Friday, July 16, 2010

Truth in numbers?

In my previous posts on truth [1], [2], I explored the idea that truth has no special benefit over falsity. "It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error". Here, I shall suggest that it is worse than that. Truth has powerful enemies, and there are forces systematically favouring error. As befits a scientific investigation, I shall present the theory, followed by evidence (using the example of Wikipedia once more) supporting it.

First, the theory: Those who support the truth are in a large majority. Of 100,000 people, probably all but ten would like to see the truth. But their interest is only feeble. The remaining ten support false beliefs of various kinds. They probably think these beliefs are true, but they are false for all that. And their false belief is passionate and determined. It follows that, if anyone is allowed to publicise their belief, and if there is a moderate cost to publicising it, such as arguing about it or being involved in an 'edit war'*, the proponents of error will always be victorious. For they are passionate in their error, whereas the others are only feeble in their truth.

Now, the evidence. No sane or normal or reasonable person contributes to Wikipedia, and so all contributors fall into the following broad classes: deviant, aficionado, quack, activist, cultist, crank. The reasons for their persistent interest, together with Wikipedia article examples, are as follows. I list them in approximate order of the power that belongs to them.

1. First are the deviants, usually the sexual deviants. The pedophile lobby has long been an active force on Wikipedia. They are powerful because, like everyone else, they are passionate about their sexuality, seeing it as in some sense normal, and also because no reasonable person is likely to edit articles about pedophilia, 'pederasty' and so on. Hence monstrosities like this, which is indistinguishable from monstrosities like (WARNING: pedophile website - not safe for work) this. See also the article about the PPA 'Wikipedia Campaign' at Wikisposure.

2. Aficionados ('fans') are a large and diverse group on Wikipedia. They are mostly harmless devotees of obscure subjects like Japanese comic books or American science fiction TV. The error lies not so much in the uncritical approach to the subject as the undue weight given to a subject which is essentially ephemeral and unimportant and unencyclopedic. This is probably harmless, although not in the case of Ayn Rand, who I have discussed before. The coverage of her ideas is extensive in Wikipedia, and out of all proportion to her real importance in philosophy, which is practically nil, particularly outside the United States. Aficionados are powerful in Wikipedia because they are mostly viewed as harmless, and because there is no 'weighting' policy in the encyclopedia. Quite reverse: they even have a policy: Wikipedia is not paper, and so there is no practical limit to the number of topics it can cover, or the total amount of content. The practice of a normal reference work, which is to assign pages in rough proportion to the received importance of a subject, does not apply here. Thus the academically marginal Ayn Rand receives more coverage than Aristotle, the father of Western philosophy and easily the most important figure in the Western intellectual tradition. The article on his Sophistical Refutations, for example, is no more than a list of contents. Compare this in size and scope with any article on the nonsensical and philosophically illiterate work of Rand, e.g. this.

3. Quacks are peddlers of fake cures, bogus medicine and psychological theory. There is plenty of this on Wikipedia. Their interest is commercial rather than idealistic. The Wikipedia administration does attempt to weed out blatant commercial advertising, but it is also corrupt. The subject that touches me the most is the rubbishy and fraudulent Neurolinguistic Programming. These articles had support at high levels of the Wikipedia administration, and so quite a few more neutrally-minded editors (including myself) were banned for attempting to trim them. See also EMDR, or Ken Wilber, or this lot, gulp.

4. Cults are groups with strange beliefs who have an interest in publicising their existence, recruiting new members, and usually suppressing the more unpalatable facts about their financial statements and other irregularities. Too many of these to mention, but some of the more amusing include the Brahma Kumaris, who seem to enjoy some support among Wikipedians, at least judging from the way that those who opposed them are so regularly blocked, simply for saying stuff like this ("You and your other adherents have wasted too much time of too many people's lives ... never mind mentioning the broken families and suicides that litter your religion's history"). The Scientologists did not fare so well, as is well known (their IP is currently blocked), but that is only because a group of prominent Wikipedians dislike scientology - it has nothing to do with any self-governing mechanism that prevents cults from promoting their views on the global electronic reference work. See for example Prem Rawat, defended for years by a prominent Wikipedia administrator, although he eventually came to grief.

5. Activists are the supporters of extreme political movements. These are also numerous, but the force can be less strong with them because there are often equally extreme political movements who are bitterly opposed, and so they 'edit war' the talk pages of the articles concerned. See the archives of the articles on The Troubles, the thirty-year conflict in Northern Ireland, which was intellectually as violent as the actual troubles were physically bloody. Or Islamic Republic is the same as Arab Republic. However, the articles on Yugoslav communism, e.g. on Tito seem to have got by with their strange point of view unscathed. They do not reflect the views of more recent historians who view Tito as essentially a Stalinist, but rather adhere to and reflect the propaganda of the former Communist Party of Yugoslavia. The article about Tito is written in a child-like manner, reminiscent of Yugoslav primary school textbooks from the 1970s. This may be the result of the 'partisan' group of editors who control those articles, and the relative lack of interest from anyone else.

6. Cranks. These are individuals who have a passionate belief in some idea, theory or system that they developed on their own, and which has been rejected by the academic establishment. Naturally they turn to the encyclopedia which anyone can edit. Cranks have little power on Wikipedia, because unlike the rest they are not part of a larger group and can easily be picked off, and also there is no fraudulent secondary literature they can tap. Nonetheless they flourish in dark corners - I am glad to see that Boolean logic, which has nothing to do with George Boole, still survives, and that the Ancient Egyptian Race theory seems to be thriving, at least between periods of illness or coma. And how about this whole category of stuff which is completely deranged (" the Mental Plane is located between, and hence is intermediate between, the astral plane below and the higher spiritual realms of existence above").

Add to this the eccentric and perverse features of Wikipedia governance and software. First, the ability of any IP addresses to edit, which results in a tidal wave of crude vandalism every day. This in itself is not a problem, since there are about 500 administrators who instantly clear it up. The problem is rather the administrators, many of whom are retired ex-military types or police, and who are not interested in encyclopedias at all. They just enjoy whacking vandals. The problem is that they don't really distinguish between vandals and ordinary editors, and don't really understand the disputes at all. They have no theoretical interest in a dispute between a scientist and a homeopathist or chiropractor. But if they see either of them getting out of line, i.e. infringing Wikipedia's strict 'civility' rules, they whack them anyway.

Second is the fact that accounts are anonymous, and there is not even elementary identity checking. Thus a problem editor who has been 'blocked' can instantly register again. Furthermore, they can create multiple accounts ('sockpuppets' or 'socks') to give the illusion of strong support for error. This frustrates the supporters of truth, many of whom stoop to the same tactics. Worse, Wikipedia has evolved an elaborate secret police ('checkusers') whose job is to spy on accounts for 'sock'-like behaviour and block them if necessary. This deflects the administration from the real job of building a comprehensive and accurate reference work, moreover it encourages types who are intellectually unsuited for such work.

Which is, of course, why Wikipedia is nothing like a comprehensive and accurate reference work. How would we change this? Well, the theory (that small numbers of passionate devotees of error will always defeat an army of those with a feeble and weak interest in the truth) suggests abandoning the idea that 'anyone can edit'. It's fine if only 'disinterested' persons can edit, but as the different but connected meanings of 'interest' suggest, it is difficult to get disinterested people to do this. They simply aren't, er, interested. Another idea would be this. Levy a small 'falsity tax' on everyone. A majority of people would vote for this, if the tax were proportionate to their feeble dedication to the truth. The money from the tax would then pay for experts with a proven neutrality and lack of 'interest' to write articles. This is essentially the economic model of a university, a system invented in the Middle Ages, and which therefore existed long before Web 2.0.

*Edit war: long protracted dispute on Wikipedia. Sometimes between the forces of truth and error, more often between propopents of different kinds of error (such as environmentalists and oil company employees).

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