Lowest common denominator — Wikipedia and its ilk
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2011/02/25
Peer review and other forms of regulating publication or broadcasting do not guarantee that what gets disseminated is reliable or truthful. On the other hand, the lack of any review guarantees that much untruth and much rubbish and much hate-inspired invective will be distributed; that has been copiously illustrated with innumerable examples on the Internet, for example, in Wikipedia and its ilk. For a book-length discussion of harm done by the Internet, see Elias Aboujaoude, Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality (W. W. Norton, 2011); for a synopsis, see New York Times Book Review, 13 February 2011, p. 17.
The phrase, “lowest common denominator”, originated in mathematics: it’s whatever number can be divided without remainder into the set of numbers under consideration.
In social matters, the phrase was adapted to mean what is shared by a great range of individuals or institutions. In that latter sense, there is often a tinge of associated disdain: what appeals to the masses is often regarded as less worthwhile than what is valued by the experts.
In politics, on questions relating to democracy, disagreements and controversies are of long standing: for instance, should elected “representatives” rubber-stamp the relatively uninformed wishes of their constituents, or should they use their own better informed judgment? Or, should voting be compulsory so that it is truly the “wish of (all) the people” that counts, or should those who can’t be bothered to vote be allowed to self-disenfranchise?
The case for compulsory voting has long been accepted in Australia; a fine is imposed if an eligible voter fails to vote. Perhaps the principle that every voice needs to be heard owes something to Australia’s history, of being founded as a prison colony and settled in the beginning largely by convicts who had served out their terms, people who had learned a very healthy distrust of authority as a result of being convicted and transported for such crimes as stealing a loaf of bread with which to feed their children.
Some benefits of compulsory voting were demonstrated after World War II. The unions were very strong. Union membership was required in many industries. There were many strikes as union leaders tried to achieve all sorts of ends, some of them political rather than in the best everyday interests of unionists as a whole, because several of the most powerful unions — dock workers, for example — were led by avowed Communists. As is quite usual in groups of all sorts, the most fanatical gain ascendancy because they are willing to put in the most sustained effort, by contrast to those of moderate view and temperament whose lives are in better balance and who, for whatever reason — “my vote can’t make a difference”, say — let others take leadership positions. The solution was to have compulsory universal voting by secret ballot in union elections, and the Communists lost control.
An acknowledged failing of the political system in the United States is that party insiders select candidates who are then not found particularly appealing by the electorate as a whole, as illustrated by a succession of conservative gatherings and Republican primaries.
It is therefore only to be expected that the openness of the Internet means that fanatics will gain control whenever there is no effective mechanism for sifting truth from lies. I’ve discussed this in the past in relation to Wikipedia, based in part on what I learned when a friend told me that a “bio” of me had been posted there. We soon found that there is no effective mechanism for getting the truth into Wikipedia if someone is determined to keep lies there. The established mechanisms require one to “negotiate” with anonymous people of ill will and ignorance, with ultimate decisions made by again anonymous individuals of questionable intellectual credentials. In my case, the “bio” is wrong on simple facts and easily checked chronology, despite attempts by several people to have those rectified.
I soon learned to ignore Wikipedia. Those who haven’t learned that it’s untrustworthy have to learn that for themselves. But the matter was brought back to my attention by the recent comment from artwest saying that my website was red-lined in “Web of Truth” (WOT). I had never heard of WOT. Google quickly corrected my ignorance, and I see that WOT is based on the same misguided premise as is Wikipedia, namely that a consensus among the lowest common denominator would bring reliability. What it brings in actuality is the lowest of the low, dogmatists oblivious to evidence and intent only on enforcing their own views.