “You do not know the name of the authors in a Britannica entry too”. That’s correct, but you know that the Britannica entry was written by a specialist and was edited by a committee. I think what makes Wikipedia problematic, compared to traditional encyclopedias, is that it does not prioritize expert opinion. Articles can be written by anyone. As long as you conform the content writing policies you are good. This is especially problematic when the article is about something that is more open to discussion and less fact-based. In this case the Wikipedia contributor needs to decide which perspectives are more important than others (Neutral point of view policy requires authors to mention all major perspectives and some minor ones). The university professor may have a different idea than the high school student as to what is more important in regard to that topic. Then again it is a little heart breaking that being a university professor, or a specialist, is not acknowledged in the Wikipedia community. You do not have a star on your nickname because you have been teaching and doing research on a certain topic for years.

These issues also relate to why it is hard for teachers to allow students use Wikipedia. First, as an academic, you are not sure if the information given in Wikipedia is reliable (although there is evidence showing that Wikipedia is as reliable as traditional encyclopedias). Second, no one can guarantee that the information students cite today will be there tomorrow. This makes it particularly difficult to cite Wikipedia. Third, most academics do not know how Wikipedia works. They do not know about the content guiding policies. Most of them might be thinking that people can freely post their opinions on Wikipedia, which is wrong.

One final problem is that the philosophical foundations of the academia and Wikipedia are at odds. Although Enlightenment proposed the idea of knowledge for everyone by everyone, positivism modified it as knowledge for everyone by an elite group situated at universities. In this sense values of Wikipedia are closer to what was originally proposed in Enlightenment.

How would you advise students to approach using a website like Wikipedia for their coursework?

I am a student and I use Wikipedia daily. I never cite Wikipedia in my papers (except when it is about Wikipedia!) or make a final judgment about an issue based on a Wikipedia article, but I use it to have an initial view on the topic. I think Wikipedia is one of the wonders of Internet. It gives me confidence on humanity to see that thousands of people with very different backgrounds can come together, contribute to a knowledge base on everything and the result is not garbage, but, on the contrary the most comprehensive encyclopedia on earth. Therefore, I advise students to use Wikipedia, to contribute to it and to advocate for it. One final advice, to both academics and students, is to take a look at the content guiding policies so that you know what you are dealing with and how the information you read is created.

Do you ever use Wikipedia for your studies? If so, how do you use it?

I do actually. Especially when I am studying something that I don’t have a strong background in. For example, I have been interested in phenomenology recently. I read the Wikipedia articles on Phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty, Husserl and Heidegger. Then I started reading the book Phenomenology of Perception by Merleau-Ponty. Reading the articles on Wikipedia led me to the most prominent philosophers and their works on phenomenology. However, as someone who is struggling with a dissertation, it was not pleasant to learn that Phenomenology of Perception was Merleau-Ponty’s doctoral dissertation.