Saturday, December 12, 2009


I love Wikipedia. But we need to rethink our obsession with inserting "Citation Needed" next to every claim that someone else makes. For instance, I was just reading the entry on When the Levee Breaks and someone had written that "[t]he Led Zeppelin version [of the song] features a distinctive pounding drum beat by John Bonham, driving guitars and a wailing harmonica, all presumably meant to symbolize the relentless storm that threatens to break the levee". Seems on point to me. But then someone else added a "Citation Needed" at the end of that claim. What good, at all, would it do to cite someone else saying this same thing? Granted, there are going to be cases in which people insert completely ridiculous critical claims. But in such cases, shouldn't we just revise what they've said, rather than ask them to find a published critic who agrees with their ridiculousness?


nihiltres said...

The idea would be to limit what people can just make up. Wikipedia's policies against original research and for neutrality mean that citing sources whenever possible is highly desirable, particularly for subjective material like the description of music you identify.

If we just revise the material, we're back where we started, with some random person's opinion on how it should be worded. If instead we use more of a form like "Critic X praised 'foobar' while Critic Y found 'example' to be lacking", we introduce verifiable components that are objective (what someone said) rather than subjective (what we personally think). See also Cory Doctorow's take on the idea.

Charles P. Everitt said...

Thanks for responding. I think there's something right in what you say, but the question is about what it takes to justify the original observation about the artwork itself. That observation does not go from being "subjective" to "objective" (to use your terminology, which I myself think is riddled with deep philosophical confusions) just because someone else cites it!

Think about the following simple case:

Person A: Herbie Hancock's "Head Hunters" record exemplifies the worst sort of tendency in popular music, to take an authentic form of musical expression (e.g., funk) and try to make it "artistic" by making it more complex. But complexity, in itself, is neither necessary nor sufficient for artistic merit.

Person B: "Head Hunters" is not a good record (footnote: see what Person A said).

My point is that with regard to the aesthetic merit of "Head Hunters", Person B's comment is no less "subjective" than Person A's! It's true that Person B's comment contains a footnote to someone's else's comment, but all that that does it show that there is a very small amount of intersubjective agreement between A and B. It is, of course, "objectively" true that Person A said something similar to Person B, and the accuracy of the footnote depends upon this fact, but that, in itself, is irrelevant to the question of whether Person A's or Person B's judgments about "Head Hunters" are objective or subjective.

That said, you mentioned something I completely forgot, which seems decisive, and that's Wikipedia's policy against original research. Though, in response, part of me wants to say that the observation about "When the Levee Breaks" is so obvious (albeit on point), that it could hardly be called "research". But I realize that's grasping at straws. I'm going to go read the Cory Doctorow comment now.

Charles P. Everitt said...

Ouch, just read the Doctorow comment. Seems guilty of a rather glaring confusion.

Statement A: The Earth is flat.

Statement B: Statement A claims that the Earth is flat.

My point: Statement A does not go from being false to true just because Statement B is made about it.