Argumentum ad wikipedium and what the social sciences might learn

Sadly, the hallmark of a contemporary academic career has become the invention of a new term, whether or not the subject matter requires it.

Marc Chehab
1 November 2013

Go to any social science department on the planet and you will find that it is not allowed to use Wikipedia in your assignments. No matter how basic and idiotic the information, you may cite dodgy and outdated websites, but you cannot - ever! - cite Wikipedia. Why? Because academia is an exclusive club, and Wikipedia is not in it.

The argument given is that Wikipedia is qualitatively not up to the standards of a ‘proper’ academic encyclopaedia. This is bogus on two levels. First, the claim that Wikipedia articles have low quality is simply not true - for a balanced account of the evidence, see the ‘Reliability of Wikipedia’ entry on Wikipedia. There is hardly a systematic study that finds a stark difference between Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica; rather, the opposite is the case, they usually find a similarly low number of serious errors in both.

If one may venture to interpret some tendency into the available evidence, I would say it is that Encyclopaedia Britannica tends to have a better writing style and Wikipedia greater coverage.

Whether or not this tendency exists, and whether or not it is worth quarrelling over, it is certainly true that - compared to the use of other online material - Wikipedia is discriminated against and criticised for no demonstrable reason. Rather, the equivalent of an ad hominem argument is used, which only reveals ignorance about the workings of the platform. It is said that everybody can write Wikipedia, therefore, it cannot be good information, particularly since it is hostage to ‘non-expert writing’ and ‘vandalisms’. However, this allegation forgets the ‘Talk’ or the ‘View History’ link readily available at the top of every article which allows anybody to track the entire history of the generation of any article - an idea Britannica only introduced in 2010 (and obviously copied from Wikipedia, which we don’t mind). Those fallen victim to vandalisms, therefore, are actually themselves to blame for their uncritical handling of information - which is barely the trait of any aspiring social scientist anyway.

Given the ready availability of these two links, the dogmatic exclusion of Wikipedia from academia reveals a second point. As it stands, access to not only the article history, but also the discussions, disagreements and reasoning behind what counts as fact makes Wikipedia more transparent in its content generation than any of the traditional academic encyclopaedias. Disallowing students from using Wikipedia, then, is simply to distrust students’ ability to assess the quality of information ourselves. Instead, the level of quality assessment of information students are entrusted with is confined to using ‘respected’ sources handed down from professors and librarians. This is far off the mark of the critical thinking universities allegedly seek to inspire.

The two points mentioned, taken together, hint at the possibility that the ban of Wikipedia might have actually far less to do with Wikipedia itself, and much more to do with the social sciences. Let me share with you what might be called the ‘dirty little secret’ of the social sciences: We social scientists know full well that much of our jargon cannot be justified by its explanatory power. That is, we often use complicated words and concepts even though we know they shed little or no extra light on the subject matter - which, in normal language, means: much of our jargon is useless.

Indeed, we envy our natural scientist friends for their positions as respected experts with a complicated language that is justified and actually useful. Far from just deriving pleasure from talking in jargon, they express actual knowledge in their specialist language. They can even become ‘public educators’ who translate their specialist knowledge and jargon into readable English! How fancy!

In contrast, the knowledge we produce is often a lot more rudimentary and less scientific than our name tag leads you to believe. If you hear a social scientist waffling on about ‘structures of co-determination’ between ‘material forces’ and ‘ideational factors’ in ‘social subsystems,’ and you believe it sounds complicated, you are more correct than you think. Because not only does it sound complicated, but its point is to sound complicated – so that you do not realise that there is little or nothing behind it. It is a smoke screen of verbiage, aimed at making you feel stupid for even thinking about asking: “What the hell are you talking about?”

In an excellent piece on ‘Poisonous academics and their claptrap of exclusion’, Robert Fisk rightly laments this overly complicated - and I shall add over-complicating - language being used in contemporary social science. He cites a ‘French professor’ putting it quite bluntly and honestly to him in private: “If we don’t dress up what we want to say in this silly language, we are told we are being journalists.”

On the other end of the spectrum, we too employ promisingly concrete words to express actually rather fluffy concepts. Students of social science will know that lecturers have a marked tendency to use concretising adjectives or mechanistic language instead of the actual fluffy concepts they mean, even though – again - these words add no explanatory purchase, they just sound fancy. So, for example, instead of just saying culture shapes ideas about gender, which everybody with half a brain already knows, it is ‘concrete social processes’ or ‘social mechanisms’ doing the job - and if the lecturer is ambitious, this may even be part of an ‘overarching structure of exploitation’.

Again, the function of the language is to sound concrete. You could say the exact same in normal language: namely, that a great deal of what we think makes a woman a woman, or a man a man, are cultural ideas that we have learnt, rather than unchangeable facts about our biology. And the ‘structure of exploitation’ is also nothing more than the observation that these ideas, on average, benefit men.

I see two interpretations of this silly language and the Wikipedia ban: The nice one is that they happen because of a tension between the ‘social’ and the ‘science’ in social science. Science seeks to reveal constant laws in the world by continuously reassessing its own theories in the ‘wheel of science’. Maybe, there simply are no or only very few constant societal laws to uncover and the enthusiasm of social scientists leads them to interpret something into society that does actually not exist. The flight into the unfalsifiability that the silly language provides, then, might just be a way to protect themselves and their theories from the power of science, which would quickly uproot any proposed law not supported by evidence (which means, most theories proposed in social science).

In other words, maybe confining their efforts to understanding and correctly interpreting concrete mezzo-level events is simply not (scientific) enough for some social scientists, but maybe the object of our study (society) doesn’t permit them to do anything else.

The other, less nice interpretation of the silly language and the Wikipedia ban sees a tension between the ‘social’ and the ‘science’ too, but rather in the way that the social sciences are at their heart elitist. It is certainly not difficult to see some social science departments as modern Versailles: an extractive elitist institution in which aristocrats live off tax payers’ money, produce nothing in particular, and get bogged down in their little aristocratic quarrels which are meaningless to anybody outside.

The use and knowledge of fancy words and concepts are what makes you belong to the group in the first place - a bit like an aristocrat knowing his or her different wines. And to such an elite circle, the possibility that normal people can comprehend and question the validity of what is being said is abysmal - because it is a threat to one’s status.

I believe this elitism is apparent in the craze among academics for coining new terms. Here are a few examples of language innovation: “Ontological belonging”, “the shared unconscious”, “informational learning”, “high-modernism”, or “primary epistemics.” For an expanded selection, go to Google Scholar and search (with the inverted commas) for “what I call”. Surely, a social science living up to its scientific ideals would have no interest in further obfuscating the already complicated task of studying human societies. But, sadly, it seems as if the hallmark of a contemporary academic career has become the invention of a new term, whether or not the subject matter requires it.

Compare to this elitism moments when social science actually does live up to its scientific ideals: Just like good journalism, it cuts through political rhetoric like a knife through butter. A few examples include Steven Kull’s 2011 study, Feeling Betrayed, in which he digs through vast piles of opinion polls of the Muslim world and explains what they say about the roots of resentment towards the US and the nature of terrorism. Spoiler alert: They do not hate your freedom. Or, an article by Axel Dreher, Jan-Egbert Sturm, and James Raymond Vreeland published in 2009, ‘Global Horse Trading’, showing that poor countries which have a rotary seat in the UN Security Council and vote in line with the US are also more likely to receive a loan by the IMF with fewer conditionalities – a strange thing for an institution that likes to portray itself as apolitical. Or, finally, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff’s This Time is Different (2009) which  demonstrates – among many other things – that unhindered capital flows across economies and banking crises have long gone hand in hand.

It should come as no surprise that these studies are written in clear, accessible language. What they do is they digest vast amounts of evidence and reason transparently on how they reach their respective conclusions. There is simply no need to hide behind fancy verbiage.

Such a scientific social science, then, should not be afraid of Wikipedia, which exposes their in-group concepts to criticism by normal people. In fact, the mode of collaboration on Wikipedia is profoundly congenial to the spirit of science. It is an up-to-date repository of current knowledge, transparently constructed and re-constructed every day, while at the same time offering the option to see the history of any article and its state at any point in time. If anything, social scientists should embrace such a platform and contribute to it, rather than ban it. 

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