Saturday, July 31, 2010

Truth versus Equality

Larry Sanger is interviewed in Slate. Some familiar stuff, in particular from an essay he wrote in 2007, but it's worth being reminded - Larry generally gets Wikipedia theory right. He talks about "the complete disregard for expert opinion among a group of amateurs working on a subject, and in particular because of their tendency to openly express contempt for experts", leading to experts - people who make it their life's work to get things right - being driven away by people who have no respect for that kind of mission. He claims this is a worldview common to many programmers: no one should be regarded as more reliable on a subject than anyone else. He calls this "epistemic egalitarianism."

And he emphases a point that I have made frequently here (for example in this post), that Wikipedia is mostly good when it comes to the hard sciences, and particularly on the sort of facts and figures you might look up in Whittakers' Almanac, or the Guinness Book of Records, or Every Boy's Handbook, but a disaster when it comes to the humanities and social sciences.

And of course it is useless and anything politically contentious. I spotted this gem last week, from the article Modern history of Cyprus.

"Efforts to get Turkey to end its occupation and re-integrate the Northern areas
into a Federal structure continue but to little avail, as Turkey continues to
ignore the UN and the European Parliament and continue it's illegal occupation
of the island. The Cypriot government, in accordance with the opinion and
rhetoric of the UN do not recognize any sovereignty that the puppet Turkish
administration have and therefore do not allow International flights or free
trade in the occupied sections of the island. Discussions are taking place to
try and remove these 'embargoes' as it has been argued they violate the human
rights of the citizens in the Northern areas in a similar manner that the
Israeli imposed embargo on Gaza does."
It has been there for months and seems to be part of an ongoing war between the Greek and Turkish Wikipedian-Cypriots. This edit is curious.


Gregory Kohs said...

"...continue it's illegal occupation..."

You know it's Wikipedia when it can't keep its "it's" and "its" straight.

nascent said...

Is it possible that this generations contempt for authority (as some sort of feature of postmodernism, or so I'm told) is one of the defining reasons why Wikipedia is such a disaster when it comes to the humanities and social sciences, but not when it comes to the hard sciences?

This 'epistemic egalitarianism' being a built-in function of the postmodern suspicion of 'truth claims'? The modern history of Cyprus being only the narratives of two contexts...

Ocham said...

@nascent: I agree, but this is a difficult question. Another contributing factor may be the American bias in Wikipedia, and the famous American contempt for the humanities ('history is bunk').

nascent said...

Difficult questions indeed - worth pondering, though far beyond my ability to answer.

Blind Impress said...

Actually, it might just have to do with the objects of study of the humanities, in which a wide number of people have a personal stake, from any number of fields and from outside the confines of academia.

Insofar as your national history is part of your self-description, part of your 'Self' to be pointlessly and pretentiously existentialist, then you have a personal stake in that national history. If you have a personal stake in it, you are less inclined to be impartial. In academia, we have whole institutions and traditions of practice to counteract this impulse to partiality, in the form of universities, peer-reviewed journals, and whatnot- and even these, venerable as they are, face accusations of being unfit for task.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Wikipedia is more reliable when it comes to the natural sciences. These subjects are often so impenetrably technical that the layman, even one with a passing interest, would defer from editing. Often they are niche, so as to have a much smaller number of interested parties in the first place (compared to, say, national histories.) Even then, it would be a very strange sort of individual who had a personal stake in the classification of certain kinds of butterflies. Although I suppose it is perfectly possible to imagine an edit-war on Wikipedia between two bitterly feuding lepidopterologists, both of whom have a claim to the discovery of a certain species. If this was happening, would we even notice?

Before ascribing to the editors of Wikipedia some kind of postmodern malaise, consider also the ethos of the site. It is advertised (misleadingly) as the "Free Encyclopedia anyone can edit." Implicit in this claim (considering the modern use of 'can' for 'may') is that anyone is invited to edit. Implicit again, in this, is that anyone has a RIGHT to edit. That is to say, it is not so hard to construe an invitation as the gift of a right - if I invite you to my property, wheretofore you had no right of entry, you now do. Consider also that Americans are culturally predisposed to think in terms of rights, and it is not so big a jump from "the free encylopaedia anyone can edit" to "the encyclopaedia anyone has the right to edit."

It is common to presume that along with rights comes equality, which I think arises out of the concepts' shared intellectual lineage (or conceptual genealogy.) "The right to fair trial/equality before the law." (Although, please do not take me to be assigning these concepts a level of compatibility they do not have.) In this light, then, the "right" that "anyone" has to edit, presupposes the equality- of both the edits and the editors, in the culture of the Wikipedia (so-called) 'community'.

So, rather than postmodern, I would say the Wikipedia malaise is Enlightenment in character and origin, and not unlike the problem inherent in democracy in our wider society. Why should the idiot's voice, the unreflective life not worth living, be equal to the good citizen's? Had only our Enlightenment forbears listened to Plato, Wikipedia wouldn't be in so awful a state.

Then again, is it? The answer to this question rests on whether you think a little bad knowledge is worse than a lot of good knowledge, I suppose, and whether on-the-whole Wikipedia does contain a lot of good knowledge.

Ocham said...

@Blind impress - thank you for your long and thoughtful comment. I would need to think about this for longer, although I would say for now that there is more agreement in the humanities than some people would imagine.