[citation needed]: on truth and trust

A clever Wikifitti artist recently hatched a real world mash-up inspired by Wikipedia’s ubiquitous quality-control phrase, [citation needed]. The phrase was printed on stickers and cheeky citizens pasted them next to bold and outrageous statements, particularly in advertisements, in order to demand, albeit mockingly, some reputable and factual evidence for those claims.

Burgers built with what you love [citation needed], photo by mmechtley licensed under CC BY-SA. The phrase [citation needed] is a brilliant and subversive call for truth in our daily lives. It addresses the civic obligation to back up one’s assertions with legitimate source material. In the context of the stickers, it is an apt real world analogue lifted from Wikipedia’s discussion pages. [citation needed] reminds us that we have the ability, if not the obligation, to participate in our “real” physical space, just as Wikipedians do online, to both support our own statements, and, in turn, challenge any unfounded proclamations we encounter. [citation needed] stickers are an edit function of meatspace.

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Beyond its role as tongue-in-cheek protest, [citation needed] encourages us to consider the sources of our information. It is a great epistemological investigation into what we know and how we know it. What statements do we acknowledge, accept, or even perpetuate? Where do our beliefs come from? What information contains “truthiness,” and where does it originate and how is it transformed?

speaktruthiness, image by stricklin_family licensed under CC BY. As noted by Stephen Colbert, sometimes the easiest way to convince yourself of something, to believe something is true, is to consult a trustworthy, dependable source of information. Like your gut. After all, “That’s where the truth lies.” On the one hand, [citation needed] does indeed evoking the sometimes circular form of epistemology that is academic citations. It hinges on the notion that if you gather and point to enough respected sources, your assertion is valid. It builds upon the model of a “citation currency,” which gives more merit to frequently cited sources, which in turn helps them gain more merit. In the digital world, this appears as trackbacks and the like. In academic circles, it’s about citation counting in journals. The criticism I see in the citation currency model, however, is that too much weight is giving to the mere number of references, and not to objectivity or thorough review. In this manner, a statement is neither true nor false, but linking makes it so. The more interesting side of [citation needed] is to me its more subtle challenge: to define where exactly our truth comes from. Where did you get your information? Why do you believe it is accurate? What is the role of trust in acknowledging a source as accurate, as true? How do truth and trust reinforce or undermine each other?

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extensive philosophical digression.

Well, there was going to be a rather winded example to illustrate what I consider the necessary interdependency of truth and trust. But, alas, internet attention span is short, and I’m please if you’ve made it this far. Perhaps for another day…

So to conclude abruptly, truth and trust interrelate in that they complement each other by delineating and then anchoring our perception of reality. To accept a statement as true, you commit one of the greatest acts of trust. You indeed say, “Yes, I agree with this statement. Therefore, I align my reality to it, and it in turn shapes my perceptions, my truth.” What can demonstrate the link between truth and trust more than that?

Ok. Nevertheless, regardless of the philosophizing above, there is at least one clear and indisputable lesson we can gather from this post. That is, no matter what you accept as true, never, ever trust advertising. [citation needed]

5 comments

  1. Peter · April 1, 2008

    The text shows me I have to improve my english :)

    Nevertheless the action reminds me of the bubble project. Very funny!

  2. thornet · April 1, 2008

    @Peter: this post also taught me to break ambitious topics like truth and trust into much more manageable pieces. lol.

    Thanks for the bubble project link. Reminds me of all the times I scribbled mustaches and compromising speech bubbles on newspaper photos. Ah, endless Sunday afternoon entertainment.

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