Sunday, March 18, 2012

The 'one ring' theory of cranks

I'm still working on the Wikipedia book, looking today at the history of the 'three revert rule', introduced in November 2004. This says that “An editor must not perform more than three reverts on a single page within a 24-hour period”, theoretically puts an end to the endless edit/revert cycle between warring editors.  In theory, it is a numbers game which gives the edge to subject matter experts. As I understand the rule (I'm sure Belette will correct me if I am wrong) it applies per player, not per group of players.  Two players working together can revert a single opponent up to six times a day, but the opponent, if on their own, can revert only three times.  Thus whoever has the largest number on their side, wins the edit war.

This seems to give the edge to subject matter experts because generally (though not always) they tend to agree, at least on the kind of slightly out of date knowledge that is appropriate for reference works.  Cranks, by contrast, have their own theory of everything which is peculiar to itself and inconsistent with every other crank theory of everything. The theory that the earth is flat and the theory that it is a cube are both opposed to the mainstream theory that it is roughly spherical, but they contradict each other too. Likewise for the theories that the moon is made of cheese, and that it is made of candy floss. Thus 3 experts can beat any number of cranks, so long as the cranks don't agree on anything.

However, neurologist Steven Novella makes an insightful observation here that brings this idea into question.
... cranks around the world have been able to form their own “alternative” community, publish their own journals, and have their own meetings. There is just one requirement in this alternative community – acceptance. All ideas are accepted (there is no chaff, all is wheat), that is except for one. Whatever is accepted by mainstream science is wrong [my emphasis]. That is “the one ring” of crank mythology, that brings all crank theories together and in the darkness of their community binds them together. Otherwise they are largely mutually incompatible. Each crank’s “theory of everything” is a notion unto itself, and is mutually exclusive to every other crank’s own theory of everything (unless there is some incidental overlap). So they get together, present their theories without criticism, and all agree that the evil conspiracy of mainstream science must be taken down. Of course, if any of them got their way and their ideas became accepted, they would instantly become rejected by the rest of the crank community as mainstream physics.
Correct.  My enemy's enemy is my friend, whatever my enemy believes.  I have seen this effect in Wikipedia a number of times.  Cranks unite to defeat the mainstream, orthodox view.  Orthodox editors get blocked or banned.  Cranks then war with each other, and get banned themselves. The orthodox editors mount appeals to the powers that be - the arbitration committee, none of whom have any expert credentials as far as I can see, and get unbanned.  Or they just open 'sockpuppet' accounts and start editing again under a different name. So do the cranks, and the whole nightmare begins again.  Another difficulty that Novella omits is 'mainstream' crankery.  That is, bad science or quackery that unites its practitioners by financial interest. Homeopathy and 'Neurolinguistic programming' are good examples of this.

This would not matter at all, if Wikipedia were not increasingly used as a 'reliable source' by students, and even some medical researchers, as I noted in an earlier post.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Belette said...

> Thus whoever has the largest number on their side, wins the edit war.

But in practice it very rarely works like that. There are all sorts of time-varying subtleties. Nowadays admins are likely to stomp on "edit warring" even if 3RR isn't exceeded. Once upon a time, as long as you didn't exceed 3R/24, you could edit war forever. Check the antient history of Greenhouse effect.

> This seems to give the edge to subject matter experts because generally (though not always) they tend to agree, at least on the kind of slightly out of date knowledge that is appropriate for reference works. Cranks, by contrast, have their own theory of everything which is peculiar to itself.

You've pointed out the flaw in this yourself: that the denialists know what they oppose, which is the std.view; they don't need to agree on what it is they agree on.

Another flaw is that the Dark Side tend not to care about their reputations: many of them are throw-away accounts, or people with no honour. So they are careless in reverting. Long-term established editors don't like to revert, and tend to avoid it. They also don't like to be seen to be reverted "just to help someone else".

11:08 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

You may be interested in this chart which tracks the size of the philosophy article (bytes) by time over 10 years (cleaned of crude vandalism). The turbulence around 2006-7 was caused by a couple of crank accounts. They united against the 'regular' editors and successfully forced them off the page. Then they turned on each other. It stops after Q1 2007 after they were banned.

This was at the cost of an important Wikipedia principle, though. I leaned on of the admins privately and he sorted it out. But admins (and arbcom) are not supposed to get involved in content disputes. In reality they do get involved, which is why (in my view) it has sort of limped by.

The upward spikes in size are by an editor from the U.S. who is a qualified philosopher and is adding pretty good content. I have interviewed him for the book. That does not stop a load of dross getting in though. There are any number of serious errors in the article at present.

11:26 am  
Blogger Fred said...

There are families of cranks, followers of Lyndon LaRouche for example. As it is practically impossible to differentiate between them, for purposes of 3RR they are treated as one editor. Scientologists are another.

5:31 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>>There are families of cranks, followers of Lyndon LaRouche for example. As it is practically impossible to differentiate between them, for purposes of 3RR they are treated as one editor. Scientologists are another.
<<<

This is also at the cost of another theoretically important Wikipedia principle, namely that each edit is treated on its own merits, rather than the editor behind it. The scientology decision some years ago effectively threw that out of the window. Don’t get me wrong, these were good decisions. But they were good, precisely because they threw out the basic ‘crowdsourcing’ model that Wikipedia began with. The conventional wisdom is that if you crowdsource, you are going to attract cranks. The conventional wisdom was proved correct.

9:57 am  
Blogger Kyle S said...

I don't care to add fuel to a fire, so I will simply offer that my University can and does reject any papers baring information acquired from Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia, and The Dictionary. As they are all controlled by private entities, they have all been deemed unsafe for scholarly discourse.

Kyle

2:19 pm  

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