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Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and it goes without saying that our goal is to produce a quality encyclopedia. The question is, how? In the early years of Wikipedia there was no real answer to this question for the obvious reason that there is no one right way; indeed, there may be an infinite number of right ways, impossible to codify. The reason for this lack of a clear and simple answer gets to the heart of what makes Wikipedia different from other encyclopedias: ours is produced through a wiki process—an open, practically anarchic social environment.
In other words, it is not Wikipedia policies that have functioned to assure the quality of the information included in articles—it is our being a wiki community, in which everyone in the world (i.e. people having a wide range of knowledge) can add to the encyclopedia, and everyone in the world (including many people with good judgment) can delete things, that is meant to produce a quality encyclopedia ... this is the whole gamble of the project, the dare to be wiki and have faith that the result will be quality content, that distinguishes us from other encyclopedias.
Policies have never and should never police content quality, rather, they provide the framework and a safe environment for an anarchic wiki community to function.
This is why the core policy is neutral point of view: a large heterogeneous community can work together because none of us will use Wikipedia to forward his or her own views, and because people with contradictory views will not paralyze an argument over who is right (who knows the truth, the objective reality). NPOV does this by insisting that we provide an account not of the truth or objective facts but of notable views. This approach means that we present a view as just that, a view. In some cases (for example, special relativity) there may be virtual uniformity of view among those who study, talk, and write most about a topic — but we nevertheless make clear that this is the prevailing view, not the "truth." In other cases there may be a great diversity of notable views, and we strive to ensure that articles provide a fair account of those views.
These views may be our own but must not be unique to ourselves or limited to a small group of which we are a part ... thus giving rise to our no original research (NOR) policy. Since views of editors (including views that are synthetic!) cannot be privileged, they must be attributable to some reliable source independent of ourselves or our group ... thus giving birth to our verifiability (V) policy. Many people reasonably see NOR and V as two sides of the same coin: do not do x, instead do y. (Whether or not the community comes to agree about this will determine whether attribution remains a policy.)
It is the wiki nature of the project that makes the distinction between "attributed" and "attributable" important. Each article is a product of the community, not a single author—because we know that multiple strengths will outweigh multiple weaknesses. One will add what they know to an article but of course it is not everything; someone else adds more. You add one view, someone else adds another view. Similarly, you add an attributable claim, someone else adds the attribution—this is the very nature of collaboration which is at the heart of Wikipedia. In the case of controversial edits, it is reasonable to ask someone who has added a controversial claim to provide the source, or the claim may be removed. In the case of non-controversial edits, it is reasonable for several editors to collaborate in identifying the principal sources.
In short, policies may help educate newbies as to how to collaborate most fruitfully with others on articles. And policies serve as important points of reference in mediating or arbitrating disputes. For this reason, there is a direct relationship between the degree of controversy of an edit and the need for the strictest application of a policy. Put another way, in effect editors rely on policies to resolve debates only when the wiki process of collaboration has broken down. When the wiki collaboration is working – when people with diverse views are able to reach their own compromises and move an article forward – it is sufficient that edits are consistent with the spirit of the core policies, which may be applied with some flexibility; it is only when an edit war escalates beyond the possibility of editors reaching good-faith and mutually satisfying compromises that policies must arbitrate the dispute and in these cases, policies must be applied strictly.
But it is our commitment to the open, collaborative nature of this project that distinguishes it: the gamble that a high-quality encyclopedia will be a wikipedia.