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Featured DVD Review: Truth In Numbers

March 3rd, 2011

Truth In Numbers - Buy from Amazon

Truth In Numbers is a documentary about Wikipedia. And if you've never heard of Wikipedia... Welcome to the Internet. This must be your first time here. The film was made in 2006 but didn't get a release untill last year, while it came out on DVD in January. Four years is a long time for a movie to sit on a shelf, it's even longer when it is a documentary. Will this be a fatal flaw? Or can the film overcome this?

The Movie

The film can basically be broken up into two sections that are somewhat intermingled. Firstly, there's a look at the creation of Wikipedia and its founder, Jimmy Wales. The historical and technical side of things was more interesting than the look at Jimmy Wales as a person, but it is sadly the smallest segment of the film. (And the most out of date.) The vast majority of the film is talking heads discussing the site, how it is run, and its impact on society.

Much of the film was spent attacking and defending the veracity of Wikipedia as a source of knowledge. I do have an issue with the truthiness of the movie, to borrow a word from Stephen Colbert. Very early in the movie they mention an alleged deal between Google an Wikipedia to boost the rankings of its search results. The founder, Jimmy Wales, denies any such deal, and there doesn't need to be any. For those who don't know, one of the main criteria Google looks for when ranking a page is links. The more links going to a particular page, the higher its rank in a Google search, all other factors being equal. Every single Wikipedia page has links to so many other Wikipedia pages that there's a game people play, trying to find pathways from two completely separate topics. This interlinking from within Wikipedia will naturally boost its Google ranking. (Another factor is popularity, which also helps their ranking.) But this alleged deal is brought up with no other explanation offered as to the high rankings it gets on Google searches, which strikes me as a potential sign of bias in the documentary itself.

Secondly, when attacking the credibility of Wikipedia, they interviewed a lot of experts. The people who are defending Wikipedia are fewer and tend to be, well, non-professionals to be polite. It reminds me of the run-up the war in Iraq. Major news organizations would interview generals and politicians and academics who were pro-war, but when it came to critics, they would interview actors and singers. There were many generals and politicians and academics that were against the war, but they had a much harder time getting on TV to explain why. Viewers would then get the impression that all the "Serious People" were for the pro-war, and the only ones who were not were the dirty hippies from Hollywood. The same happens here. The majority of the "Serious People" think Wikipedia is bad, while the majority of those that support it are hopeless idealists.

Finally, every single complaint you can make against Wikipedia, you can also make against every other source of knowledge out there. Companies are editing Wikipedia to erase information damaging to their image? They've done that to local news stories. One of the "journalists" working for the New York Times said it wasn't their job to fact check what the government told them, only to report it. Errors in factual information? Many high school biology textbooks still have that stupid map of the tongue in them. Or watch Shattered Glass. People lying about their credentials? Do I even need to give examples of people in the media lying on their resume?

I'm not saying Wikipedia is perfect (it can't be, because I don't have a page) but I trust a well-referenced article on Wikipedia more than I trust anything coming out of corporate for-profit media.

The Extras

There are three deleted scenes. The first is on sock puppets, the second is on some of the less than ethical edits, and the final one is one new ways to look at who is editing what pages.

The Verdict

Truth In Numbers has a lot of interesting interviews with many people who have passionate views on Wikipedia, some positive and some negative. I do have some issues with the balance in the film, but it is still worth checking out. There are not a lot of extras on the DVD, so I would rate it as a rental.

One last point on something one of the anti-Wikipedia people mentioned, if anyone looks at the size of a Wikipedia article to determine relative importance, that person is beyond help. Bringing up the length of Pamela Anderson's entry as an attack is really just praising Wikipedia with faint damnation.

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