Thoughts on Epistemology and Authority

In a recent interview, Cory Doctorow discussed ontology, so I feel ok about pulling out some philosophy for this particular discussion.

One of the thoughts that’s been rattling around in my head lately is for an article related to the issues that librarians have with digital sources, specifically things like Wikipedia. The cry of most librarians is that digital sources (things like wikis, webpages, blogs) have no authority, no one standing behind them that lends them credence. Wikis are created by the masses, and can often be changed by anyone, and so, the argument goes, will simply devolve into the least common denominator of information.

But that assumes that knowledge is best judged by it’s origins, which is a highly debatable position. My favored epistemological position is a coherence theory of knowledge that is grounded in ontological realism. Knowledge (or Truth, as philosophers like to talk about it) is judged real when it is supported by a network of like facts. That is, if I were to attempt to convince people that I was 25 years old (by posting it on my website, putting an entry into the Wikipedia, etc…) that would only last so long as the surrounding pieces of knowledge weren’t known (no one checked my birth certificate, no one asked my mom, or many other ways of checking my claim). As soon as you start checking the coherence of my statement with other statements, it falls apart (and is thus now neither Truth nor Knowledge).

This speaks to basic information literacy skills. Blindly trusting one source, even if that source is the Oxford Dictionary of Biography is probably not a good idea, and why authority would naturally lend itself to information evaluation as a central criterion has always been beyond me. A criterion, certainly, but no more or less important than the other things surrounding the positited knowledge.

At some point all of this will come out in a nice academic article relating coherence theory to information evaluation as it pertains to reference work and library instruction. But that will take work and research. So for now, just the basic idea, captured and (hopefully) commented on.