This essay, verifiable but not false, relates to limiting false information in Wikipedia. For years, Wikipedia's policy on verifiability had stated: "The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth". That statement has been viewed as claiming Wikipedia is, somehow, not concerned with truth. That is not the case at all. In reality, there are many ways in which Wikipedia seeks to present true information. This essay focuses on avoiding known falsehoods.
Multiple levels of truth
Among the issues to ponder, is the notion of multiple levels of truth, which are often ignored in many WP policies. An article should not state everything claimed by reliable sources. Of course, many outsiders have been alarmed to hear, "Wikipedia is not about truth, but verifiability". The reason for the alarm is the over-simplification about truth. In reality, truth is very important in Wikipedia, and editors must be sure an article is true, in many ways. There are several levels of truth to consider:
- True to its sources – An editor should not cite a reference source which does not support, or contradicts, the article text. A false reference is not acceptable.
- True to the facts – If five reliable sources repeat an incorrect fact, then that does not justify repeating a known falsehood. This often occurs when later news reports have corrected the early versions of events, which appeared in "5" major newspapers. An article should not repeat the now-known incorrect versions of events.
- True to the present – Editors should not be allowed to claim out-dated facts, such as: "The R.M.S. Titanic is a ship which sails weekly between the U.S. and England" or state, "The NYC World Trade Center has two large skyscrapers standing in lower Manhattan" (not after September 2001). Quoting from outdated sources is not acceptable.
- True to common sense – An article cannot claim, "All Americans think Hitler was evil" or state, "All marriages have rough periods", or any other issue which applies to all members of a vast group. There are limits to what is logically verifiable, even if stated in 17 sources. Text should not contradict general common-sense notions about a topic.
- True to balance – The overall text of articles should reflect the true balance, as to significance, in the world at large. Often, the data is sourced to recent research or to fact-checked news reports which provide current information. For example, to state, "Many people believe the Earth is flat" should not be used to give the impression that most people do not believe, today, the World is round. The proportion of text, in an article, should reflect the relative views of the educated public, at least those educated in the specific topic of the article.
- True to presentation – The placement of text, plus images or photos, in an article should present a true impression of the subject, not just in details, but in the top summary or overall structure of the article. An article's structure should not mislead readers into thinking known falsehoods or rare opinions are somehow reflecting the majority concerns about a topic.
Note that a major goal is to avoid "known falsehoods", and this goal often requires expertise in the topic of the article. Of course, some false information will slip through, simply because the "ultimate truth" is unknown or unknowable. Meanwhile, the chances of spotting false text are better for people educated in the topic, or by consulting experts about questionable ideas. Fortunately, some falsehoods are trivial to detect: if multiple sources contradict the article's text, then it probably is false text. The rare exceptions are most often the wrong facts in old, worldwide news reports, which repeat a false claim, over and over, until corrected by later, more detailed news reports.
Also, extreme, wild, controversial claims about a living person (WP:BLP) should be avoided, even when in multiple sources. Treat extreme claims as requiring extreme evidence, so Wikipedia is not used as a "rumor mill" spreading sensational text about people or events. Consider the alternative: imagine those extreme claims are later found to be false, and consider the harm done by spreading such false information. A good example would be a recent court verdict: perhaps wait 3-4 years before saying someone "is guilty" of anything (then adjudged not guilty).
Those are some issues which reveal the true complexity about why truth is an important concern to WP editors. Just because reliable sources claim something, in detail, does not justify stating it in Wikipedia. Some types of claims require extraordinary evidence, when stated in Wikipedia. We should consider if the text is true enough to be in Wikipedia, based on common-sense notions of the truth, and true balance, of current information as viewed by people educated about a topic.