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Monday, May 21, 2007


Deciding the truth by vote


Here's an interesting article from someone who's had it up to here with Wikipedia. The point he makes is a very simple one: if, as per Wikipedia rules, you listen to idiots with as much respect as you listen to experts, you will not get an accurate result.

Now, I like Wikipedia. But then, I don't get involved in its politics. I just look stuff up - specifically, I look up pop culture references, expecting them to be pretty accurate; with anything else, I expect it to be very broadly accurate but quite possibly misleading.

Really, I'd prefer to consider it actually accurate.

The policies that he outlines sound to me like honest attempts, but I feel like they're missing something. It's all very well to believe in human potential, to think that the average man may be as able to understand something as much any scholar. He might well be - if he's prepared to study as much as a scholar. If he isn't, then he just knows less. And if someone knows less, they're less qualified for the position of guardian-of-public-knowledge.

Wikipedia seems to have the romantic idea of a lone genius, stifled by stuffy experts, getting to voice his views freely. Expert credentials don't get you any standing, meaning that you can't overrule new thinking just because it's ahead of your own research.

It's a nice idea. But the trouble is, experts also are there to write off cranks*. If you debar genius-blocking, you also rule out crank-blocking. And cranks are more common than geniuses.

There's also the fact that it's not just experts who are conservative. Experts didn't support Galileo immediately? Well, perhaps not. But neither did anyone else. I'm prepared to bet that Galileo's controversial theories weren't accepted because they were put to a public vote; they were accepted because experts who actually knew something about the subject took a thoughtful look at them and decided he had a point. If he'd been forced into consensus with everyone who felt like taking up the issue, however little they knew about science, his views would never have got anywhere. Democracy doesn't give license to Galileos; the ignorant can vote them down. Free speech for everyone means one genius and ten thousand idiots get to raise their voices in debate. Who will be heard?

The problem is, often cranks are more aggressive in arguing. I remember once getting into a quarrel with a woman in a supermarket; she pushed her basket ahead of mine on the conveyor (I was ahead of her in the queue), and when I objected, she went for me with surprising vehemence. I'm sure many of you have had a similar experience: it went to and fro, to and fro, and after a while I started thinking, 'What's the point of arguing with this woman? She's so aggressive she's never going to give up, and I don't really care what she thinks about me.' So I gave up. If a scholar finds himself arguing with an aggressive ignoramus online, eventually he's going to think, well, this guy's wrong but it's only a website and I've got better things to do. Scholars, after all, are part of a community that verfies and corrects itself; they have good reason to think that they're right. A crank doesn't have that advantage; he has a much greater emotional need to convince people.

Facts aren't a matter of consensus. If you compromise half-way between someone who's right and someone who's wrong, or between someone truthful and someone dishonest, you will not get the right conclusion. To make consensus work, everybody has to be acting in good faith - and the sad thing is that if you throw a debate open to the entire world, then that means that bad-faith people can contribute. And if you don't have some kind of block to that, they can spoil it.

Wikipedia's argument goes thus:

We edit together in a spirit of mutual respect and equality. "I am a PhD, so stop arguing", for example, would not be a good approach. Reasoned discourse does not require credentials.

Well, fine, except when people refuse to show mutual respect. And while 'I am a PhD, so stop arguing' isn't an argument, 'I won the Nobel Prize for my work in this field and you've only read two introductory guides' is, to my mind, quite convincing. The thing is, reasoned discourse may not require credentials, but many cranks don't use reasoned discourse, they use bald assertion, which forces it down to a contest of word-against-word. You can't reason with a flatly incorrect statement, because there is no logic to engage with; all you can do is say that it's wrong, and if you can't cite greater expertise, there's no way of proving that your assertions are more likely to be sensible. Of course, people can cite false credentials, but that's a different problem and can be handled differently.

And besides, if someone says 'I'm a PhD so boo sucks to you', it's perfectly possible for a disputant to come back with 'That's not an argument, and you haven't addressed my point.' It's not that credentials are inherently worthless in proving a point, it's that they can be misused - and any layman can see when that's happening and correct it, without needing rules about never using them.

Meanwhile, someone who's right will probably prevail over experts by the force of their arguments. Experts don't want to preserve the status quo, they want to improve it. As Bob Altemeyer says in chapter 4, p 122, of his excellent The Authoritarians, 'Orthodoxy has a big bulls-eye painted on it in science.' The best way to impress people in academia is to say something they haven't heard before. If someone is obviously intelligent and has a lot of material to back up their claims, they'll probably get a hearing. Even if experts don't like what they're saying, they'll listen to it carefully: that just makes it a serious threat that needs to be challenged seriously. I really don't think that being an amateur puts you outside the gates of acceptable scholarship, not if you can prove your points.

Scholars aren't the enemies of the people. They are the people. If they differ from the average person, it's usually that they're a little smarter and a little better-informed. These are not bad things.

I like having an online encyclopedia. But I'd rather have one I could trust to be accurate. As it stands, I'll trust Wikipedia pretty thoroughly if I want to check the cast of a science fiction movie or an American junk food, but for anything that requires definite knowledge, I have to reach for the salt bowl and take a hefty pinch every time I read anything. Which is a shame. I don't have a set of encylopedias at home, and even if I did, they wouldn't be regularly updated; I'd love it if I could easily access accurate knowledge. Instead, I'm not sure of a lot of what I can learn. Which is possibly good for my negative capability, I suppose.

I like Wikipedia. But I'd like it a lot more if it didn't have lots of rude, aggressive people on it. It's a sad thing how much aggression the Internet has brought out of the shadows.

* It seems, in retrospect, kind of funny in a sad sort of way just how incredibly detailed the Wikipedia entry for 'crank' is. Really surprisingly so, if you're a newcomer. It somehow raises the suspicion that the people who wrote that entry knew from personal experience what they were talking about...

I am reminded of a quote though I have no clue where I picked it up from...I realize it is politically oriented, but it seems to address the issue in a roundabout way. It goes something like this:

"The biggest argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

Meaning to say that the man(or woman)-on-the-street might be hailed as important and valuable to the political process, but how many of them really have any clue as to what's going on in the upper echelons of government or take an active part in all the bill-passing and budget swapping? Parallel this to our handling of knowledge, and yea, you've got a larger population handling most of their day-to-day brain functions on a wide basis of assumptions and hand-me-down education that makes a lot of people susceptible to the same flawed thinking, urban legends, or scientific misconceptions. I am also reminded of a billboard ad I saw one day that stated, "Ten million people can't be wrong" (I think it was for some t.v. show, or maybe a cellphone service). My response? Oh, yes they can, and most often are.
I believe that would be Churchill.
Thanks, Buffy.
Up to 9 months ago we financially contributed funds to Wikipedia but no more, for we thought that it was a good idea and where its thinking was in unison with our own at that time - using knowledge for the good of humankind. When we as novices tried to place our Swiss charity within Wikipedia we were absolutely savaged by the editors. They in fact blocked our right of reply, which is documented by themselves.
Thereafter we even sent our registration documents via email to the then executive director of Wikimedia, the holding organization, to prove that our international group was registered as a Swiss charity. He did nothing at all. A few months later he resigned with another top Wikimedia executive, 'Jimbo's second in command. The greatest problem with Wikipedia that we now find is that they are highly selective in who should place information and where therefore they will never really have a web-based encyclopaedia that is unbiased and totally factual. It is ultimately at the whims of the few enlightened ones who control what should be a great reference. Unfortunately we now see that it is not.

For anyone interested further on how Wikipedia editors work, the full account including all emails will be part of our next web newsletter 'Scientific Discovery'. It will be on-line by the end of July 2007. Overall, it is time we feel that Wikipedia looked internally at itself and that they concluded that they have major problems with the way they treat new entrants. This analysis should especially be directed towards the attitude of their editors, who remove the right of reply and delete super-quick for reasons not based on evidence but only hearsay. By the way also, the Wikipedian Editor Zoe who first blocked us and the initial instigator of all the basic trouble, fell out with 'Jimbo' and where she as well left a few months later. Apparently she had made a vendetta against a certain professor according to 'Jimbo's' opinion. Thereafter she took her bat and ball home and has never been seen since. I believe she also threatened the embattled professor at the time - the web link is

Dr. David Hill
Chief Executive
World Innovation Foundation Charity (reg. no. CH- - 11th July 2005)
Bern, Switzerland
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